Your Defiant Child’s Behavior: 5 Things You Can—and Can’t—Control as a Parent

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney  Studaker-Cordner LMSW

What can you do when your child just refuses to get up  and go to school?  You’ve yelled, nagged, pleaded and even tried bribing her,  but she just digs  her heels in and says, “Nope, not going, no matter what you  do.” Maybe this has  never happened to you—or maybe it happens every day. Many  parents may read this  scenario and immediately respond, “I’d make my kid go!” But without  using physical means, how would you do that? If a  child outright refuses to  comply, other than grabbing her arm and physically  forcing her to do get  dressed and get on the bus—which no parent wants to do or  ever should do, for  that matter—what options does a parent have?

In  reality, once we let go of trying to control our child’s behavior and choices,  we actually gain much more power.


A very common theme in raising a defiant child, or a  child with Oppositional  Defiant Disorder, is control. First of all, things  usually feel out of  control. Your  child or teenager is fighting against any attempts made to  control him—by you  (his parent), teachers or any authority figure.   Yet  he appears to have little to no control over his own choices, impulses  or  behavior. Society demands that you “get that kid under control,” so parents   fight even harder to control that child. You use every parenting technique you   can think of that is supposed to  work. In turn, your child digs in his  heels, pushes back and becomes even more reactive, leading him to  behave more  impulsively. It becomes more about the power struggle than the  behavior itself.

Why Do  We Fight Our Child for Control?

  • Pressure from Society.Let’s face it, our society puts two competing messages out there. On the  one  hand, there’s a high value placed on individuality and “standing out from a  crowd.” The Robert Frost poem hanging in many of today’s classrooms encourages   finding your own way: “…two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less   traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Yet on the other hand, when   our young people do make choices that  aren’t consistent with the  norm,  there’s often a backlash and pressure to conform.  And when  that child or teen refuses, the  pressure is put on parents to make the  child follow the path others believe is the right one.
  • Fear. As parents  we’re  often terrified of what will happen if we don’t control our  kids. What if she takes that path less traveled and it’s the wrong  path? What will happen to my  child? Rather than thinking of our child as  learning life lessons—the same ones  we did—we believe she will surely meet with  disaster. We picture our child  heading a hundred miles an hour down the wrong  road (one that’s a dead end ) and  we’re standing in front of her, terrified and  trying to save her from herself.
  • To Win the Tug-of-War.Sometimes we find ourselves in a dispute with our child and before we know  it,  we’re in a full-blown battle of wills that we become determined to win.  It’s  not something we recognize consciously, but underneath our own actions is  the  belief that to let go of control is to give in to our child…and that’s not   going to happen! We continue to act in effort to gain control over our child’s   behavior, and he becomes just as determined to keep that control. Who’s going   to win in the end? No one, really, but our child will have the ultimate control   over his behavior. Why? Because short of sewing some puppeteer strings on him,  he  physically has control over his own body.
  • It’s Human Nature.Take a day and pay attention to the idea of control as it relates to  yourself  and those around you. Listen to conversations. How often do you advise  people  on courses of action they should take? How frequently do others share  their  suggestions on what you—or anyone—needs to do? You’ll be surprised. Most  of us  know an Aunt Edna who just loves to  tell people how things  should be.  It’s  human nature to try and direct things. Often we truly  believe we know what’s  best for that other person and maybe we do….but maybe we  don’t.

Parents often believe it’s our role— our  responsibility—to control our  children. But the fact of the matter is, unless  you use physical force, it’s  impossible to control another human being unless  they allow you to do so. You  can threaten, bribe, reward, beg, guilt and shame  that other person into doing  what you believe is best. However, the only way to  influence another person’s  behavior is if they allow you to influence  it—whether  they’re eight, eighteen or eighty years old.

Giving Up the Need to Control Doesn’t  Mean You’re Giving  In

In  reality, once we let go of trying to control our child’s behavior and  choices,  we actually gain much more power. Fighting every day with someone  whose main  purpose is to avoid being controlled will leave you feeling  disheartened,  exhausted, angry, frustrated, embarrassed and ashamed. Putting  energy into what  you can control leaves you feeling  empowered,  confident and stronger. Believe it or not, there’s actually more you can control than can’t—you’ve  probably just been trying to control the wrong  things!

Related:  Tired of fighting with your  child every day?

It’s  our job as parents to provide an environment that allows our child to  learn  lessons that will prepare him for the world, so he can survive—even  thrive.  Everything we do as parents comes back to this guiding premise. We  control  providing food, clothing and shelter to our child. We control whether  or not we  show our child how to cope and deal with conflict adversity and  life’s  challenges. And we control whether or not we allow him to experience   consequences for the choices he makes. However, whether or not  that child chooses to take those life  lessons to heart is ultimately up to  him.

Identifying What Is In Your Control

5 things you can and can’t control as a parent:

  1. You can control whether or not your  child knows what your expectations are: “Johnny, my  expectation is that you  will handle your anger without physical violence.”
  2. You can control whether or not  you’ve given your child opportunities to meet this  expectation: “Johnny, if you  find you’re getting angry, it’s okay to walk away,  go listen to music, talk to  your friend on the phone to blow off steam,  whatever will help you release some  of that anger and we can talk again later.”
  3. You can control whether or not your  child knows what the potential consequences will be if he chooses not  to meet your expectation:  “Johnny, you’re fifteen years old. If you hit me when  you’re angry, that’s  domestic violence. If it happens again, I will call the  police. I would hate to  see that happen, so I hope you choose to handle your  anger without getting  physical.”
  4. You can control your  own behavior: When  you get angry, you can model for your child how to  cope effectively without  using physical violence. You can walk away or practice  other effective coping  skills when you get angry yourself
  5. You can’t control your  child’s  behavior.  You can’t control whether  or not he behaves in a physically  aggressive way when he’s angry. Your power  does not lie in the arguing,  defending and power struggles that tend to go  hand-in-hand with attempts to  control an ODD child. Instead, your power lies in  what you can control—your own  behavior. Just as you can’t control your child,  he can’t control you either!  Some days it may feel like he can—but he can’t.

Related:  How to parent a defiant child  without going crazy.

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