You’ve finally gotten past the toddler tantrums, and for a minute, parenting is smooth sailing. Then your child starts defying you constantly. They don’t have the excuse of not knowing better anymore — they do know better. What do you do?
Why Is My Child Defiant?
You might be wondering if your child fits the profile of a sociopath, but the truth is, defiant behavior is totally normal (and even essential!) at certain stages of your child’s development. What causes a normal child to behave defiantly?
In many cases, the causes are developmental. In grade school, and even more in the teen years, your child has a developmental need to establish their independence from you and explore their own interests and preferences. This need is often expressed by disobeying your instructions or trying things they know you won’t approve of.
This isn’t necessarily a sign of a disorder. It can be simply your child’s normal growth and exploration. That doesn't mean you don’t need to address the behavior — you do. But in most cases, it’s not a cause for panic.
In addition, life stressors and changes can cause your child’s behavior to change in negative ways. Even positive changes, like starting a new school that your child chose, can temporarily cause defiant behavior as your child adjusts to a new situation. And more stressful changes like a move or a divorce can cause your child to act in negative ways out of stress, anger, frustration, or a desire for attention.
What Does Defiant Behavior Look Like?
Normal defiant behavior can take many forms. For school-aged children, trying activities like lying, cheating, and stealing can be normal exploration. Anger and frustration are also normal, especially in relation to peer disagreements. Relationships with friends become more important at this age. Refusal or reluctance to follow adult directions, at least at times, is also normal behavior.
As your child approaches the teen years, friendships become even more important, and secrecy with adults is common. Teens are also likely to start exploring sexually. It’s common for teenagers to openly or secretly defy parents and refuse to follow rules.
How Should Parents Understand Defiant Behavior?
As a parent, it’s easy to feel like your child’s behavior reflects on you. But in reality, your child’s behavior is about them. It may be an expression of something they need, or it may simply be a normal stage of development.
Before you decide how to respond, you should understand the reasons behind your child’s behavior. Look at situational changes or life stressors that might be contributing to your child’s defiance. If your family has gone through major life changes, or if your child is experiencing grief or stress, their defiant behavior may be an expression of anger or a need to process the situation.
If this is the case, it’s helpful to give your child some grace and forgiveness. It’s also helpful to talk with them about the real issues, and to encourage them to communicate about how they feel about the situation. It might also be worthwhile to seek professional help if your child is having a lot of difficulty managing their emotions about what’s happened.
If there aren’t any situational reasons for your child’s behavior to have gotten worse, then it could simply be a developmental stage. However, neither situation nor development excuse bad behavior. Either way, it’s important for you to respond and help your child learn better strategies.
How Can You Help Your Child Change Defiant Behavior?
Rather than viewing your child’s negative behavior as a conflict between you and your child, it can help to see it as a problem that you can solve together.
If your child is defiant, they’re probably struggling with emotions they can’t control, or with a situation they’re having trouble processing. Either way, your role is to help them learn better strategies for dealing with the situation and regulating their behavior.
Empowering by Addressing Needs
If defiant behavior is motivated by negative emotions that your child is struggling to manage, then your most effective response might be to address the emotions rather than the behavior.
If you suspect your child is acting out because they’re upset about a situation or change in their life, work on helping them deal with those emotions first, and the behavior might correct itself on its own.
With a younger child, a few conversations and reassurances from you might be enough to help them process a difficult situation. For teens, or for more stressful situations, it might be helpful to get a professional who can help your child move through the emotions.
Teaching Through Example and Role Play
If your child often acts out in particular situations, teaching them better skills for managing that particular situation can be a powerful parenting strategy.
For example, they might respond defiantly when their teacher tells him it’s time to come in from recess. This could be because they’re caught up in their play and have a hard time transitioning. You can talk through strategies with them at home and help them practice dropping an activity and coming back to it later.
Motivating Through Rewards and Punishments
If your child doesn’t want to change the behavior, then punishments and rewards can be an effective strategy. There are two keys to using rewards and punishments effectively. First, you need to be consistent. If you make a threat, stick to it. Second, you need to find the right rewards and punishments, so they’re truly motivating for your child.
Finally, no matter what strategy you choose as a response, try not to lose your cool. As a parent, it’s hard not to take your child’s defiance personally. Remember that it’s not about you, and losing your temper is never a way to set a good example.
When Should You Worry?
Although most defiant behavior is normal, it can also be a sign of a condition like oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
The behaviors that indicate this condition aren’t abnormal in themselves, but if they’re very frequent and continuous, they can be a sign that professional help is needed. Behaviors like constant questioning of rules, excessive arguing and temper tantrums, frequent anger, and resentment are all symptoms of ODD.
If you suspect your child might have ODD, it’s worth talking with your doctor. Even if your child doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria, your doctor can probably recommend strategies and resources to help with normal developmental defiance.