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Parenting the Defiant Child

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Guest blogger Maggie Vink: Sometimes, I need to take a good, long look in the mirror. My son can be a sweetheart, but he can also be a real stinker. He's contrary to the point of ridiculousness at times, and any request that sounds remotely like a demand will make him stubbornly dig in his heels and refuse to do what I'm asking. If I were even to demand that he ride his skateboard (one of his favorite things), I'd have World War III in my living room.His defiance is never about what's being asked of him; it's simply about the fact that he was asked -- and his need for control.

defiant child
I've never believed that my child must obey everything I say. Children are not robots. But it is necessary for him to respect and listen to me. Once, my son and I were leaving the community center, and my son asked another kid to have a running race with him. I called out that it wasn't a good idea, and the other boy's parents agreed. The other boy immediately stopped running and went back to his parents. My son, on the other hand, ran faster. When I caught up, I explained that there was black ice all over the parking lot and I didn't want him to slip and fall. He seemed shocked that my words might actually have reason behind them!Since that night, I've tried to teach my son that he must always listen to me first, and that if he disagrees or doesn't understand, he can ask questions.

Parenting a defiant child can be extremely disheartening. The constant battles drain me of energy and leave me feeling angry, even resentful at times. Without realizing it, I slowly shifted from my non-robot-child style of parenting and moved into more of a barking, do-what-I-say-immediately type of mom. I turned into the kind of mom who gets angry every time her kid doesn't do exactly as ordered. Essentially, my drill-sergeant style of parenting was generating the exact behaviors I was trying to extinguish. 

My defiant son didn't need me to bark orders. He needed my help. I need to have empathy and treat him with respect. I can't add fuel to his fire and generate even more defiance. I have to be the anchor -- the calming force that keeps the raging waters of his anger in control.

My son's defiance is born from a lack of security and trust. Due to his spending ten years in foster care (before I adopted him), there may always be a part of him that feels disconnected and unsure. As he sees it, if he can control his own world -- whether or not he does his homework, what he wears, where he goes -- maybe he'll feel more secure. If he has the bull by the horns, at least he can be responsible for his own hurting.
So when I ordered him around as if he were a mindless robot, I was further stripping control from him -- and therefore creating more defiance. When I criticized him for not listening, I was knocking down a self-esteem that barely existed to start with.

I can't give my son free rein to not listen. I can't let him treat me with an utter lack of respect. But I can minimize defiance while teaching him the right way to behave. Here are some tips for parenting the defiant child:

  • Maintain structure: Stick to a schedule and a routine that your child can count on.
  • Don't engage:Don't participate in arguments your child tries to initiate.
  • Offer choices: Whenever possible, give your child some control by offering options.
  • Compromise: You want him to do his homework right away; he wants to go outside and play (or watch TV or whatever). Let him control when he starts his homework, but don't let him have privileges until it's completed.
  • Pick your battles: When you've got bigger fish frying, is it really a big deal that your child forgot to bring a glass to the sink when he was done with it?
  • Catch your child doing good: Take every opportunity to praise your child and give him affection and love.
  • Discipline wisely:Sometimes when a child is defiant or rude, addressing the bad behavior in the moment will only escalate the situation. If that's the case, take a deep breath and bide your time. Later, when he's calm, talk to your child about the situation and give appropriate consequences.
My son's defiant behavioris a reflection of his past, and of his lingering insecurities.It's not a reflection on me, so I can't take it personally. The fact is, he does have security now. He does belong. He is loved unconditionally. And he will be loved forever. I just need to be the eyes that help him see that.

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15 comments so far | Post a comment now
Scott September 22, 2010, 5:15 PM

I was defiant as a teenager. Maybe I’m biased but I see a certain amount of defiance as a good thing. The teenage years are when we break out and test ourselves in the world. Our views against the views of our parents and other superiors. Granted, too much defiance is still a problem.


Jeanne-Marie September 24, 2010, 8:15 AM

So helpful! I have a toddler who is already showing signs of being defiant…I am trying to balance my admiration for his independence and strong will with the right approach to teaching respect and getting things done. I think it’s great that you didn’t settle for blaming your son’s history, but created a solution that gives him more behavioral choices.

Maggie September 28, 2010, 8:33 AM

@Scott, I like your viewpoint. My son also has ADHD and, though it’s troublesome at times, I also think there’s beauty in that. He’s much more free thinking than the average Joe and I love that about him! The defiance, on the other hand… it’s pretty hard to love that. :-)

@Jeanne-Marie, it’s not easy and it doesn’t always work. My son is just defiant by nature. But it’s so much better now that I don’t escalate the situations. The worst is when I have to let things go a bit and then address them later. I sometimes feel like I’m letting him get away with being disrespectful. But, really, I’m not. He doesn’t get what he wants by being that way — I just don’t tackle the issue until later when he’s calm. Good luck with your little one! Starting respect lessons when your child is so small will really pay off!

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Melissa October 13, 2010, 9:44 AM

My son is 10 1/2 yrs old and has been diagnosed with ADHD with a mood disorder. I have attended parenting classes concerning how to parent a child with these diagnoses and I have done research. I am at my witts end with the defiance. We have experienced a lot of changes over the past year to include me remarrying and moving to another city which means a school change. He will not do his schoolwork, he lies about anything that will create a conflict, he’s disrespectful to me, my husband and the babysitter. He disrupts the household every single day. His 7 year old sister has to listen to all of it. It is affecting my health as I have Fibromyalga. The stress got so bad a couple of weeks ago I ended up at the emergency room. I love my son dearly and would die for him but I simply refuse to let him fail and/or not grow into a good man that makes positive contributions to society. I don’t know what to do anymore to get him to cooperate. We have used grounding, taking things away, Token Economy, behavior charts, one on one time with the parent he chooses. In addition to the issues above, he is having #2 accidents in his pants. He has been wearing Goodnight paper pants for 6 months! I think he has become complacent with them and hasn’t a care in the world anymore about having to wear them. Any feedback and/or suggestions would be greatly appreciated as I feel like a bad mother and I want to help my son. I know he would be happier if things changed.

Maggie October 18, 2010, 1:43 PM


I know how you feel! My son’s behaviors often make me feel like I’m a terrible mother, too. I’ve tried every reward and consequence system, too, but (with my son) the problem is is that there is very little that he cares enough about to have an effect. My best methods are to not engage in the heat of the moment — it just makes things worse. Try to give your child nothing when he’s acting defiant/rude. No attention, no anger, nothing. If he’s like my son, he’ll try harder and harder to get you to engage. But hold fast. Don’t give in and don’t give attention. When the heat of the moment has past, then you can put down consequences for the behavior. That’s what works for me anyway.

Regarding the encopresis, you should probably talk to a doctor. There are a lot of underlying reasons for encopresis and it’s possible there’s a medical issue. That being said, my son used to voluntarily pee on things (his carpet, the wall, etc.) and it’s frustrating beyond belief. In our case, it was due to his abusive past and his need for control. We’ve worked through the worst of it with therapy, LOTS of talking and age.

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