Give yourself a pat on the back.
Parenthood is tough, and you’re doing the best you can.
You thought the worst was over when you no longer had to deal with dirty diapers, multiple middle-of-the-night wakings, and temper tantrums.
But it seems like the worst isn’t over. In the blink of an eye, you now have a defiant child on your hands.
He talks back to you. He disobeys you. He doesn’t pay attention in class. He refuses to do his homework.
Maybe the situation is more serious than that. Maybe he’s hanging out with bad company, or maybe he’s started smoking or drinking.
You’ve tried everything, but things haven’t improved. But rest assured that there’s hope, because the situation can get better.
Having mentored many rebellious, defiant children, I’ve come up with a list of 10 strategies that work…
1. When you’re angry, walk away temporarily.
It’s reasonable to get angry when your child is rude or disrespectful. But if you’re on the brink of losing control of your emotions, walk away.
Tell your child that you’re angry, and that you’ll address the situation later. This way, you won’t say or do anything you’ll regret later on.
Take 10 to 15 minutes to collect your thoughts and decide on an appropriate response. When you’ve calmed down – by that time, your child will be calmer too – start the discussion afresh.
2. Nag/scold less, and listen more.
Tweens and teens complain to me that their parents just don’t listen to them. When they try to explain their point of view, their parents often respond by saying:
- “Don’t argue with me.”
- “I know what’s best for you.”
- “When I was your age …”
- “Why are you being so difficult?”
- “When you grow up, you’ll understand …”
These responses cause children to become even more defiant.
Instead of nagging and scolding, trying really listening. Ask your child about her thoughts and opinions. Ask her how she feels. Ask her what she thinks you can do to be a better parent.
Then listen without judging or criticizing.
Gradually, you’ll get to the root of her rebellious behavior.
For a start, I recommend that you have 30 minutes of no nagging/scolding time every day. This could be the first 30 minutes after your child wakes up, or during dinner.
In this way, you’ll learn to kick your nagging/scolding habit and create a more pleasant home environment.
3. Acknowledge your child’s good behavior.
If you have a defiant child, you may feel like this is impossible to do. After all, it seems like she’s making unwise decisions and behaving irresponsibly every single day, right?
But the more you focus on a specific behavior, the more she’ll display that behavior.
If you point out her bad behavior day after day, that bad behavior will multiply. On the other hand, if you acknowledge her good behavior, that good behavior will multiply too.
For example, if you see her doing something thoughtful, smile at her and say, “That’s thoughtful of you.” She’ll appreciate this little compliment more than you expect.
As you make this a habit, over time she’ll stop feeling as if she’s a “problem child.” Instead, she’ll feel like she has a good reputation to live up to, so she’ll increasingly be on her best behavior.
4. Pick your battles.
Take a minute and write down five things you frequently argue with your child about.
Are they important issues? Or not-so-important ones?
If your child is skipping school or doing drugs, of course you should intervene.
But if you don’t like your child’s hairstyle or choice of clothes, you might be wise not to pass a comment.
Not all battles are worth fighting. In dealing with a defiant child, you must pick your battles carefully.
Here’s a personal example.
When I was 17, I wanted to get my ear pierced. When I told my parents about my intentions, they weren’t thrilled. Nonetheless, they gave me their blessing, so I got the piercing.
Later on, I got a minor (but painful!) infection because of the piercing. Still, my parents never once said, “I told you so.” They didn’t even object when I wore a big, shiny, fake diamond earring to a relative’s wedding dinner.
Well, what do you know? A couple of years later, I decided it wasn’t cool to wear an earring, and I haven’t worn an earring since.
I’m thankful to my parents for choosing not to fight this “earring battle,” because it wasn’t a big deal in the long run.
Be intentional about which battles you decide to fight. And when you decide to fight a specific battle, make it clear that you’re not doing battle against your child. Rather, you’re doing battle with your child to solve the problem.
Which brings me to the next point …
5. Work together with your child to find a solution.
As a parent, it’s tempting to exert your parental authority and “lay down the law.” This is even more so when your defiant child refuses to respect you as the leader of your family.
But laying down the law doesn’t work, especially if your child is a tween or teen. This is because, at this age, they’re learning to express their individuality and independence.
What’s the alternative to a top-down approach?
Involve your child in the process. Find out how he feels about the current situation, and what suggestions he has to resolve it. For all you know, he might have some ingenious ideas.
For example, if you’re frustrated that your child has been missing family dinners because he’s been out with friends, have a calm discussion with him.
He might share with you how important family is to him, but how his friends are important to him too. Together, you might decide on a reasonable number of family dinners he’s expected to attend each week.
Working together with your child to find a solution is far more effective than declaring that he’ll attend every family dinner, or else.
6. Tell your child what you appreciate about him or her.
When’s the last time you told your child that you appreciate her?
Even if she’s a defiant child, she still possesses some positive traits. If she’s kind and courageous, let her know that you admire those things about her.
