What can be done about a chronically disobedient child?
Children disobey. From time to time, most children defy the wishes of their parents. This is a part of growing up and testing adult guidelines and expectations.
It is one way for children to learn about and discover themselves, express their individuality, and achieve a sense of autonomy.
As they stretch their independent wings and engage in minor conflicts with their parents, they discover the boundaries of their parents’ rules and their self-control.
Sometimes, however, these conflicts are more than occasional disturbances and become a pattern for how parents and children interact.
Disobedience can have a variety of causes. At times, it is due to unreasonable parental expectations.
Or it might be related to the child’s temperament, school problems, family stress, or conflicts between his parents.
It happens whether you’re raising toddlers or teenagers. We disobey too. Like when we deliberately go a bit or a lot faster than the posted speed limit sign because our kid would be late for school for the third time this week.
The fact is when we disobey, we often take the “it’s justified” stance based on our circumstances at the moment. However, when our kids break, we assume that our kid is acting out.
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What Parents Can Do
When you have a chronically disobedient child, examine the possible sources of his inner turmoil and rebelliousness.
If this has been a persistent pattern that has continued into middle childhood, closely evaluate your family situation:
- How much respect do your family members show for one another?
- Do they respect one another’s privacy, ideas, and personal values?
- How does the family work out its conflicts?
- Are disagreements resolved through rational discussion, or do people regularly argue or resort to violence?
- What is your usual style of relating to your child, and what forms does discipline usually take?
- How much spanking and yelling is there?
- Do you and your child have very different personalities and ways of getting along in the world that cause friction between you?
- Is your child having trouble succeeding at school or developing friendships?
- Is the family undergoing some incredibly stressful times?
If your child has only recently started to demonstrate disrespect and disobedience, tell him that you have noticed a difference in his behaviour and that you sense he is unhappy or struggling.
With his help, try to determine the specific cause of his frustration or upset. This is the first step toward helping him change his behaviour.
When Defiance Isn’t What It Seems
In some cases, what appears to be defiance may be a child who’s dawdling because they are so focused on an activity.
Understanding what’s behind your child’s behaviour is an essential part of addressing the problem.
Defiant behaviour that persists for a prolonged period and interferes with a child’s performance at school and their relationships with family and friends can be a sign of something called an oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD.
In children who have ODD, defiance is characterised by behaviours, such as temper tantrums or aggression, that often seem inappropriate for a child’s age.
Children who have ODD may also exhibit other problems such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD.
If you suspect that your child may have ODD, consult your child’s doctor or school counsellor to get help and information.
Why Is My Child So Difficult?
Many parents want to know why their toddler or young child is so demanding.
“Why can’t my child be more like my niece, who’s so pleasant and calm?”
“Why does my son have to be the one who is always saying no and acting so angry?”
It’s normal to want an answer to why your child is the one who’s always acting out and hard to manage, and there may be concrete reasons for his behaviour.
It’s essential to take into account that young children have very little control over their day-to-day lives.
If you think about it, most kids float through their days with most decisions already made for them: when they wake, when and what they eat, what they will wear, when they will do chores or play, and finally, what time they go to bed each evening.
This isn’t a problem; they ride the wave of parental control without incident, some even enjoying having decisions made for them.
Other kids, especially those with strong personalities and definite opinions, find this level of “control” confining and annoying.
What better way for a young child to express his displeasure than to habitually refuse to listen or to be argumentative?
Communication Skills and Temperament
Young kids and toddlers have a limited vocabulary and become frustrated when they can’t articulate what they want or how they’re feeling.
They’re learning how to communicate with parents and teachers, so it makes sense that anger, defiance and irritability may be the only route they know to take when feeling overwhelmed and out of control.
Another reason for a child’s defiance can stem from the strong personality they were born with.
All of us can probably identify at least one strong-willed person (maybe even ourselves?) in our family tree.
Is It ODD?
When looking at your young child, it’s essential to understand that for some, this period of defiance is just a phase that they will pass through as they mature.
Other kids may meet the Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) criteria, a frequent form of defiant behaviour.
Examples of ODD include any time a child has a pattern of being angry and irritable, argumentative or defiant, along with displays of vindictive behaviour.
These characteristics can show up in a child who quickly loses temper, is unusually touchy or annoyed, and is often angry and resentful of those around him.
In addition, the child with ODD will argue with authority figures, refuse to comply with rules or requests, and annoy others on purpose while blaming others for his behaviour.
When you read this description, you may be thinking, “My child does all of that!” You’d be correct in noting that all children probably engage in these kinds of behaviours at some point or another.
The key here, though, is whether or not your child has a pattern of displaying such behaviour regularly towards those around her, as opposed to occasionally refusing to do chores, teasing her younger brother sometimes, or being angry at you at the moment for getting called out for bad behaviour.
While a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder does act out on a more regular basis, as opposed to a child with simply a problematic temperament, parents should generally take the same approach to handle the behaviour.
Causes Of Child Disobedience
It May Not Be Defiance at All
Like we said earlier, all children disobey. That’s normal and not necessarily a symptom of an underlying problem.
