It seems like at every stage of your child’s development, there’s a time when they’ll become rebellious. Sometimes it’s the terrible twos or the awkward angsty period of your child’s tween and teenage years.
Whenever it appears, it’s not uncommon to experience conflict where parents and their children butt heads over a seemingly endless list of issues.
Learning the root causes of a child’s rebellious behavior as well as how to manage it can help prevent you from being locked in an endless battle with your kids.
Objectively, you know that your child is an independent person, with thoughts and feelings that might not always be in lockstep with your own.
But when their feelings emerge as rebellious behavior, it can be hard to learn how to not just manage it, but help them work through it — especially when as a parent it can be easy to push to get your way over theirs.
Try these tips for effective conflict resolution.
Consider your child’s age
Dealing with a rebellious child can be difficult, but you need to adjust your approach depending on your child’s age.
While you can have a heart-to-heart candid talk with an adolescent child, it won’t make much sense to have a drawn-out conversation with a toddler, preschooler, or early elementary-age child.
Instead, with younger children, keep conversations about rebellious behavior shorter with simple vocabulary that little ones will understand.
Neutral statements as simple as, “I understand you’re upset, but we don’t throw our toys just because we can’t have another cookie,” is better than an accusatory tone stating, “Why are you throwing your toys, I hate it when you do that!”
Control your emotions
This can be especially hard to do since you have a vested interest in curbing your child’s rebellious actions. But getting emotionally triggered by your child’s behavior sets a negative tone for any interactions you’ll have, and makes it hard for either of you to get to the root cause.
Plus, you need to model the correct way to express feelings such as unhappiness or frustration for your child. It’s pretty hard to convince a rebellious child of any age that they should follow your directions when you’re yelling and shouting at them.
It’s important they learn that shouting matches and having tough conversations don’t mix. For younger children, focus on tactics such as having them sit down, count to a certain number (usually 10 is good), or practice slow breathing to help calm down.
Don’t be a dictator
Yes, you are the parent, but you shouldn’t approach parenting as a dictatorship. While it’s perfectly normal to handle a majority or almost all of a child’s choices and decisions when they’re very young, you can’t expect that to last forever.
Even toddlers should be given the option to make a choice or two every day — no matter how small it is.
One study examined the adolescent behavior of kids who were raised by authoritarian parents in the preschool years, versus those who were democratic and authoritative with their young kids. Researchers found that the children raised by democratic/authoritative parents were more competent and adjusted adolescents.
Assuming that your child isn’t pushing for freedom to do something dangerous such as misusing drugs, giving them a bit more freedom might actually help to reduce their rebellious ways.
With smaller children, this can be as simple as letting them pick their outfit for the day or their next meal. With older children, it can be conditional choices that hinge on them following the established boundaries.
Things like getting to hang out with friends, increasing allowances, or having access to the family car are great motivators to encourage potentially rebellious children to “toe the line.”
Make boundaries clear
It’s a well-known fact that children are often rebellious because they want to test their parents’ boundaries to see how far they can go before facing consequences. So, if you haven’t made it clear where those boundaries lie, you’re not blameless here.
Now is the time to start creating guidelines and sticking to them. If you have very strict rules in your home, it might be time to revisit them and consider which ones might need updating.
No one wants to live under a thumb indefinitely. You wouldn’t want to work for a boss who micromanages and keeps you on an impossibly short leash. So, assuming your rebellious child hasn’t engaged in criminal or risky behavior, don’t do the same to them.
Remember that communication is key and that you should include your children — especially older kids — in any discussion about rule changes and potential consequences.
Stick to the rules
Once you’ve established the household guidelines for behavior, as well as outlined potential consequences for breaking them, you and any other caregivers or parents in your child’s life need to be firm when enforcing them.
Rules won’t mean much if your child can break them without facing any repercussions.
No one’s perfect. So, even if your child seems to be shifting out of a rebellious stage, don’t be surprised if there are slipups or regressive moments. It happens.
The most important thing is to stay consistent with your expectations and to remember all the positive aspects of your child. Don’t just focus on the negative, or act like one slipup is a sign that they’re a failure or you failed in your parenting duties.
Even though it can present differently in children of all ages, rebellious behavior usually has a few common root causes.
Have you ever noticed that your toddler or preschooler gets very grumpy and rebellious when they’ve missed a nap or gone too long without a snack? While you might not think that hunger or sleepiness could cause rebellious behavior, they can.
So, before you start to question your parenting skills, be sure that your little one is well rested with a full belly.
Rebellion can also be a warning sign that other things could be happening in a child’s life. Scenarios like a child exposed to marital problems, physical violence, or even bullying and sexual assault can all cause a previously “well-mannered” child to become rebellious.
So, if you’re suddenly noticing an uptick in rebellion, make sure that nothing triggering is happening in their home or school life.
Lack of control
Regardless of age, a lack of control can be frustrating for anyone to handle. This is often a common cause for rebellion in toddlers and younger children since so much of their day is outside of their control — from what to wear, what to eat, and even what they can watch.
Giving younger children the “illusion of choice,” such as pulling out two outfits or snacks and letting them choose between them, can give them a sense of freedom and control while curbing rebellion.
Knowing — but not following — the rules
This piggybacks a bit on the “lack of control” topic but this scenario is most often seen in preschool-aged children. While a 2-year-old might not understand the rules, a child who is between the ages of 3 and 5 knows the rules but might struggle to follow through on them.
Instead of focusing on the punishment, it’s important to help a young preschool-age child work through the rules, consider their behavior, and understand why their behavior was in conflict and why rules should be followed.
Again, this can play out in any age range, but it’s often experienced by parents of adolescents. The child wants to prove that they’re not a “baby” anymore and may even push against activities they used to love, or friends they once preferred.
As stressful as this can be, parents should continue to focus on reinforcing positive values and guidelines. And for older children who are at the age of independence, sometimes allowing real-world consequences to play out can serve as a better teacher than any repercussions that a parent could create.
Oppositional defiant disorder
While it’s more likely that your child’s behavior is due to a battle over independence and control, it is possible that oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) could be at play.
Signs of ODD include:
- frequent disagreements or arguments with adults
- a negative, angry, or even aggressive attitude
- aggressive and harsh interactions with peers
- desire for revenge
Still, these actions can also be attributed to other mental or physical health issues. So, before you assume your child as ODD you should confirm that there are no other underlying issues. A chat with your child’s doctor is a good place to start.
As much as it’ll pain any parent to hear this, rebellion is a natural part of their child’s developmental journey. Knowing the difference between common forms of rebellion, assertions for independence, or a more serious diagnosis like ODD is important.
Being able to distinguish between the root causes of rebellion will help you ensure that your child is progressing successfully through their emotional development. With the right behavioral and coping tools, they’ll be able to face whatever adulthood throws their way.