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Disciplining–and Loving–Your Defiant Child

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Dr. Meg Meeker

Defiant kids. They can be the biggest challenge of parenting. Those of you who have a defiant child may be thinking there’s nothing you can do to discipline or help him. But this isn’t true. I have seen a number of defiant children in my pediatric practice over the years and I know they can be helped. They can improve. You just have to know how to handle them, discipline them, and love them.

I actually love defiant kids. You know why? Because they have a little spice. They don’t just go along with anything, and this means that they will be strong adults who make a difference one day. They won’t go with the flow just because everyone else is. They will have a strong will that will help them do what is right, rather than what everyone else is doing. But it is up to you, parents, to help your defiant child channel that strong will into something good and productive.

I recently hosted a Facebook Live chat all about defiant children. You can watch it here. Some parents wrote in some great questions about their struggles with their defiant child. I want to share a couple of those here as well as my answers. I hope these will help you feel less alone as a parent of a defiant child and more empowered and equipped to handle whatever tantrum comes your way.

Q: What is the difference between the “terrible threes” and a defiant child?

This is a great question. The “terrible threes” are often more terrible than the “terrible twos,” but it’s important to know what is normal toddler behavior and what is defiant behavior, also known as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).

Kids hit an age in the toddler years when they want to do things that their minds and bodies can’t do. They want to be independent, tie their own shoes, button their own buttons, but they don’t have the dexterity for it yet so they become very frustrated with themselves and their limitations. They explode by screaming or crying. This is normal toddler behavior, not defiant behavior, and a normal developmental phase kids have to go through.

What isn’t normal toddler behavior is meanness. Kids who are exceptionally mean to you or to animals or kids who are yelling hateful things could have ODD. Most toddlers will be angry one minute and happy the next, but a toddler with ODD will continue to be angry or miserable and won’t be able to snap out of it.

To discipline a defiant three-year-old, pick out a couple of behaviors that are defiant acts of the will. Defiant acts are not a toddler having a meltdown because she can’t tie her shoes. Defiant acts are when your toddler purposefully does something you told her not to do, or refuses to do something you’ve asked her to do. Focus on disciplining those defiant acts and let the normal toddler behavior go.

Q: We have a 17-year-old boy who hates school. He won’t get up in the morning no matter what we do and just stays in his room listening to music. What can I do?

A: The first question you should ask is, Why does he hate school? What’s going on there? Does he have a learning disability, undiagnosed ADHD or maybe he is being bullied? Get to the bottom of why your son hates school and get him treatment if necessary.

Then, set up some boundaries for yourself by giving him clear consequences for his defiant behavior. For example, if he won’t get up for school then he can’t listen to music in his room. Or, if he won’t go to school then make him get a job. Tell him he can’t treat you this way and there will be consequences if he does. He will kick and scream. It will be miserable for a time before it gets better, but the more he runs things, the more miserable he will be. He needs to know you are in control, not him.

Most importantly, don’t give up on him. He can turn the corner. I have seen lots of 17-year-old boys who are defiant and obnoxious and then turn into great adults in their twenties. Stick with him.

I have an entire course dedicated to disciplining kids the right way. You can register for it here: Discipline with Courage and Kindness. I strongly recommend you take this in order to know when and how to discipline your defiant child best.

There is hope for your defiant child, and for you. Don’t get discouraged. Learn how to discipline your child in the right way and that strong will that drives you crazy now will one day lead to a strong adult who knows his will and makes a difference in the world.

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