8 Strategies for Dealing with a Defiant Child

A defiant child can be a parent's nightmare! These strategies will help you handle situations with poise and patience, and even nip defiant behavior in the bud.

Cheryl Butler
6-minute read
Episode #570
The Quick And Dirty

If your child is like most kids and has occasional periods of defiance, there are things you can do to make things easier. 

  • Hold your child accountable
  • Choose your battles
  • Act, don't react
  • Enforce age-appropriate consequences
  • Keep your power
  • No second chances or bargaining
  • Always build on the positive
  • Set regular times to talk to your child

When a child acts out and demonstrates defiant behavior, there's usually an underlying reason. Maybe your child is seeking attention, testing boundaries, or frustrated about school or her social life. Taking the time to understand why your child is acting out is often a big part of finding the solution.

Could you be dealing with oppositional defiant disorder?

First, make sure your child's behavior isn't an ongoing pattern. Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) isn't just a buzzword, it’s something very real that 1 to 16 percent of children and their parents struggle with. Here's how the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry defines ODD.

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is one of a group of behavioral disorders called disruptive behavior disorders (DBD). These disorders are called this because children who have these disorders tend to disrupt those around them. ODD is one of the more common mental health disorders found in children and adolescents.

Physicians define ODD as a pattern of disobedient, hostile, and defiant behavior directed toward authority figures. Children and adolescents with ODD often rebel, are stubborn, argue with adults, and refuse to obey. They have angry outbursts and have a hard time controlling their temper.

ODD: A Guide for Families, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

A child with oppositional defiant disorder:

  • Has frequent temper tantrums
  • Argues constantly with adults
  • Refuses to do what is asked of an adult
  • Always questions rules and refuses to follow rules
  • Does things to annoy or upset others, including adults
  • Blames others for his/her own misbehaviors or mistakes
  • Is easily annoyed by others
  • Often displays an angry attitude
  • Speaks harshly or unkindly
  • Seeks revenge or acts vindictively

Any child can act out from time to time, but children with ODD show a constant pattern of hostility and defiance, usually aimed at people in authority like parents or teachers. Their behavior interferes with learning and school activities.

If you suspect your child may have ODD, seek guidance from your child's doctor or a mental health professional.

How to parent a defiant child

If your child is like most kids and has occasional periods of defiance, there are things you can do to make things easier. I discovered eight strategies that helped me with my own brood. By following these techniques, you too can survive your child's maddening moments.

1. Make your expectations clear

Children of all ages need to know the family rules for things like helping out with chores, completing homework, bedtime and curfews, and acceptable behavior toward others. The time to discuss these matters is when things are going well, not after an incident has occurred.

Sit down with your kids and let them know what types of behaviors you will not tolerate. List examples of unacceptable behaviors such as treating others with disrespect, refusing to do chores or homework, mistreating possessions, or physical aggression like hitting or biting.

The goal is not to prevent your child from ever breaking the rules but to teach him that when rules are broken, consequences follow.

You can't expect your child to be compliant if he doesn’t know your expectations. The goal is not to prevent your child from ever breaking the rules but to teach him—preferably from a young age—that when rules are broken, consequences follow.

In my family, we took the time to write our rules and their respective consequences on a poster board which we have framed and hanging in our home. This way, there’s never a question as to our expectations.

2. Choose your battles

Parenting is exhausting enough when things are going well, but when one of your children is purposefully misbehaving, the difficulties are multiplied. So choose how you spend your energy wisely!

Let's say your high schooler wants to wear pants that are too big because that’s the style. Do you really want to start the day off on a negative note by hassling him over his fashion choices? On the other hand, if he tells you he isn’t going to school because he doesn’t feel like it, that’s just not going to fly. Save your mental energy, not to mention your child's, for more serious issues. 

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my 18 years of parenting is that you can’t change your child's attitude unless you change your own first. Which brings us to strategy number three.

3. Act, don’t react

When you witness defiant behavior from your child, don’t get angry and lose your temper. Instead, take a step back and tell your child that you don’t approve of the behavior and she needs to stop. Tell her you'll talk about consequences at a later time when you can both talk calmly.

This will give your child time to think about her actions and the potential consequences. Not only are you using the time to calm yourself down, but you’re also teaching her to do the same.

4. Enforce consequences

Effective consequences can largely be grouped into two categories: removals and impositions.

A removal is taking something away from the child, such as your attention, an exciting environment, or a pleasant activity. The most well-known and widely-used removal is a time out. Other effective removals include grounding your child from social activities, taking away electronics for a certain period of time, or immediately leaving the park, a friend's house, or a family party when a defiant behavior occurs.

Impositions are consequences that impose a new situation on the child. Paying his own money into a family fine jar, doing extra chores, having to run errands with mom because he abused the privilege to stay home alone by inviting friends over without permission—these are impositions.

Without question, consequences require time and energy to enforce. But if you don’t follow through with consequences for bad behavior, you send the message "If you wear me down, eventually, you’ll get your way."

5. Keep your power

When you engage in an argument with your child, you're enforcing the child's perception that they have the power to challenge you, which can lead to even more defiant behavior.

The next time your child tries to draw you into a power struggle over something, just say, “We’ve discussed this and I've told you what's going to happen. We're not going to talk about it anymore,” and leave the room.

When you leave, you take all the power with you. Know that the more you engage your child in an argument, the more control you give away.

6. No second chances or bargaining

Consistency is key if you don’t want to reinforce bad habits. Once your child is old enough to understand that behaviors have consequences, don’t give him repeat chances. This just teaches him that you don’t take your own rules seriously.

Don't bargain or offer treats or privileges in return for better behavior. You're only enabling your child to test how far they can push you.

If your son calls his friend a rude name when you arrive for a play date, firmly say “We don’t talk like that. We’re going home now so you can spend some time thinking about what you said.” Insist that he apologize, and then leave immediately. No ifs, ands, or buts.

Don't bargain or offer treats or privileges in return for better behavior. You're only enabling your child to test how far they can push you before you strike another bargain.

7. Always build on the positive

Make sure you build on the positive attitudes and actions of your children. Praise your children for their positive behaviors, like rewarding them when they show a cooperative attitude. Positive reinforcement can go a long way in raising a responsible child.

By making a simple switch to rewarding good behavior instead of reacting to bad, parents will see a significant reduction in challenging behavior.

For more about building on the positive and rewarding good behavior, listen to my interview with Dr. Heather Maguire, a behavior analyst and school psychologist. (It's episode 569, What to Do When Your Child Won't Behave.) She advocated for rewarding good behavior by catching your child doing good. By making a simple switch to rewarding good behavior instead of reacting to bad, she said, parents will see a significant reduction in challenging behavior.

8. Set regular times to talk to your child

In a moment of downtime, when things are going well and you don't anticipate an immediate power struggle, sit down with your child. Let her know that your intentions are to keep her safe and help her grow into a responsible, productive, self-reliant adult who will be as happy and fulfilled in life as possible. Remind her that your family has rules and values that are in place for her future, not to cause her grief while growing up.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. You can reach her by email.