1. Don’t lose your cool
The most crucial first step you can take when dealing with a defiant young child is to not lose your cool. I know this is easier said than done, and can be incredibly challenging for any parent who’s going up against a screaming, uncooperative child! But the primary point to keep in mind when this happens is this: You are the adult and you are modeling how to act appropriately in a difficult situation for your young child. Defiant kids often lack resources for knowing what to do next and are looking to you for guidance. There can be a number of reasons why your child is acting out, some that you (or even your child) may never be able to fully understand, but the bottom line is that in that moment of rage, they don’t know what to do. This teachable moment can allow your child to truly learn how to respond when experiencing a full-blown emotional crisis. Some useful responses for your young child might be:
“We don’t yell. Please stop.”
“You can’t talk to me like that. Stop now or you will need to sit by yourself.” (If your child is old enough and it’s appropriate for them to sit alone.)
This can also be a good time to teach your child some calming techniques that can help them regain control. Showing a young child how to stop, count, and breathe involves explaining to your child when she is calm how to stop herself in her tracks by physically sitting down, closing her eyes and slowly breathing in and out, all the while counting to ten, however many times it takes for the crisis to pass. Practicing this regularly with your child can allow her to have a tool ready when the crisis hits. Note however, that for some kids this will not work, in which case you will need to move to the next step.
2. Don’t go down the well
There’s a reason why the saying “Misery loves company” makes sense. Many times when children are defiant, they want everyone around them to experience their pain as well. The important thing is to not let them pull you into their momentary misery. For some kids, upping the ante and getting everyone in the family involved in their personal drama is extremely satisfying for them and serves to reinforce future outbursts.
If your child can’t calm himself, setting limits for him to work through his rage can help. The point is to not jump on the crazy train with him. Secure a safe spot for him to go when outbursts occur and guide him there. If your child is old enough and you think it’s safe to do so, you can walk into another room and give him or her some time to calm down. Some things to say include:
“I understand you’re upset. Can you calm down so we can talk?”
“Since you won’t stop yelling I’m leaving the room until you calm down.” (If your child is old enough and it’s appropriate for you to leave the room.)
“When you’re ready we’ll talk, but not until you get ahold of yourself.”
3. Don’t take the focus off responsibility
Since defiant kids often have a hard time taking responsibility for their actions, it’s important to tell them your expectations (“We don’t hit our sister”) and provide consequences for them upfront. Try to consistently reinforce them, all the while pointing out that they are ultimately in charge of their behavior. In the moment when the behavior is happening, you can let him know there will be a consequence of some kind. Then, after things have calmed down, you can follow up and implement an appropriate one. (“Since you hit your sister, there will be no TV tonight.”)
By consistently not letting your child off the hook, he knows you mean business, that you care enough to hold him accountable, and that there are boundaries in your home that shouldn’t be crossed. Even though your child may rage and yell in the moment, ultimately this provides him with a sense of security. This may not necessarily stop his defiance at this point in his development, but it will prevent it from growing into a more severe problem as he gets older.
4. Don’t Flash Forward
Too often when a child has a difficult temperament or a full blown Oppositional Defiant Disorder, parents fast forward to the worst case scenario possible, imagining all sorts of gloomy forecasts for their child’s future. This is easy to do when your child rarely seems happy, is often irritable, and has unrelenting behavior. As hard as it is though, try to be mindful of the here and now and what your child needs from you in this moment. When you find yourself worrying that your child is going to end up unemployed and living under a bridge because he talks back so much and won’t take no for an answer, try to ground yourself and move on to the next step.
5. Don’t forget to pay attention to the good things about your child
Parenting a defiant child is likely one of the most difficult tasks any parent will face. It’s hard, it’s tiring, and it can be depressing at times, which is why it’s so important to remember to find things about them that are loveable, kind, and sweet, even if it may seem like a stretch on some days. Accepting one’s child doesn’t mean excusing bad behavior, but rather acknowledging that they experience the world differently than many of us. Too often parents become so entangled with the daily struggles of parenting a child who behaves like this that the goodness that exists within them (and it’s in there, even if you have to dig deep) gets lost. Actively search out examples on a daily or weekly basis that confirm not the worst in your child, but the best. These can be instances when your son was kind to his sister for one full day, or your daughter said “thank you” instead of giving you a rude answer. It can come in the form of them putting away their dishes on their own or not arguing with you or blaming others. Point out to your child that you noticed by saying, “I like how nicely you answered me. Thank you.” Or “Thank you for not losing your temper just now.” Remember, it’s the behavior that you may not like, not your child him or herself.