By doing this, she’ll be reminded of your unconditional acceptance and love. This will help to open the lines of communication, which will defuse her rebellious behavior.
If you feel awkward about doing this in person, you could write her a letter instead. My own mom has been writing letters to me my whole life – and she’s continued this practice up to this day. I feel touched every time she writes me a letter, and I keep all of them.
7. Show your child common courtesies.
By this, I do not mean that you should let your child walk all over you, or that you should make him the center of your family’s universe.
What I do mean is that you should treat him with basic respect:
- Say “please” and “thank you,” where appropriate
- Don’t cut him off when he’s talking
- Refrain from continually criticizing him
- Give him choices, where appropriate
- Don’t call him “stupid” or “useless”
- Don’t talk bad about him, especially not in front of others
As you treat your child with respect, he’ll be more likely to show you respect too.
8. Apologize to your child, if necessary.
As parents, we sometimes lose our temper, say unkind things, and make unreasonable pronouncements. If you have a defiant child, this probably happens a lot more often than you’d like.
When we make a mistake, we must apologize.
Leaders go first. As leaders of our family, we must be the first to say “I’m sorry” to our children. In so doing, our children will learn what it means to be humble and vulnerable.
Here’s how you can practice this.
List the mistakes you’ve made that you have yet to apologize to your child for. Write them down, even if the incidents happened a long time ago.
Then start making one apology a month.
What do I mean?
Every month, find one opportunity to say “I’m sorry” to your child for something you haven’t apologized for. For example, when you have a quiet moment alone with her, you could say: “Remember that time when I promised to take you to the theme park after your exams, but I couldn’t because something came up at work? I’m really sorry about that.”
This “one apology a month” technique will help you build a stronger relationship with your child. As this happens, she’ll become less rebellious.
9. Get to know your child’s friends, especially if you think they’re “bad company.”
Your child probably has some friends you don’t approve of. Maybe they use vulgarities, smoke, or skip school.
In such a situation, many parents will say to the child, “I don’t like you hanging out with those friends.”
But do you think this is effective? Probably not. In all likelihood, he’ll spend more time with those friends, just to go against your wishes.
Try this approach instead.
Get to know your child’s friends. Invite them to your home. Feed them (who doesn’t like free food, right?). Tell them that they’re welcome to hang out at your place.
The more you interact with these friends, the more accurately you’ll be able to assess if they’re bad company or not. You can then make a better-informed decision about whether you should intervene.
In addition, by hanging out at your home, at least they won’t be roaming the streets looking for trouble.
10. Don’t cast judgment on your child’s hobbies, interests, music, etc.
Tweens and teens – especially the ones labeled as “defiant” or “rebellious” – often feel like they’re treated as a problem, not a person. They feel like everyone around them is trying to “fix” them, so they react by rebelling even more aggressively.
To reconnect with your child, refrain from casting judgment, as far as possible. After all, nobody gets inspired to change their behavior if they feel judged.
Here are some examples of judgmental statements you shouldn’t make:
- “Stop wasting time playing online games.” (You’ve cast judgment that online games are a waste of time.)
- “The music you listen to is trashy.” (You’ve cast judgment on your child’s taste in music.)
- “Your friends are a bad influence on you.” (You’ve cast judgment on your child’s ability to choose the right friends.)
- “You’re lazy when it comes to your school work.” (You’ve cast judgment on your child’s character.)
- “You should eat more. You’re too skinny.” (You’ve cast judgment on your child’s body.)
Here’s how you might start a more meaningful conversation in each of the situations listed above:
- “Tell me more about the game you’re playing.” (It might even help if you play the game yourself.)
- “What do you like about this music?”
- “What do your friends do for fun?”
- “Is there anything I can do to help you in your school work?”
- “What type of food do you like best? We can try to cook more of that type of food at home.”
By being more understanding and less judgmental, you’ll establish a better relationship with your child.
As the saying goes, “Rules without relationship breeds rebellion.”
If you want your child to be less defiant and rebellious, your parent-child relationship is the critical piece of the puzzle.
The bottom line
To recap, here are the 10 strategies to deal with a defiant child:
- When you’re angry, walk away temporarily.
- Nag/scold less, and listen more.
- Acknowledge your child’s good behavior.
- Pick your battles.
- Work together with your child to find a solution.
- Tell your child what you appreciate about him or her.
- Show your child common courtesies.
- Apologize to your child, if necessary.
- Get to know your child’s friends, especially if you think they’re “bad company.”
- Don’t cast judgment on your child’s hobbies, interests, music, etc.
I guarantee that these strategies work. But they won’t work overnight.
Change takes time, so don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t respond right away. Press on, and in the coming weeks and months I’m confident that the situation will improve.
I love this quote by Harold B. Lee: “The most important work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes.”
It’s time for us to get to work.
P.S. I work with students 1-to-1 to help them become both happy and successful. Click here to find out more.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on Yahoo!.
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