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Adolescence

How to Help Defiant Children Regulate Their Emotions

The more you discern a child's feelings, the better you can manage behaviors.

Key points

  • Staying clear-minded about the nature of your child's difficult behaviors helps you better manage them.
  • Taking the time to look at how you approach your child, from their perspective, will help you provide healtheir boundaries.
  • Clearly seeing the relative severity of your child's problematic challenges will help you coach them to avoid emotional escalation.

Your defiant child finds it very difficult to be challenged and to handle frustration, so trying to control too many aspects of your child’s life fuels their defiance. The benefit of being calm, firm, and noncontrolling in your parenting demeanor is that you will lower your chances of overreacting to any request, comment, or interaction with your defiant child.

This is because the best discipline you can give your child is to model and coach self-discipline in how you look at and manage their behavioral struggles.

3 Questions To Help Manage Your Child's (And Your Own) Emotions

To help pick your battles more carefully, try to think about each situation from your child’s point of view:

  • Are you being unreasonable in your requests?
  • Are you provoking your child by using a commanding tone and making a rigid request?
  • Are you trying to control them the way you would a much younger (or older) child?

The Story Of Beth

Beth, the mother of eight-year-old Teresa, used the following reasoning to remain calm, firm, and non-controlling, and to pick her battles wisely. When she was trying to decide whether to let something go, Beth asked herself one simple question: “Will this really matter to her or me when she’s thirty?” Beth said to me, “This really helps me look at the big picture. Then I put things into perspective and decide if something’s really worth the fight.”

For example, when Teresa insisted on drawing pictures of her Barbie dolls before starting her homework, Beth realized that Teresa really did need that time to relax. Beth decided not to fight this battle anymore. Beth used to push Teresa to stop drawing these pictures, met with fierce protests from Teresa. Beth told herself to stop interfering. She also told herself, “I’m sure at thirty, she probably won’t want a whole heck of a lot to do with Barbie dolls.”

Beth did not become a wimpy parent. She just made a wise choice about what issues were important to focus on. When it came to issues of safety, Beth had a stronger bottom line. For example, she gave Teresa a clear message that she had to sit in the back of the car and wear her seat belt. Teresa got the message very clearly that her mother would definitely fight this battle if it ever became one.

Prioritizing Behavioral Boundaries

To help chose your battles more effectively, take a look at the following hierarchy of issues, from my book, 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Ed., to address with your child:

1. Behaviors, activities, or problems that are dangerous to your child’s physical and emotional well-being, for example, walking in dangerous places without supervision.

2. Behaviors, activities, or problems that are dangerous to others’ physical and emotional well-being, for example, throwing potentially harmful objects at others.

3. Behaviors, activities, or problems that are against the law, for example, stealing, and threatening to harm others.

4. Behaviors, activities, or problems that interfere with your child’s education, for example, refusing to do homework.

5. Behaviors, activities, or problems that interfere with the running of the household, for example, destroying property in the house.

6. All other negative behaviors, activities, or problems that you need to work on, for example, slamming doors, refusing to take out trash.

Closing Thoughts

Start at the top of the above list and work your way down. Consider solutions for one issue before addressing another one. The only time you should break this rule is when you are getting nowhere after months of work. Then you should focus on another problem for a while and go back to the first problem after the new one is solved. The bottom line here is that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff, but make sure to be in charge of the important issues of safety, health, and physical acting out (such as hitting).

References

Bernstein, J. (2015) 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, 2nd Ed., Perseus Books, New York, N.Y.

Yu, R.A., Goulter, N. & McMahon, R.J. (2022), Longitudinal Associations between Parental Warmth, Harsh Discipline, Child Emotion Regulation, and ODD Dimensions. Child Psychiatry Hum Dev 53, 1266–1280 . https://doi.org/10.1007/s10578-021-01205-7

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