If you raise a defiant child or teen, this is a most important piece of advice: take care of yourself, your primary relationships, and the rest of your family. You have a life, and your other children need nurturing. Schedule regular times for you and the others to relieve tension and do something that takes you out of the home and brings you joy. The time or expense is worth every bit as much as psychotherapy.
These are typical traits of defiant children.
- They act younger than they are. Don’t expect them to mature quickly.
- They live in the here and now, and can’t think about the past or future. They don’t see how their actions result in a series of consequences. They can learn sometimes, but only if it is pointed out immediately after an incident.
- They don’t notice their effect on others. Sometimes you can ask one of the others how they feel immediately after an incident, or you can gently report how it makes you feel.
- Their brain is easily overloaded, and they have a hard time with changes. And yet, you can use this overloading problem to your advantage (more below).
- They cannot follow your reasoning, so don’t try.
- Defiance may be a strength in their future. With mature skills, they’ll better resist negative things they’ll face in life.
One of the most effective things you can do is control your tone of voice.
Managing defiant children is a balancing act. If you go too far asserting authority you can draw more resistance, especially if you become emotional. Your defiant child is very sensitive to a tone of voice that sounds (even a tiny bit) defiant or impatient or angry.
Practice ahead of time
Before you make a request or set a boundary on your child, practice what you will say in advance. Play the dialogue out in your head—imagine their reaction to your request or rule, and practice that neutral tone of voice. Remind yourself that you are the authority, and that you are more resolved and persistent than they are. Your message doesn’t have to be rational or justified. You may get away with things like, “Because I’m the mommy (or daddy) and I say so”.
Approaches that work
Be a benevolent dictator
Since your home is not a democracy and your child does not run the household, they are not entitled to have all their needs fulfilled or opinions considered. When they make a demand, thank them for letting you know their opinion, and explain how you will weigh their needs with those of everyone else. Your child will find your decision completely unfair, but remind yourself that “fair” is not “equal.” (It’s not desirable to treat everyone and every situation equally.) Say it’s the best you can do for now. As their accusations fly, dial back your interest, get busy with something else, and become distracted
Allow some aggression
When it’s appropriate and safe, ask your child to do more of what they’re already doing so that they turn it around and defy you by stopping the behavior. Example: your child refuses to take a direction and throws a book on the floor in anger.
Parent: “There’s only one book on the floor. Here is another one, now throw this on the floor.” (Child throws book down.)
“Here’s another one. Throw this down too.” (Child throws book down.)
“And here’s another book, throw this one down, too.” (Child becomes frustrated and angry, but stops throwing books in defiance.)
Be a marshmallow
Show no resistance, instead, listen and respond to how they feel, not what they say. Show them you are open to genuine talk later when the stress dies down.
Teen: “I hate you, you f- -king b- -ch!”
Parent: “Sounds like you’re really angry.”
Teen: “Shut up you stupid wh- -e! You c – -t!”
Parent: “Can you tell why me you’re angry so I can do something about it?”
Teen: “Leave me alone f- -k face! Stop patronizing me!”
Parent: “OK, I hear you don’t want me to patronize you, so I won’t. I feel this is stressful for both of us, so I’d like to take a break and maybe talk about it later.”
Call their bluff
Child: “I’m going to run away!”
Parent: “OK, if you do, find a way to call me, and I’ll bring you your stuff and maybe a snack.” Then walk away. If they do run and call you, you’ll know where they are.
Parent: “Oh my God, I can’t believe what you’ve done to your hair, that’s horrible! What are people going to think? That’s worse than tattoos. You have to stop this nonsense!”
(One mother used this technique to get her daughter to stop her plans to make a homemade tattoo on her face. After all, hair grows out, but facial tattoos can be forever.)
Overload their brain circuits
Give your child or teen multiple instructions quickly, and include things they do and don’t want to do. It becomes too much work for them to sort out what to defy.
Parent: “Keep up the yelling and close the door on your way out. And be sure to get louder out there so all the neighbors can hear. Dinner is at 5:30.”
(What happens? The door is slammed maybe, but your child is home at 5:30 for dinner.)
This works best with children 2 through 12. They try to get a reaction by annoying you or threatening to do something you don’t want them to do. Stay in the vicinity but don’t respond, look away, and act like you can’t hear them. Go into another room or outside, for example, and the annoying child will follow you to continue to get your attention with annoying behavior. If they flip the lights on and off, or ring the doorbell repeatedly, or turn up the volume too loud, maybe you can switch a circuit breaker off and walk away… or if driving, you can pull over, stop the car, and get out and wait. This article can help with other ideas. Defying ODD: What it is and ways to manage.
Mix it up
- Be unpredictable. Give a reward sometimes but not all the time, and your child will keep trying the good behavior to get the reward.
- Instead of a consequence, occasionally use bribes to stop a behavior.
- Allow them to do something they like to do, but within limits of boundaries.
- Choose your battles; let your child win unimportant disagreements.
- Be sneaky on occasion if (or frankly manipulative) if nothing is working. For example: suggest you’re considering a very serious consequence that you don’t intend to follow through on.
Have realistic expectations
It’s easy to get stuck in rut—it happens to everyone—but your child is stuck too. Remember, it’s not the child’s fault and it’s not your fault. Your child may not go through life the same as others and may always have problems, but your job is to help them learn from their mistakes the best you can. This may not happen for many years. If your child’s condition is serious, they may face serious problems because of their disability, but you’ll know you’ll have honored them, lived your values, and loved unconditionally.
It is heroic to stick it out with your defiant child or teen when you don’t see progress.
- They have the ability to do better.
- With treatment, children improve (e.g. therapy, exercise, medication…).
- Things usually work out.
- Help is out there.
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