That’s because there may be a logical reason for your child not listening. For example, let’s say you called your four-year-old to dinner, and they didn’t come downstairs.
You called three more times with no response before finally storming upstairs with your frustrated meter on high.
You find your daughter in her closet trying to put away the game she was playing.
She’s visibly frustrated, with tears welling up in her eyes because she can’t figure out how to get the game in the box by herself.
You’ve been spending time lately teaching her how to put away her toys when she’s done. As a result, the frustration meter suddenly plummets, and you feel terrible for getting upset.
The most helpful way to handle this situation is to offer positive encouragement by acknowledging how she cleaned up before dinner.
But this praise must be followed by a clear reinforcement: whenever mommy or daddy calls you, you answer no matter what.
Surprising Reasons Children Disobey
But what if your child disobeys a lot on purpose? This can be frustrating and requires us as parents to look deeper into the source.
First, we need to explore the possible causes for your child’s disobedience. Again, these may surprise you and help you change your approach to discipline.
Your Relationship Needs Strengthening
It may not seem or feel on the surface that your relationship with your child needs strengthening, but often that’s precisely the culprit.
There’s a need built into children to want to please and obey their parents, just as we have the same need to put a smile on our child’s face.
However, when there’s a lack of trust or connection, this can lead to a child acting out.
If you feel that you aren’t as connected as you once were with your child, try setting aside a small amount of time every day to have one on one time together.
This can be just talking and asking questions or doing fun activities together.
Building trust and connection with your child isn’t done overnight and should be a priority for the long haul.
Relationship and connection with our children should be at the top of our priorities as parents.
No Clear Boundaries
If your child doesn’t have clear expectations or boundaries related to his behaviour, he will consequently spend much of his time testing those boundaries.
He’s not testing to irritate you but locate those boundaries, so he knows how far to go. But, unfortunately, this can feel to a parent like your child is constantly testing the limits.
That’s because they are!
It’s our responsibility as parents to establish those healthy expectations for our children from very early on.
This task is one that never goes away and needs constant refining and reminding along the way.
It’s much easier to spend your moments teaching and modelling proper behaviour, even ad nauseam than it is to spend your days constantly correcting the wrong ones.
This is a big one for today’s parenting, where social media cultivates all the “labels and names” we can give our children without ever considering if that’s even true of our child.
Labelling holds us back as parents.
Terms like the terrible twos, bratty teenager, and even strong-willed child are all labels that limit our own will as parents.
For example, if we buy into the lie that all babies who reach the age of two become terrible, we set ourselves up to hunker down until it’s over.
We stop looking for solutions because we believe it’s all a part of the journey. We mean, every mom is struggling with their teenager.
We’ve refused to believe in the negative labels about children, and as it turns out when you expect your child to be a certain way, they will.
That’s because my expectation that my kids will be well-behaved greatly influenced my parenting choices.
Kids will always rise to our expectations!
There is Tension or Stress
If there is tension in the home because of constant fighting or financial pressures that spill over into your child’s world, they can internalise this as stress causing them to act out.
They will often not fully understand why they act this way because they don’t know how stress affects their minds and bodies.
Also, if your child is under stress like academic pressure or too many high-stress activities, they may feel the need to blow off steam which often looks like getting into trouble.
We should be taking an intentional measure of our child’s stress levels by talking with them daily.
Simple check-ins and one on one talks help to let your child know they’re not alone.
If you fit into one of these reasons and feel overwhelmed, don’t be hard on yourself.
Parenting is the hardest thing we’ll EVER do. But, just make positive changes in the right direction every day, and you’ll see the difference!
How To Respond When Your Child Disobeys On Purpose
When dealing with a disobedient child, we should be focused on finding solutions as to why the disobedience is happening in the first place. Instead of being total, punishment focused.
Here are four ways to handle deliberate disobedience:
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Pick Your Battles
Backtalk, intentional disrespect and lying are non-negotiable offences in our home that always get addressed somehow.
Hold Your Child Accountable
Part of good parenting is establishing those healthy boundaries we talked about. And the only way those boundaries are effective is if we hold our kids to them.
If your child repeatedly forgets to turn in their homework resulting in poor grades, you must have already established consequences set in advance.
After they fully understand what’s expected of them, it’s our job to be the enforcer.
If we say they lose their phone for a month, they lose their phone for a month if their grade falls to a C. Period.
Offer an Explanation
So we know we’re probably getting some eye rolls from all you old school parents. Trust us, we hear you. We believe children should listen and obey regardless of whether an explanation is ever given.
But in the spirit of changing our kid’s behaviour, sometimes a simple and very brief explanation can do wonders in making kids do what we’re asking.
A study showed how it was so much easier for a woman to cut in line if she offered a reason.
Let’s face it, as adults; we LOVE explanations. We don’t like it when people ask us to do things without offering a reason. Kids are the same.
Occasionally telling your kid why you need them to do something doesn’t make you a weak parent.
Stay Calm and Firm
You are the parent. Losing your cool or entering into a debate or argument with your child undermines your authority. It also turns your power over to your child.
Kids are savvy and will learn what pushes your buttons and what they can say or do to get you to give in out of frustration.
