Dealing with a defiant child

Eileen Cukier’s constant battles with
daughter Alyssa typically started first
thing in the morning. Whether it was
refusing to put on proper shoes or
insisting on summer shorts on a chilly
day, the headstrong six-year-old bristled
at the simplest requests.

“If she had it in her head that she
didn’t need to do it, or if she didn’t want
to do it, she just wouldn’t do it,” says
Eileen, 41, who lives in Mississauga, Ont.

Alyssa’s defiant personality became
evident at 18 months, “once she started
understanding what was going on
around her,” and if she deemed a request
unacceptable, “she would either say
‘no’ or turn her back and walk away or
continue doing what she was doing,”
says the mom of two.

Persistent defiant behaviour tests
the resolve of even the most patient
parents, but experts say caregivers need
to remember this is a normal part of
development.

“Defiance – or strong-willed
behaviour – is pretty common, especially
at ages two, three and four,” says Dr.
Greg Schoepp, a child psychologist with
the University of Alberta Hospital in
Edmonton. “Kids in the toddler years
start to get a sense of identity, and there
certainly can be an increase in kids
showing some attitude or talking back.”

The key is to try and turn things
around early. Many parents revert to
punishment mode when their child is
being intransigent, but Dr. Schoepp says
this can end up backfiring.

Often, the only time when many
parents pay attention is when their
children are misbehaving, and then they
discipline, says Dr. Schoepp. “Over time,
kids are getting little attention for their
positive behaviour, and parents spend
more time paying attention to the not-
OK behaviour.”

This is why he counsels parents to pay
more attention to their child’s positive
behaviour. Instead of using “stop” or
“don’t” commands, Dr. Schoepp urges
parents to focus on using “start” or “do”
commands.

“When you’re in the negative
reinforcement trap you’re spending
most of your time saying ‘why are you
doing this? I’ve told you a hundred
times not to do this,’” says Dr. Schoepp.
He also recommends labelling positive
behaviours, so if your little one is sharing
toys with a sibling, make sure you say
something like “I really like it when you
share with your little sister.”

Parents of strongly defiant children
should also tailor their approach based
on their kid’s personality. Providing
options has worked well for Kayla
Wilcox, whose three-year-old son
Edward became very defiant soon after
his twin siblings were born.

“It’s a choice between something less
desirable and something that we want
him to do,” says Kayla, 30, who lives in
Fredericton, N.B.

No matter how frustrated she may
feel, Kayla says she is careful not to lose
her temper. “Kids learn a lot more from
what you do than from what you say,”
she says. “If we’re trying to teach him
how to control his emotions, it’s vital that
we control ours.”

Dr. Schoepp echoes that sentiment
and points out a key step in dealing
with defiant behaviour is to examine the
relationship you have with your child
and make sure it’s a positive one.

“Some of the parents I see are pretty
deflated and really fed up with their
kids,” he says. “If you don’t have a
reasonably positive relationship with
your child, it doesn’t matter how much
you discipline, it’s not going to work.”

For Eileen Cukier, endless patience,
a willingness to learn and adapt, and
a refusal to give in have made a huge
difference. “We took the time to explain
to Alyssa why we were asking things,
instead of just asking her to do things,
and now in the mornings she’s like a
superstar,” says Eileen.

Her advice for other parents? “Don’t
give in because it’s the easy way,” she
says. “Hold strong and battle through
it because the end result will be much
better. This is not an easy job by any
stretch, but the payoff is unbelievable.”

When should you be concerned?

Oppositional
Defiant Disorder is
characterized by
extreme defiant
behaviour that
leads to social or
academic problems.
If your child
displays four or
more of these
behaviours over a
period lasting at
least six months,
it may be time to
seek help.

  • often loses
    temper
  • often argues with
    adults
  • often actively
    defies or refuses to
    comply with adults’
    requests or rules
  • often deliberately
    annoys people
  • often blames
    others for his or
    her mistakes or
    misbehaviour
  • is often touchy or
    easily annoyed by
    others
  • is often angry or
    resentful
  • is often spiteful
    or vindictive

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, August/September 2013.

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