Here’s a question for you.
When you think of the character traits you want your child to have when they grow up, what are they?
Everyone is a little different, but most people want their children to be resilient, independent, and self-assured. We also want them to be compassionate, kind and caring, and a range of other things too.
But the important thing is that we want our children to grow up to be able to stand on their own two feet. To be able to bounce back after life throws them a curve ball, and to be confident in their own beliefs.
No one ever wants their kids to grow into compliant, obedient or submissive adults. Why would we?
And yet, we wish they’d be more compliant – and less defiant – when they’re young.
We want them to be obedient.
We want them to do as we ask and listen when we speak.
We don’t want them to fight back.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Here’s the thing though… I get it!
I am a mom too. At the end of a busy day, when I am weary to my bone, all I want is a little cooperation from my kids. On those days, nothing sets me off quite like defiance. I want to either tame it down and gain back control, or hide in a quiet corner and silently weep.
Is there a better option though?
Is there some way for me to deal with a defiant child without trying to break her spirit, or letting it grate on my nerves?
Here’s what I’ve found.
#1 Understand What’s Really Going On
Imagine someone has control of you and your life.
You have no control over your schedule. You’re told where you have to be, how you should behave, even what you should wear.
Yes, you’re fed and well looked after, even loved.
But you don’t have full control over what you eat or when you eat it. You’re told when you should sleep and when to get up.
You’re an intelligent, independent individual but you’re imprisoned in your own life.
Your opinions may be listened to, but they’re not given much weight.
You love the people you live with, but you’re frustrated. It hurts that they think your ideas and opinions are less significant than theirs.
You feel powerless to change their minds and sometimes your frustration gets the better of you. So you behave poorly.
Of course, this just reinforces that you’re not ‘mature’. How frustrating!
You often bounce between feeling rebellious and defiant, or weak and overpowered.
Not pretty, is it?
But this is where our kids find themselves most of the time. Irrespective of how much we love them, they are still little people in a grown up world. Life can seem pretty harsh.
This simple understanding has made a huge difference in my ability to deal with my kids when they are defiant.
A lot of my own frustration with my defiant child stems from a lack of control in the moment. Realizing that my child is acting from a similar feeling of lack of control, just one that spans pretty much every aspect of her life, keeps me from getting agitated and lets me start looking for solutions.
Which brings us nicely to our next point…
#2 Give Back Some Control
A simple way to give your kids some control is by giving them as many choices as you can – particularly over the little things.
If you’re getting them a drink you can ask them: Do they want juice or water? Do they want it in cup or a glass? Do they want to sit at the table or the kitchen bench?
Notice that giving your child choices doesn’t mean they get open slather. In fact, you can give choices to your child and still ensure you get what you want.
For example, when it comes to possible arguments over vegetables you can try, “Do you want beans or peas?” And if there’s often disagreement over warm clothing try, “Are you going to wear your jacket, or take it?”
To make this work for both of you, be sure to give just two options. And make sure that you’re happy with either option!
Besides giving kids back some control, asking lots of questions has some sneaky benefits as well.
(If you don’t like being sneaky, you should stop right here and skip directly to the next point. No, seriously.)
Have you ever noticed that some days it’s really hard to make decisions, particularly if you’ve had to make a lot of them leading up to that moment? It’s like your brain is fried and you simply can’t make another choice.
Psychologists call this decision fatigue.
The sneaky benefit to us parents is, if we give our kids lots of choices over the smaller things, they’re less likely to have the energy to argue over the bigger stuff. If you ask me, it’s one good thing, giving them back some control, which leads to another good thing, them not having the energy to argue about other things.
As long as it results in happier kids and a calmer home, it’s all good in my book 🙂
#3 Treat Them Like An Adult
Imagine walking into your house and seeing one of your friends violating a house rule.
They’re doing something that they know you don’t particularly like. Maybe they’re putting their feet on the coffee table, maybe they’ve left cups and dishes around the house, or maybe they didn’t take their shoes off at the door.
They give you a guilty look, waiting for your response.
Take a moment to consider what you’d say or do.
Because I bet you respond to your friend in a completely different way to how you’d respond if your kids were breaking the same rule.
It’s OK, we all do it. We’ve all snapped at our kids one time or another. And justified it by saying, “They know the rules and they constantly test the boundaries. They should know better!”
But if we take a step back, and start treating our kids a little like adults, it can be powerful.
Strong willed kids don’t respond well to being told, but they’re likely to be reasonable if we ask, if we treat them like an adult, or a friend.
I’m not advocating the whole ‘parents as friends’ philosophy or asking you to be permissive.
But it’s worth making a conscious effort to treat our kids with the same restraint and respect we would use if we were responding to an adult who was behaving the same way.
#4 Avoid Ultimatums
Kids who exhibit defiant behavior push us. They argue. They’re cheeky and insubordinate and it gets under our skin.
We’re the parent. The adult. The experienced person in this relationship. They should listen to us. They should uphold our authority instead of undermining it so often.
Right from a very early age they know exactly what buttons to push to get us cranky and frustrated and twisted up inside.
So before we realize, we end up saying things like, “You better clean up your room, or else!”
