Tips for Dealing with Defiant Children

Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D

Picture the children who habitually lose temper, argue with adults, actively defy or refuse adults’ requests and rules, and deliberately do things to annoy other people. Add to it the tendency to blame others for their misbehaviors. You know for sure that they aren't popular either with adults or peers.

Children, who defy and do the opposite of what parents tell them, often start exhibiting these behaviors from age 2 or 3. Defiant behavior should be handled promptly and carefully. Do not laugh it off as simply a "cute" behavior. Defiant behavior is a progressive problem and if untreated, gets worse.

Defiant behaviors first show up at home at age 2 or 3. By age 8 or 9, a defiant child is hard to get along at school as well. Research shows that at the playground a defiant child tends to be rejected by his or her peers within the first 20 minutes. Defiant children are often angry and hostile in their interaction with peers. They coerce rather than cooperate with other children. They first start violating the rules of the home, and, if untreated, they start violating the rules of the school. By age 12 or 13, they use tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs, and start breaking the rules of society.

It is much easier to treat defiant behavior between age 2 to 5, then after age 12. In one research, psychological parenting techniques were shown to work in about 75 percent of cases of children under 10, but only in 25% of cases of children over age 12.

Parents of defiant children feel frustrated. Many have used severest consequences for undesirable behaviors, but, "nothing seems to work." Research shows that it is not the severity, but the immediacy of the consequences that matters. Consequences are most effective when delivered within seconds rather than minutes or hours. One research shows that "dysfunctional parents" delivered consequences, on average, between 30 to 60 minutes.

The problem is that many parents unduly delay the consequences for defiant behaviors or they provide consequences inconsistently. An even bigger problem is that some of those parents hardly ever reward compliant behavior.

Some parents ignore or try to tolerate defiant behavior until they can’t take it anymore and than they try to teach the child the "lesson of his (or her) life." That just confuses and enrages a child even more. Angry and irritable parents often have angry and irritable children. Some parents have the attitude, "I will deal with you as I feel at the moment." Their child also deals with them as he or she feels.

Here is some advice for parents of 2 to 10 year olds. Treat the problem early. Early intervention also prevents serious behavioral problems in the future. Deliver a negative consequence for a defiant behavior within 10 seconds. Reward a compliant behavior within 10 seconds.

Psychologist Russel Barkley of international fame has this advice for parents, "Act. Don’t yak." Talking about how bad the behavior was is not helpful. Calm and consistent action is helpful. Calmly handle a defiant behavior by delivering the consequences and don’t spend too much time in talking about your frustrations, such as, how "sick and tired" and "disappointed" you are by your child’s non-compliance. Such expressions make parents appear weak and at a loss, and may be counter productive.

Do you have the attitude, "Why do I need to change, the problem is with my child and not me?" Parents who say "yes" to the question may often be butting heads with their children. You can force your child to submission but you can’t truly change your child without changing yourself. You have to change first before you can change your child.

Ask yourself, "What did my "worst" and the "best" supervisor do? Write down the characteristic behaviors of both. Do not act around your child as your worst supervisor did around you. Act around your child as your best supervisor did around you. When you change as a parent, chances are that your child will change too.

When a child has been misbehaving for sometime, parents naturally want to fix it right away. So they look for more draconian methods to raise the ante for a bad behavior. Perhaps, it works for a little while and then the child raises his or her resistance to match the severity of the punishment. Thus, attempts for disciplining fail, breeding more frustration and anger in the parents.

Positive attention and positive interaction are two major tools to shape a child’s behavior. Attend to your child’s positive behavior. Don’t assume a nonchalant attitude towards a positive behavior because "that is how children should behave all the time." Your child may sometime be at his best to please you, so be pleased and express your pleasure. Find activities, hobbies, and games in which you and your child can have increasingly positive interaction. Your child may want to please you even more.

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Copyright 1996, Mind Publications 


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