4 Tough Questions About Defiant Children

Mighty Mommy answers your tough questions about defiance based off her experience with her eight children.

Cheryl Butler
8-minute read
Episode #341

Question 2

Mighty Mommy—Help!  I have the world's most defiant 5 year old girl. She back talks, throws tantrums, and thinks she can tell all the adults in her life what to do. I have tried everything I can think of to get her to behave. What advice can you share to help get her back on track?  Rachel

Dear Rachel,

As overwhelming as this stage of parenting can be—not to worry—for the most part, it’s completely normal. It's basically a test your child is giving to you, her parent. Tantrums usually result from one simple thing: a child not getting what she wants.  When a child doesn’t get her way, she responds with frustration and, in order to get your attention, she throws a fit.

So how can you stop these outbursts? In my 22 years of parenting, the one thing that has worked hands down is ignoring your child’s outburst. Easier said than done, I know, but when you exert your authority during your child’s tantrum it only fuels the fire and gives him a reason to keep on acting out—because he knows you are reacting. There's nothing to do in the moment that will make things better. In fact, almost anything you try will make it worse. Once he settles down, then you can try to connect with him.   See Also:  A Surprising Solution For Toddler Temper Tantrums

Next, give your child some breathing room. Sometimes when your child is hot and bothered, the best thing you can do is just let him let off steam. Give him some space to yell, kick the ground, or cry his head off. Combine this with ignoring the tantrum and you will begin to make an impact. By giving him space, you allow him to get his feelings out, pull himself together, and regain self-control—without engaging in a yelling match with you.

One of my favorite strategies is to simply give a hug! You may think this is totally ridiculous when your child is having a major meltdown, but giving your child a loving hug when a tantrum has occurred sends the message that you love him—no matter what—and it offers your child a place of safety when he or she is emotionally not able to handle their situation.  See Also:  How To Handle a Temper Tantrum

Question 3

Hello Mighty Mommy. I am a single mother of 4 children. My second son is being very disrespectful and defiant. Besides not wanting to help around the house or do his homework, he picks on his younger brother by stealing his toys and is constantly verbally abusive towards him. I feel helpless and nothing I’m doing is really making a lasting difference with his behavior.  I’m tired and cranky now, too. What else can I do?  Saundra

Dear Saundra,

Parenting can be challenging enough when you have an involved partner, but doing it alone is certainly even more difficult.  In my own experience with a kid who acts mean towards another sibling, it is usually a result of the defiant child not knowing how to handle his own emotions because he’s struggling with a difficult issue of his own. 

For starters, it’s important to remain calm and in control when you are in the midst of a situation with siblings treating each other poorly. If you can stay calm and don't overreact, you will be teaching your children how to manage their feelings in an appropriate way. If you’ve just walked into the kitchen and witnessed your child yelling at his brother because he didn’t like the fact that he was having a snack while he had to take out the garbage, rather than being tempted to yell back, instead calmly invite him to join you for a snack and then comment quietly and privately “Hey, what’s got you upset right now because you know that in our family we treat each other with kindness, not anger?”  He might be too angry to respond in an appropriate manner, but you’re letting him know that you see that he’s having difficulty controlling his own behavior and you’re more interested in finding out what’s bothering him and causing him to act out rather than calling him out on what he’s doing wrong.   See Also:  5 Ways to Squash Sibling Squabbles

If your kids have not learned how to deal with angry emotions, they need to learn ways to blow off steam so they aren’t abusive to others or even themselves. As adults, many of us never learned to control our emotions when we were kids so when something goes wrong in our world and we fly off the handle in front of our kids, we are modeling for them that reacting with anger is normal. Say you’re driving to soccer practice and you get cut off by another driver when you’re trying to turn into the parking lot. If you lose your cool and lay on the horn and scream at the other driver, you’re teaching your child that it’s OK to treat other people poorly just because they’ve aggravated you. Try to catch yourself in these situations and say, “Gee, Mom needs to take a few deep breaths right now because that other driver really didn’t pay attention and follow the rules.  I hope he had a good reason for being so careless.”  You’re planting seeds about how to react when someone does something that could easily anger you. When you continually model calm behavior for your kids in real-life situations, they will learn how to do the same in their daily world.  See Also:  Savvy Psychologists 8 Tips to Improve Your Self-Control

Many times poor behavior towards another sibling stems from the child wanting and needing more one-on-one attention from you. That can be a tall order, I know, when you’re already working hard all day long to juggle work, running a household, and caring for four kids. Look for ways you can grab even 10–15 minutes of alone time with each of your kids throughout the week where the focus is solely on them. Maybe this time can be early in the morning before your other kids get up, or after dinner when you’re doing the dishes. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate setting as long as you’re connecting with each child alone on a regular basis. This little bit of bonding time when things are going well may help diffuse some bouts of sibling outbursts in the future.


About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler 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. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!

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