Defiant Young Children and Toddlers: 5 Things Not to Do


“I won’t do it!” “You can’t make me!” “I’m not   going!”

Do you ever find yourself wondering, “When will  this child stop defying me  and start doing what I ask?” It can be incredibly  frustrating, not to mention  exhausting, dealing with a young child or toddler  who finds it necessary to  challenge your every request, act in a defiant  manner, lose their temper, and  be generally disruptive or annoying. Parents  oftentimes find themselves drained  as they come up against this behavior, and  wind up feeling hopeless about how  to handle the situation. They might also  start worrying about what the future  holds for such a strong-willed child. The  good news is there is help in dealing  with defiance in young kids—and the  solutions are easier than you may  think.

Related: Dealing with a defiant child? Here’s how to  manage their behavior.

If  your child can’t calm himself, setting limits for him to work through his rage  can help. The point is to not jump on the crazy train with him.


Why Is My  Child So Difficult? Many parents want to know  why their toddler or  young child is so difficult.

“Why can’t  my child be more like my niece who’s so pleasant and calm?” “Why does  my son have to be the one who is always saying no and  acting so angry?”

It’s normal to want an answer to why your child  is the one who’s always  acting out and hard to manage, and there may be  concrete reasons for his  behavior.

No Control It’s important to take into account that  young  children have very little control in their day-to-day lives. If you think  about  it, most kids float through their days with most decisions already made  for  them: when they wake, when and what they eat, what they will wear, when  they  will do chores or play, and finally, what time they go to bed each  evening. For  many kids this isn’t a problem; they ride the wave of parental  control without  incident, some even enjoying having decisions made for them.  Other kids, especially  those who have strong personalities and definite  opinions, find this level of  “control” confining and annoying. What better way  for a young child to express  his displeasure than to habitually refuse to  listen or to be argumentative?

Communication  Skills and Temperament Young kids and  toddlers have a limited vocabulary and  become frustrated when they can’t  articulate what they want or how they’re  feeling. They’re learning how to  communicate with parents and teachers, so it  makes sense that anger, defiance  and irritability may be the only route they  know to take when feeling  overwhelmed and out of control. Another reason for a child’s defiance can  simply  stem from the strong personality they were born with. All of us can  probably identify at least one strong-willed person (maybe even ourselves?)  in our family tree.

Is It  ODD? When looking at your young child, it’s  important  to understand that for some, this period of defiance is just a phase  that they  will pass through as they mature. Other kids may meet the criteria  for Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), which is a persistent  and frequent form of  defiant behavior. Examples of ODD include any time a child  has a pattern of  being angry and irritable, argumentative or defiant along with  displays of  vindictive behavior. These characteristics can show up in a child  who easily  loses their temper, is unusually touchy or annoyed, and is often  angry and  resentful of those around him. In addition, the child with ODD will  argue with  authority figures, refuses to comply with rules or requests and will  annoy  others on purpose, all the while blaming others for his behavior.

When you read this description, you may be  thinking, “My child does all of  that!” In fact, you’d be correct in noting that  all children at some point or  another probably engage in these kinds of  behaviors. The key here, though, is  whether or not your child has a pattern of displaying such behavior on  a  regular basis towards those around her, as opposed to occasionally refusing  to  do chores, teasing her younger brother sometimes, or being angry at you in  the  moment for getting called out for bad behavior.

While a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder  does act out on a more  regular basis, as opposed to a child with simply a  difficult temperament,  parents should generally take the same approach to  handling the behavior.

Below are 5 things not to do when dealing with a defiant or  “difficult” child.

1. Don’t lose your cool: The most crucial first step you can  take  when dealing with a defiant young child is to not lose your cool. I  know this is easier said than done, and can be  incredibly challenging for any  parent who’s going up against a screaming,  uncooperative child! But the primary  point to keep in mind when this  happens is this: You are the adult and you are  modeling how to act appropriately  in a difficult situation for your young  child. Defiant kids often lack resources for  knowing what to do next and are  looking to you for guidance. There can be a number  of reasons why your child is  acting out, some that you (or even your child) may  never be able to fully  understand, but the bottom line is that in that moment  of rage, they don’t know  what to do. This teachable moment can allow your child  to truly learn how to  respond when experiencing a full-blown emotional crisis. Some  useful responses  for your young child might be:

“We don’t yell. Please stop.” “You can’t talk to me like  that. Stop now or  you will need to sit by yourself.” (If your child is old  enough and it’s appropriate for them to sit alone.)

This can also be a good time to teach your child  some calming techniques  that can help them regain control. Showing a young  child how to stop, count,  and breathe involves explaining to your child when  she is calm how to stop  herself in her tracks by physically sitting down,  closing her eyes and slowly  breathing in and out, all the while counting to  ten, however many times it  takes for the crisis to pass. Practicing this  regularly with your child can  allow her to have a tool ready when the crisis  hits. Note however, that for  some kids this will not work, in which case you  will need to move to the next  step.