Or, “If you don’t turn that television off right now, you’ll regret it!”
Half the time though, we don’t know what to do for the “or else” or the “you’ll regret it” part. And as positive parents we don’t want to impose random punishment.
So we simply let them get away with it.
And just like that, we’ve allowed our authority to be undermined.
And sent them an implicit signal that if they push us just enough, they can get what they want. Without quite realizing it, we’ve just cast our vote in favor of more defiant behavior.
So what could we have done instead? (No, reverting back to random punishment isn’t an option! Not as the fine parent that you are!!!)
Here’s one way to go about it.
Recognize that ultimatums are a recipe for a lose-lose outcome. So when you feel your blood starting to boil, walk away.
Make like Elvis and leave the room. When you’re calmer you can return and address the problem more reasonably.
Sit down and set clear limits. Explain and get agreement on exactly what will happen if a limit is violated. And the next time the situation repeats, calmly, firmly and empathetically impose the consequences for violating the limits.
For example: “We agreed on one episode of TV after you finish homework. You started watching TV before doing homework. I’m afraid that means no TV for the rest of the day today. You’ll get it back tomorrow.”
Let them vent if they want to. The key is to stay calm, firm and empathetic. For example: “I’m sorry. I know you are disappointed. I am a bit disappointed too… I was hoping to finish up some of my chores while you were watching TV. But I can do my chores later and read a little for you instead. How about that? I know you are still learning to be a responsible. You’ll get another chance to try being responsible tomorrow.”
And so on.
Is this more work for us? Yes. In the beginning it is.
But which one do you prefer – a little work upfront or constant nagging, whining and drama for the next however many years until they go to college and never want to come back home again?
#5 Work With Their Personality
Kids who are defiant, or strong willed are often highly intelligent. They question everything.
They don’t like to be told what to do, when to do it, or how to do it. They rebel against this sort of micro-management.
So give them what they instinctively crave for.
Instead of giving them chores, give them problems to solve. Give them an opportunity to show off how smart/helpful/kind they are. Give them the stage to showcase their positive attributes.
Try, “I’m cooking dinner but I don’t have any clean plates. They’re all in the dishwasher. Is there a super helper around who can help me?” (Sneakiness alert: Studies have shown that kids are motivated more by a positive identity such as “being a helper” than just a simpler request for help!)
If you’re going to use fun titles remember to keep them light. We don’t want to end up labeling our kids. Pick a different funny ‘positive identity’ each time to make sure none of the labels stick – in their head, or yours.
Cynthia Tobias, author of You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded) says to give strong willed children problems to solve so they can exercise their brains and feel helpful and supportive. This strategy works just as well for kids who tend to be defiant too.
#6 Hug Them
My daughter is defiant and difficult and disruptive at times. She argues for no apparent reason.
There are days when she’s just horrible to everyone. She lashes out and hurts people with seemingly no motivation.
But I’ve discovered that she does this for a reason. She’s trying to tell me something.
Her behavior is saying, “I’m horrible and unworthy. I bet you can’t love me now!”
The solution is for me to see past her behavior and feel her hurt, and address her pain.
To take her aside and give her a hug and say, “I love you just the way you are.” Or, “Nothing you can do will ever stop me loving you.”
It works every time. She takes down the barriers and cries and tells me what’s wrong. Maybe she’s tired and feeling less resilient.
Maybe she just doesn’t feel “good enough”. Whatever it is, she needs comfort and understanding to melt the emotional armor she’s put on.
(Side note: If you ever feel this way yourself, and we all do from time to time, before you reach for that tub of ice cream in the freezer, watch this video. Or at least watch the video while you shovel down that tub of ice cream. It helps me find my balance every single time.)
#7 Look for the silver lining
Raising a child who is defiant is not easy. They can be more challenging, confrontational and disobedient than their peers.
But they’re also highly intelligent, sensitive and curious. They want to know “why”.
They can thrive on independence and responsibility.
They can step up to challenges and be a great help if we let them.
We just need to figure out how to get the best out of them.
We need to ensure they feel loved and valued. That we ask for their opinion and give them some control over their lives.
We need to start treating them like the independent, self-assured adults they’ll become.
And we need to tell them that we will always love them, just the way they are.
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a moment to consider your child’s behavior.
- Does your child seem to vie for control over some aspects of their life? Can you give them more control in this area?
- If not, what other areas can you give them control over?
- What things can you start giving your kids choice over?
- Think about your child’s behavior when they’re being defiant. Are they trying to tell you something?
- Think about the things you regularly disagree on and the options for handling the situation differently.
- What strategies can you put in place to ensure you don’t issue ultimatums?
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
- Make a note of the things you regularly disagree on (eg. meal times or homework) and brainstorm a few questions you can use to avoid a confrontation.
- Write down some choices that will help you get the outcome you want, but still give your child control.
- Think abour the last disagreement you had with your child. How would this have played out if you’d given your child problems to solve instead?
- Visualize yourself walking away when you feel like issuing an ultimatum.
- Work out what you’d say if your friend was violating a house rule. Will the same response work with your kids?
- Checkout the strategies in You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded). You can read a free excerpt of the book online, and access loads of Cynthia’s resources for dealing with strong willed children.