"If I say Yes, my child says No. If I say to run into the street, my child looks at me and runs into the street. It is like this all day. I'm angry and don't know what to do."
Understanding Your Child, Yourself, and the Situation
You and your child are in a power struggle that can easily turn to revenge. The more you try to force your will with your child, the more she will defy you and the more deeply discouraged you will both become. Defiant children are a gift sent to parents who need to practice inviting cooperation instead of practicing power over others.
1. The first thing to do is to look at your own behavior. Defiance is usually a direct response to parents who are excessively controlling or overly protective.
2. If your child is an arguer, she may have someone nearby who gives her arguing practice. If it is you, practice letting your child have the last word. (This is harder than you think. Try it.)
3. Get into your child's world and make some guesses to learn what is behind the defiance. For example: Could it be that you are angry because you think I boss you around too much? Could it be that you feel hurt because the baby gets so much attention? You can usually guess what is going on in your child's life that may be provoking defiance. Your child will feel validated and understood when you guess correctly. If you guess incorrectly, try again.
4. Let your child take the lead whenever possible by offering limited choices. For instance, ask your child, "Do you think you are ready to cross the street by yourself, or would you like me to hold your hand?" "Would you like me to hold onto the back of your bike and help you practice, or can you ride it by yourself?" "Would you like to set the table or carry the dishes to the table so I can set it?"
5. Some children will push and push until they get a spanking. Then they settle down. They have been trained not to settle down until they are spanked. Instead of spanking, hold the defiant child firmly on your lap. No matter how much she struggles, do not let go until she settles down. With an older child say, "I'm not going to spank you or use any form of physical abuse with you. I am sorry I have used those methods in the past and wish to change our relationship." "I'm not happy with what you are doing, but I love you and would like your help so we can stop fighting with each other and work things out together."
6. Instead of telling your child what to do, try asking her what needs to be done. "What do you need to do before you cross the street?" This often invites a child to think and use his/her power to solve the problem instead of defying your direct orders.
7. Let your child know that you need her help and say, "I would appreciate anything you could do to help." This often invites cooperation instead of defiance.
8. Emotional honesty is another help. Remember to use the "I feel _____ because _____" and "I wish _____" formula.
Planning Ahead to Prevent Future Problems
This is an opportunity for you to learn how to invite cooperation. Pay attention to how much talking you are doing. Are you barking orders, nagging, and scolding? Your child may be parent deaf because you talk more than you act. Talk less and act more if this is the case.
1. Don't say anything unless you mean it, and if you mean it, give the matter your full attention. Say what you mean kindly and firmly; then follow through on what you say.
2. For a child who has a pattern of defiance, create time for training. (This includes training for yourself in kindness as firmness.) Take your child someplace such as the park. The moment he starts defiant behavior, take him by the hand and take him home, saying, "We will try again tomorrow." If you are with other people and don't want to spoil their fun, take the defiant child to the car. Have a book handy so you will have something to do while you wait for him to say, "I'm ready to try again." Let your child know in advance that this is what will happen.
3. Give limited choices and ask questions instead of giving lectures. Ask for your child's opinion and input. Really listen to what he tells you.
4. Get your children involved in the planning of events and in problem-solving during family meetings. Children are seldom defiant when they have been respectfully included in the decision-making process.
5. Watch out for the "No" monster. Are you saying "No" without thinking every time your child asks you a question or makes a request? Do you say "No" every time your toddler touches a forbidden object? When children are very young, use distraction to show them what they can do instead of teaching them to say "No" through your example. When they are older, find a way to say "No." For example, when your child says, "I don't want to do what you say", reply with "Yes, I can understand that. How about putting the item on the agenda for the family meeting or telling me your idea of what you think would work better so I can think it over?"
6. Often preschool-age children will say "No" to everything. If you don't find this cute and adorable, stop asking them questions that can be answered by a "Yes" or "No."
7. Choose your battles and let things go that aren't that important. Ask yourself if you will remember or care a week or month or year from now about the issue that seems so important to you in the moment. It takes a lot of energy to plan ahead and follow through to make real changes, so don't waste your energy on issues that aren't that important.
Life Skills Children Can Learn
Children can learn that cooperation works better than arguing when everyone is treated respectfully. They can learn that parents mean what they say, but also allow and respect appropriate choices.
Children prefer to cooperate and do what's in their own best interest, but if you treat them disrespectfully, they are willing to suffer great personal pain to show you that you can't boss them around. If you wait and watch before jumping in and controlling, kids will usually do the right thing. If they make a mistake, it's okay to help them correct it or ask how they might do it differently next time. Often it's enough to ask, "Would you like to try again?" instead of becoming controlling or punitive.
Children who defy see punishment as an excuse to defy more. Natural consequences work best whenever possible.
Thirteen-year-old Billy was often called a defiant child by people who spent time with him. He did act like a know-it-all, refusing to listen to anyone. The more others yelled at him, the more he tuned them out and did the opposite. (He did listen long enough to hear what they wanted, so he could do the opposite!) Billy, his family, and friends went skiing. The ten people in the group spent a lot of time looking for Billy, who took off ahead of everyone.
Everyone was angry with Billy and alternated barking orders at him, threatening him, or whispering behind his back how difficult he was. No one was having any fun. His older cousin rode up the lift with him and said, "Billy, there's something I want you to think about as you ride up the lift. I'd like your opinion about an idea I have, but I don't want you to tell me what you think until we get to the top of the hill. I was thinking that it might work best, since we're such a large group, to suggest that everyone wait at the top of the hill for the entire group before starting down. I'm not sure if this is a good idea, so please give it some thought and let me know your ideas at the top of the lift."
The two boys continued up the long lift talking about baseball, school, and friends. Billy never said a word at the top of the lift, but the rest of the day he waited patiently for the group to assemble before skiing. He stopped more frequently to look back and wait for stragglers. He had a big smile on this face. His cousin invited cooperation, and Billy felt important because his cousin asked for his opinion instead of telling him what to do or scolding him one more time. Inviting cooperation works wonders.
These articles are an excerpt from the book Positive Discipline A-Z by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn. If you are interested in learning more about the book or authors, please visit