Though kids are skilled with the keen ability to set their parents off at a moment’s notice, we don’t have to take the bait.
We don’t yell and lose our cool at work or other places when people irritate us because we have self-control. We need to keep our control by acting like the adults we are, even with our kids.
Don’t lose your cool
The most crucial first step you can take when dealing with a defiant young child is not losing your cool.
We know this is easier said than done and can be incredibly challenging for any parent who’s going up against a screaming, uncooperative child!
But the primary point to keep in mind when this happens is this: You are an adult, and you are modelling how to act appropriately in a difficult situation for your young child.
Defiant kids often lack resources for knowing what to do next and are looking to you for guidance.
There can be several reasons why your child is acting out, some that you (or even your child) may never be able to understand fully, but the bottom line is that in that moment of rage, they don’t know what to do.
This teachable moment can allow your child to truly learn how to respond when experiencing a full-blown emotional crisis. Some good responses for your young child might be:
“We don’t yell. Please stop.”
“You can’t talk to me like that. Stop now, or you will need to sit by yourself.” (If your child is old enough and it’s appropriate for them to sit alone.)
This can also be an excellent time to teach your child some calming techniques that can help them regain control.
Showing a young child how to stop, count, and breathe involves explaining to your child when she is calm how to control herself in her tracks by physically sitting down, closing her eyes and slowly breathing in and out, all the while counting to ten, however many times it takes for the crisis to pass.
Practising this regularly with your child can allow her to have a tool ready when the crisis hits.
Note, however, that this will not work for some kids, in which case you will need to move to the next step.
Don’t go down the well.
There’s a reason why the saying “Misery loves company” makes sense. So often, when children are defiant, they want everyone around them to experience their pain.
The important thing is not to let them pull you into your momentary misery. But, unfortunately, for some kids, upping the ante and getting everyone in the family involved in their drama is hugely satisfying and serves to reinforce future outbursts.
If your child can’t calm himself, setting limits for him to work through his rage can help. The point is to not jump on the crazy train with him.
Secure a safe spot for him to go when outbursts occur and guide him there.
If your child is old enough and you think it’s safe to do so, you can walk into another room and give them some time to calm down. Some things to say include:
“I understand you’re upset. Can you calm down so we can talk?”
“Since you won’t stop yelling, I’m leaving the room until you calm down.” (If your child is old enough and it’s appropriate for you to leave the room.)
“When you’re ready, we’ll talk, but not until you get ahold of yourself.”
Don’t take the focus off responsibility.
Since defiant kids often have a hard time taking responsibility for their actions, it’s essential to tell them your expectations (“We don’t hit our sister”) and provide consequences for them upfront.
Try to consistently reinforce them, all the while pointing out that they are ultimately in charge of their behaviour.
When the behaviour is happening, you can let him know there will be a consequence of some kind.
Then, after things have calmed down, you can follow up and implement an appropriate one. (“Since you hit your sister, there will be no TV tonight.”)
By consistently not letting your child off the hook, he knows you mean business, that you care enough to hold him accountable, and that there are boundaries in your home that shouldn’t be crossed.
Even though your child may rage and yell at the moment, ultimately, this provides him with a sense of security.
This may not necessarily stop his defiance at this point in his development, but it will prevent it from growing into a more severe problem as he gets older.
Don’t Flash Forward.
Too often, when a child has a difficult temperament or a full-blown Oppositional Defiant Disorder, parents fast forward to the worst-case scenario possible, imagining all sorts of gloomy forecasts for their child’s future.
This is easy to do when your child rarely seems happy, is often irritable, and has unrelenting behaviour.
As hard as it is, though, try to be mindful of the here and now and what your child needs from you at this moment.
When you find yourself worrying that your child will end up unemployed and living under a bridge because he talks back so much and won’t take no for an answer, try to ground yourself and move on to the next step.
Don’t Forget To Pay Attention To The Good Things About Your Child.
Parenting a defiant child is likely one of the most challenging tasks any parent will face.
It’s hard, it’s tiring, and it can be depressing at times, which is why it’s so important to remember to find things about them that are loveable, kind, and sweet, even if it may seem like a stretch on some days.
Accepting one’s child doesn’t mean excusing bad behaviour but rather acknowledging that they experience the world differently than many of us.
Too often, parents become so entangled with the daily struggles of parenting a child who behaves like this that the goodness that exists within them (and it’s in there, even if you have to dig deep) gets lost.
Actively search out examples daily or weekly that confirm not the worst in your child but the best.
These can be instances when your son was kind to his sister for one whole day, or your daughter said “thank you” instead of giving you a rude answer.
It can come in the form of them putting away their dishes on their own or not arguing with you, or blaming others.
Point out to your child that you noticed by saying, “I like how nicely you answered me. Thank you.” Or “Thank you for not losing your temper just now.” Remember, it’s the behaviour that you may not like, not your child him or herself.
Parenting is hard, and there’s never a day off. Just know that your desire to help your child make better choices is the starting point to healthy change.
And making connections with your kid your highest priority will help you tremendously on the hard days.
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