Article at a glance:
- It is normal for children to become oppositional at certain ages.
- Most defiant behavior is the result of environment and conditioning, not a mental health problem.
- Learn to model and reinforce good behaviors in order to eliminate defiant behaviors.
The demands of parenthood can be tough, but when children become defiant, those demands can become overwhelming. Defiance may be a passing difficulty, or rarely, it could be a sign of a more serious condition. It is far more likely that your child’s defiance will pass, especially if you employ a concerted approach to correcting it.
Is it Oppositional Defiant Disorder?
The symptoms of ODD typically surface early in life. They include being defiant to authority figures, being easily annoyed, blaming others for mistakes, speaking hatefully, having frequent temper tantrums, and more. Kids as young as two may present these behaviors but a diagnosis of ODD is only made when these behaviors are persistent and interfere with their daily life.
ODD is one of a group of externalizing disorders which include maladaptive behaviors. Other disorders in this group include Attention Deficit Disorder, Conduct Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder.
Is it a phase?
It is normal for children to become oppositional at certain ages – around age 2, and again in early adolescence. Life-changing events, such as divorce, can also herald a phase of defiant behavior. This defiance may be difficult for parents to cope with, but it does not necessarily signal an underlying condition.
If you are struggling with a child who is aggressive, argumentative, or defiant, there are things you can do to improve the situation. If your child’s behavior is severe, seek advice from your pediatrician or a mental health professional. Otherwise, consider incorporating the following tactics into your overall parenting strategy.
#1 Be a model of calm behavior
In the face of defiant behavior, the most important thing you can do is to keep calm. Losing control of yourself – saying hurtful things or taking physical action ¬– will do nothing to help the situation. Model the calm behavior that you wish your child to exhibit as you deal with the situation, and take a long-term approach to correcting defiance. When you praise desirable behaviors and refuse to engage emotionally with their defiant acting out, a more compliant child will eventually emerge.
#2 Reinforce the behaviors you want, not the problem behaviors
Even well-meaning parents often skip praising good behaviors, focusing instead on the behaviors they find problematic. It is only natural, as parents expect their children to listen to instructions. Humans are wired to notice when something is wrong, but constantly correcting a bad behavior only calls attention to it. The result is that bad behaviors get reinforced more often than good. A good rule of thumb is to praise twice as much as you correct, reinforcing good behavior whenever you notice it.
To be reinforced, good behavior should be praised immediately. The idea is to help children associate good behavior with praise, and they may not do that if too much time passes between the behavior and the reward. By ignoring bad behaviors like whining (which is not dangerous) and reinforcing good behaviors, parents allow their children to learn which behaviors lead to positive outcomes. However, if a behavior poses an eminent threat to a child’s safety or that of others, intervene at once.
#3 Use labeled praise
Being specific about our praise eliminates any confusion on the part of a child as to what behavior prompted the response. Labeling the behavior that brought the praise further reinforces that behavior, and your child will be more likely to repeat it. Do not just say that the child is good or has done a good job. State specifically what behavior prompted the praise, such as, “good job taking a moment to calm down before talking to your brother about him taking your skateboard without asking. That took patience and self control.” Include physical rewards as well, such as a high five, a pat on the back, or a hug to further reinforce positive behaviors.
#4 Model good behavior
Think honestly about instances when you may have modeled maladaptive behaviors. How do you react in traffic or when a driver cuts you off? How about when a stranger is rude to you? Children learn by watching their parents, and a certain amount of imitation is natural. When a child is at play, imitate their actions when they are positive. If a young child is playing with a toy, join them so they can see what their good behavior looks like and how to handle frustration. If your child struggles to be a graceful loser at soccer or video games, play with them and model good sportsmanship.
Tip: Just be careful not to overtake the playtime or improve on what the child is doing. Don’t perform tasks better or quicker than the child is capable of doing; this can lead to frustration.
#5 Use timeouts properly – if at all
There is much conflicting information in parenting books and magazines these days about timeouts. However, evidence shows that they work, regardless of whether the child ceases the behavior during timeout or not. Restraint or force should not be required to initiate a timeout, which may last for as little as one minute ¬and not more than five. If the child refuses to have a timeout, take away a predetermined privilege rather than using physical restraint.
The director of the Yale Parenting Center, Alan Kazdin, suggests using timeout only to reduce the reinforcements a child is experiencing. They are not punishments. The successful use of timeouts, Kazdin says, depends greatly on the behaviors the parent models, both before and after the timeout. Though it may be a difficult task in a heated situation, initiate the timeout calmly—and be sure to praise compliant behavior when the child displays it.
#6 Make a plan
This tactic has two parts. First, parents should look ahead and recognize upcoming activities which may cause children to act out or become defiant. Typical hot-buttons are holidays, birthday parties, and the first days back at school. When parents explain to their kids that a situation is approaching and teach them coping skills for dealing with it, kids usually behave better.
Second, plan activities that your child enjoys ahead of time, and make participation contingent on compliant and reasonable behavior. If troubling behaviors arise in the meantime, explain that those actions will cause the loss of the activity. When the time of the activity arrives, express how much you enjoy taking part in activities with such a well-behaved child.
#7 Reduce your own stress
Parenting is an often-stressful job, but when you add the stressors of career, relationship, money, and others, the resulting pressures can be overwhelming. Children pick up on the subconscious changes in your voice and mannerisms when you are stressed, and it can cause them anxiety, fear, and stress of their own.
When stress from outside the home goes unchecked, it can also compound the hectic nature of parenting through defiance. Model (and benefit from) good stress management by incorporating exercise and healthy eating into your daily routine. Take some “me time” to refresh and recharge. And, when defiant behavior becomes overwhelming, take a self-directed time out to collect your thoughts.
#8 Make healthy life choices
Studies show curious links between “Western” diets – those high in processed ingredients, refined sugar and grains, etc. – and an increase in the occurrence of ODD. A lack of adequate micronutrients and food insecurity also correlate with the rates of mental health problems. Making healthy choices gives your child the best chance at a healthful outcome.
Model healthy eating for yourself, and provide fresh and nutritious foods for your family as well. Do whatever you can to encourage your children to get 60 minutes of active play per day, especially play that incorporates rigorous activity.
#9 Provide a safe and secure home life
Defiance often follows on the heels of situations at home that upend what a child considers normal. Divorce, remarriage, moving, or a new baby each bring changes that can be disconcerting for children. Keeping an open dialogue with your child before, during, and after life-altering events can help foster a sense of security.
These life events can also wreak havoc on a child’s sleeping patterns which can compound behavioral issues. Children need more sleep than do adults. When they do not get enough rest, small problems can seem amplified, and larger issues become overwhelming.
Defiant behaviors can quickly leave you doubting your parenting style—and the internet is full of conflicting advice. Unfortunately, it is rarely being offered by qualified mental-health professionals. If you think your child is showing signs of an externalizing disorder, speak with your pediatrician about your concerns. For more information, refer to the following links:
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry
Facts for Families
Centers for Disease Control
Children’s Mental Health
National Institute of Mental Health
Child and Adolescent Mental Health
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