The defiant child: Tactics for handling their most challenging behaviors

If ‘no’ has become your child’s go-to word lately, it’s a sure bet you are wondering what you can do about it. Defiance is a main reason that parents seek out psychological services for their child and is one of the main contributors to parent reported stress.

First, it’s important to understand that some defiance is a normal and healthy part of child development because it grows out of a child’s attempt to become independent.

This is important to keep in mind when your toddler throws a tantrum or when your older child or adolescent argues or protests when you tell them “no.” Try not to take these protests personally; they are simply trying to learn the limits of their environment and learn what behavior is and is not appropriate.

This does not mean that you should simply ignore defiance or let your child do whatever he or she wants. On the contrary – because defiance is an essential part of healthy child development, it’s important that parents address it effectively. In addition to keeping calm, there are many other ways you can try to prevent and address your child’s defiance:

Pick your battles – The more commands you give to children, the more likely they are to refuse to comply with them. Before asking your child to do something, ask yourself whether it is an important issue and whether you’re willing to follow through with consequences if they do not comply. Certain issues, such as those involving safety, are important enough that they are non-negotiable.

One thing at a time – Asking your child to do several things with one command puts both you and your child in a difficult spot. He or she may not remember all of them or may choose to do only some of the things you asked. Avoid this situation by asking just one thing at a time.

Get real and get clear – There are some things we’d like our kids to do but they are simply not ready for, like asking a three-year-old to sit still and be quiet while parents have a long discussion or asking a two-year-old to share their favorite toy with a baby sibling. Likewise, we sometimes ask our children to do things in ways that may be vague or confusing to them, such as when we say “be good” or “knock it off.” Before asking them to do something, make sure they are physically, emotionally and cognitively capable of doing it, and then tell them specifically what you want them to do.

Be positive and give options – Whenever possible, tell your child what you want them to do rather than to stop doing what you don’t want them to do. For example, “go outside to play” is a positive alternative to “stop running around the house.” Also, give options when you are asking your child to stop doing something they want to do. For example, rather than “stop playing video games” you might say “You have to stop playing video games now but we can play outside now instead.”

Plan ahead – Be clear with your child ahead of time about your behavioral expectations and lay out the positive consequences of complying and negative consequence of defying. Clearly laying out rules and consequences (good and bad) ahead of misbehavior not only makes it more likely that your child will avoid being defiant but it also gives you confidence in how to respond and helps avoid disagreement between parents about discipline.

Follow through with praise or consequences – When you do not follow up on commands that you give to your child, you teach your child that your commands do not matter and you should not be surprised when your child learns to ignore them. It is important to praise your child when they do what you ask. Parents often fail to do this and children quickly learn that they can more predictably get parental attention when they are defiant as compared to when they are compliant.

When children are being defiant in a specific situation or showing an especially challenging behavior, a tangible reward program can be an effective way to help them. A reward doesn’t have to be a trip to the toy store; it can be picking a movie, earning dessert or a later bedtime or, for a bigger reward, going on a weekend trip together. Change the rewards from week to week so your child doesn’t get bored, and come up with a system of tracking the progress your child is making. Work with other caregivers to make sure you’re all on the same page about how you’re managing defiance and rewarding positive behavior.

Don’t give up! When these guidelines are consistently followed, they are effective at reducing defiance over time — most of the time. However, when children exhibit high levels of defiant behavior, and when it is causing problems at home or school, it may be time to seek professional help. The child and adolescent psychiatry clinic at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center has services available to help children with these and similar problems, including free services offered as part of research studies.

Dan Waschbusch, Ph.D., is a clinical child and adolescent psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry, Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and can be reached at 717-531-6772 or


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