From the day you become a parent, you begin to have questions. “Is my child growing normally?” “Am I feeding my child correctly?” “How can I foster their learning?” The questions persist and even become more complex with time. This series will help address many common parenting questions.
Parenting and child development writer Amy Webb, Ph.D., will be your guide as we explore these questions asked by real parents who probably face many of the same struggles as you. Fellow parents submitted these questions via social media platforms. Although there is not usually one simple answer to individual parenting questions (every family is unique), we will use the latest research and expert advice to address these concerns.
It is not uncommon for young children to test limits and question our parenting choices. After all, toddlers and preschoolers are at a developmental stage in which they are learning to assert their independence. This is a good thing! However, when it comes to everyday tasks like putting on shoes or brushing teeth, this assertion of independence can be challenging for us.
One key aspect of the positive parenting approach is the idea that children’s behavior has meaning. That is, that their behavior is trying to communicate1 something—a need, a lacking skill, or the onset of a big developmental change. With this in mind, one approach to dealing with defiance from a child is to try to understand the meaning behind the behavior. There can be wide variations in children’s temperaments with some being more strong-willed than others. This could explain some behavior. Some children are more sensitive to our efforts to influence their behavior. In general, children feel empowered and more cooperative if we offer them choices. For example, can you offer your child a choice in the day’s agenda, their clothing, their meals, or other areas of life that affect them? Offering some reasonable, age-appropriate choices throughout the day can go a long way towards fostering cooperation in children.
Our other most powerful teaching tool as parents involves modeling. Throughout our interactions with them and others, we can model the type of behavior we’d like to see in our child. This could include things like using kind words, manners, compromising, resolving disagreements calmly, and managing our emotions. For example, if your 4-year-old is resisting cleaning up their toys, you might model both emotion regulation and choice by calmly offering them the choice to either clean up the toys now or after dinner. This choice alone might be enough to help them feel empowered to cooperate. If they continue to resist, we can go on to model calm, effective ways of handling the disagreement instead of yelling.
One more key component of handling defiance is trying to distinguish your child’s emotions from their behaviors. We often need to set limits on children’s behavior—hitting, pushing, screaming, etc., or other inappropriate behaviors that are dangerous to the child and those around them. However, sometimes we find ourselves putting limits on their emotions instead. Children should know that they can feel any emotion that they experience—sadness, anger, disappointment, etc. Some behaviors, however, are not permitted. This can be a challenging distinction for children and parents alike. In the case of a defiant child, for example, they may feel frustrated and angry about the rules that you set. The key is to allow them to feel the emotion. They may feel mad that they have to brush their teeth each night, however, throwing their toothbrush is not permitted. You might suggest other, healthier ways of handling that anger, such as deep breathing or jumping around outside. With this approach, over time, children learn more appropriate ways of handling those difficult, strong emotions (with your guidance) rather than acting out.
As parents, issues of defiance or children not following our instructions are probably some of the most common challenges we face. Learning how to allow children some control over their world while still setting firm boundaries can be a tricky balance but can be effective in handling defiance.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
1. Behavior is Communication – Michigan Alliance for Families. (n.d.). Retrieved July 5, 2022, from https://www.michiganallianceforfamilies.org/behavior-is-communication/