How to Deal with a Defiant Child

There’s a rogue class of bullies rising up across the entire modern world: they’re toddlers…and they’re terrifying. Welcome to ParentalGrit on this glorious Friday heading into a holiday weekend. Today we’re exploring the hidden shame of toddler takeovers and child control battles all parents have endured. For example, my oldest daughter Eliza was inconsolable this evening because I had the audacity to help her buckle her seat. She kicked, she thrashed, she screamed…and completely forgot what happened three minutes later. We are treading water (barely) in a new parental arena where our children’s listening skills have eroded, their independence has amplified, and their resentment for all rules declared by mommy and daddy has multiplied. Such is life when raising strong-willed children; as I’ve said before: my sanity is the bug and my toddler is the windshield.

My wife and I enjoy taking a few different routes when these tantrums and outbursts occur. I affectionately refer to the first method as RACOON! and it’s just as easy as it sounds: find something shiny to divert attention. When Eliza starts going off the rails, the easiest path is always to sidestep the issue entirely and refocus the child’s efforts on something new and exciting. Look, Eliza! There’s a spider on the ceiling! A monkey in the closet! A two-for-one coupon for Chuck-E-Cheese in the drawer! Call it pathetic, call it avoidance, but I call it winning. If you know you’re not going to win all the battles, you might as well begin by reducing their volume.

So we’ve looked our defiant child square in the eyes and basically said “Hey, look over there!” Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. The older your child becomes, the more obsolete this strategy is rendered; it typically works best with toddlers and young children whose tantrums come in waves and can be induced at a moment’s notice due to hunger, fatigue, or breathing too close to their neck. As the little rugrats grow, however, the something-shiny philosophy wears off and we’re left with a more constructive strategy: The Price is Right. The Price is Right is all about options; for example, behind door #1 is a tantrum and an early bedtime, door #2 presents playing outside, and door #3 involves a quiet Lego build in the bedroom.

The Price is Right is about empowering your children and allowing them to feel in control of their actions. Defiant children often attempt to exert their will by pushing boundaries; providing different options allows the kiddo to navigate independently (though naturally each choice is of the parent’s design). Eliza has really taken to this strategy and I think, as the oldest child, she has this inherent need for control (don’t tell her I said that, wink wink). When her emotions start to waver and my sanity begins to bend, I offer her options and attempt to square the decision in her ‘power’. Defiant children are often synonymous with independent children, and engaging their desires to shape their own decisions creates a challenge to balance those resisting emotions with responsibility.

I fail constantly with my daughters’ defiant behavior but there may be no more important tool in your arsenal than patience. I’ll gladly admit to failing fast and frequently, but it still doesn’t mean I don’t try! When I’m successful, patience within me generates from three different places. First, as the adult in the situation (geez, when did that happen?), I know that losing my temper and raising my voice only means a worse outcome for us both. The second place I draw my patience from is love. Believe it or not, I actually do love my little monstresses. That love may not be enough to permanently cage my anger, but it’s a great tension reliever in the worst of situations. Finally, and this might be the best advice I’ve ever come across for dealing with defiant and rebellious behavior, the last reservoir I tap before losing my patience is filled with empathy.

Empathy is the greatest equalizer in your battle to raise strong-willed and defiant children. You need to find that clarity in the worst of your parenting moments so you can pause and contemplate the child’s position. Kids are on this whirlwind rollercoaster where physical, mental, and emotional challenges are cascading throughout them on a near-constant basis. Honestly, they’re usually learning by failing! When one of my girls goes b-a-n-a-n-a-s, I usually (hey, I’m not perfect either) try to think about where they’re at in life. As a one or two year old experiences pain, first-time emotions, boundaries, etc. or as four to six year olds learn social cues, embarrassment, and anxiety for the first time, they’re not exactly in charge of their bodies. Defiant and non-defiant children alike will repel, struggle, and resist all these new emotions and experiences.

There’s no secret pill or magic trick that allows one to escape the many varied trials of parenthood. Determined and defiant children offer an even more intense journey but maintaining your love and patience with strong-willed children can pay fantastic dividends in the form of disciplined, independent, and driven adults. In the meantime, grab your Raccoon tricks, take a spin on the Price is Right, and always remember that your child isn’t always in control of his or her emotions. I think I hear my toddler demanding snacks 45 minutes past her bedtime…here we go again…

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