Related: How to stay calm with your child, no matter  what.

2. Don’t  go down the well: There’s a reason why the  saying “Misery love  company” makes sense. Many times when children are defiant,  they want everyone  around them to experience their pain as well. The important  thing is to not let  them pull you into their momentary misery. For some kids,  upping the ante and  getting everyone in the family involved in their personal  drama is extremely  satisfying for them and serves to reinforce future  outbursts.

If your child can’t calm himself, setting limits  for him to work through his  rage can help. The point is to not jump on the  crazy train with him. Secure a  safe spot for him to go when outbursts occur and  guide him there. If your child  is old enough and you think it’s safe to do so, you can walk into another room  and give him or her some time to calm down.  Some things to say  include:

“I  understand you’re upset. Can you calm down so we can talk?” “Since you  won’t stop yelling I’m leaving the room until you calm down.” (If your child is old enough and it’s appropriate for you to leave the  room.) “When  you’re ready we’ll talk, but not until you get ahold of  yourself.”

3. Don’t take the focus off responsibility: Since  defiant kids often have a hard time taking  responsibility for their actions,  it’s important to tell them your expectations (“We don’t hit our sister”) and  provide consequences for  them upfront. Try to consistently reinforce  them, all the while pointing out that  they are ultimately in charge of their  behavior. In the moment when the behavior is happening, you can let him know  there will be a consequence of some kind. Then, after things have calmed down,  you can follow up and implement an appropriate one. (“Since you hit your sister,  there will be no TV tonight.”)

By consistently not letting your child off the  hook, he knows you mean  business, that you care enough to hold him  accountable, and that  there are boundaries in your home that shouldn’t be  crossed. Even though your  child may rage and yell in the moment, ultimately this  provides him with a  sense of security. This may not necessarily stop his defiance at this  point in his development, but it will prevent it from  growing into a more  severe problem as he gets older.

Related: Focus on your child’s behavior instead  of on emotions.

4. Don’t  Flash Forward: Too often when a child has a  difficult  temperament or a full blown Oppositional Defiant Disorder, parents  fast forward  to the worst case scenario possible, imagining all sorts of gloomy  forecasts  for their child’s future. This is easy to do when your child rarely  seems  happy, is often irritable, and has unrelenting behavior. As hard as it is  though, try to be mindful of the here and now and what your child needs from   you in this moment. When you find yourself worrying that your child is going to   end up unemployed and living under a bridge because he talks back so much and   won’t take no for an answer, try to ground yourself and move on to the next   step.

5. Don’t forget to pay attention to the good things about your child: Parenting a defiant child is likely one of the  most difficult tasks  any parent will face. It’s hard, it’s tiring, and it can  be depressing at  times, which is why it’s so important to remember to find  things about them  that are loveable, kind, and sweet, even if it may seem like  a stretch on some  days. Accepting one’s child doesn’t mean excusing bad  behavior, but rather  acknowledging that they experience the world differently  than many of us. Too  often parents become so entangled with the daily struggles  of parenting a child  who behaves like this that the goodness that exists within  them (and it’s in  there, even if you have to dig deep) gets lost. Actively  search out examples on  a daily or weekly basis that confirm not the worst in  your child, but the best.  These can be instances when your son was kind to his  sister for one full day,  or your daughter said “thank you” instead of giving  you a rude answer. It can  come in the form of them putting away their dishes on  their own or not arguing  with you or blaming others. Point out to your child that  you noticed by saying, “I like how nicely you answered me. Thank you.” Or  “Thank you for not losing  your temper just now.” Remember, it’s the behavior  that you may not like, not  your child him or herself.

A final point to keep in mind is that children  with these personality traits  may not be the easiest to live with while they  are at home, but it is exactly  these types  of kids who can grow up and change the world. Everyone agrees that  a calm,  sweet child is easy to raise, but those traits, while admirable, may  not be the  ones that stop injustice, forge new ways of thinking, or uncover the  unfairness  and inequity of the world we live in. Often it’s the very qualities  in our  children that make us crazy—the stubbornness, the defiance, the  anger—that are  not only useful, but are necessary for a person who wants to  make society a  better place. That idea of not giving up, so annoying  now, can propel our children to greatness as adults. When we  look throughout  history at who has changed the world, it has rarely been the  meek or the quiet,  but rather those who charged through difficulties, wouldn’t  take no for an  answer, and sometimes had to get angry to bring about change. When  you combine  firm, loving, consistent boundaries together to form a parenting  style in which  to deal with your defiant young child, you are laying the  groundwork towards  helping them take responsibility for their temperament while  also honoring who  they are as a person. This gives you both the opportunity to  be the  best that you can be, now and in the future.


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