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Handling defiance in kids





September 15, 2022

As a parent, little matches the frustration we feel when our child refuses to comply with the directions we give. After all, we are only trying to protect, guide, and help them learn the skills they need to live a successful life. Sometimes the refusal comes as an emphatic “No!” from our child at an inconvenient moment; other times, it comes in the form of our child ignoring our demand (and us) entirely. Both types of defiance can leave us feeling tense and angry, at a loss as to what to do next. Following are some tools that can help before, during, and after you experience a defiant episode with your child.

  • Choose which demands are important. Kids can receive 100 directions every day from parents, teachers, and other authority figures. Take a look at the demands you are placing on your child to make sure they are necessary, reasonable, and achievable for their skill level.
  • Reward positive behavior when you see it. When you notice your child behaving in a way you want to see, make a point to point out what you like. Most kids want to please their parents, and behavior-specific praise is a simple way to help kids understand what they are doing successfully.
  • Embed choices into the demand. Kids (like all of us) want to feel like they have some control. One way parents can provide this is to incorporate choices into necessary demands. Find opportunities to offer choices for who is involved with a task or where/when/how a task is completed. For example, you can say, “Do you want to feed the pets alone, or do you want to choose a family member to do it with you?” Another example is, “Do you want to work on your spelling words in a regular voice or use a funny accent?” Acknowledge your child’s feelings, even if you cannot give in to them. Our kids often show big emotions when they refuse to do what we tell them. It’s important to acknowledge the existence of the emotions even before repeating the demand.
  • Choose collaborative language over compliance language. We can help make demands feel less daunting by choosing language indicating we are our child’s partner in the task. Instead of, “You need to clean up this mess you made,” we can say, “I know cleaning up is hard and no fun. How can we make this easier?”
  • Schedule time to talk when things are calm. Set aside a regular time for your child to have an opportunity to respectfully talk about how they think things are going. If they disagree with you, allow them to offer their solutions. Implement ideas that come out of these discussions. This will teach your child how to negotiate, a skill that will come in handy as they move through life.
  • Give your child an unexpected “freebie.” Giving your child a surprise break from a demand can be a powerful and rewarding experience for both of you. You can say, “You have worked so hard this week. I’m proud of you.  I am going to take care of the pets for you tonight.” This shows your child that consistently performing required tasks can lead to deserved recognition. For you, it will feel good to see your child’s face light up because you notice and appreciate them.
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