Dealing With Defiant Kids: an Age-by-Age Playbook

Ask the Expert, Behavior and Discipline, Featured Article, Growth and Development
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In a perfect world, our children would enthusiastically comply with requests to clean their rooms and eat their broccoli every time we asked. Alas, we parent in the real world, where our appeals may more frequently be met with a “No way!” instead of the cheery “OK!” we crave.

The reasons for kids’ non-compliance vary. The child’s level of development and personal temperament factor in, for sure, but parenting style also plays a significant role, says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of Yale Parenting Center at Yale University and author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child and The Everyday Parenting Toolkit. “There are genetic components, and there are modeling components from the types of parents they see,” he says. “It’s also in the presentation of the requests parents make of them, in what they ask and how they ask it.”

Choice, voice and autonomy are basic human desires that aren’t limited to adults, says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a Pittsburgh-based family physician and author of several parenting books, including 2014’s Get the Behavior You Want … Without Being the Parent You Hate! Even turmoil over a problem at school or a falling-out with a friend could manifest at home as opposition to parents’ requests. “We have lots of reasons for saying ‘no’ to things,” Gilboa says. “They’re not defects in our kids’ characters, yet it’s part of our job [as parents] to teach our kids to be respectful.”

Here are some practical, age-appropriate pointers to help curb defiance and promote harmony in your home.

Ages 2-4

“No” Moment: Cleaning up toys after play

Little kids are adept at taking out their toys—usually lots of them at once. But they are sometimes far less eager to put them away, often igniting a battle of wills or triggering a tantrum.

“Yes” Solution: Take a tip from Mary Poppins and turn pick-up time into a game. Kazdin and Gilboa recommend parents start the process by cleaning up alongside the kids and encouraging them with fun challenges. Set a timer for a minute or two, and race to see how many toys you both can put away before time’s up. Entice the child to pick up two or three toys at once. Repeat this routine over the next few days or so. “It’s called shaping,” says Kazdin. “Pretty soon, you’ll just be able to stand there while the child cleans up by himself.”

Ages 5-8

“No” Moment: Eating (and trying) healthy foods

Parents want their children to have healthy diets, but kids have to actually eat the good foods we provide for them. A pleasant dinner can quickly turn tense when kids refuse to eat the meal you just made.

“Yes” Solution: Kids can be particularly resistant to trying new things, so limit the amount of unfamiliar foods on the plate. “The next time you have a new protein you want kids to try, like a new kind of fish or chicken, make sure the vegetable and the starch are foods they’re really comfortable with,” Gilboa says. Ditch the drama by establishing clear rules ahead of time: They can have seconds on the stuff they like only after they try (or finish) the new food.

Giving kids a choice between two types of vegetables, for example, often works, too. “The perception of choice is really critical,” says Kazdin. “When you’re asking your child to do something, if you can throw a choice in at any time, that’s really beneficial.”

Ages 9-12

“No” Moment: Doing their homework or practicing their instrument

Kazdin calls this particular scenario “parental hell.” When kids resist completing homework or practicing music lessons, parents not only feel frustrated with them but also feel pressure from the child’s teachers.

“Yes” Solution: “Saying to kids, ‘Sit down now and do your work or else you won’t watch TV later’ is a normal strategy, but it’s doomed to failure, and the child isn’t going to like homework very much or do very much of it,” Kazdin says. Instead, sit with him as he starts to work or practice. After a few minutes, leave the room for a bit, then come back. Once the child gets started and sees you’re engaged, he’ll likely continue independently.

Gilboa says that kids this age often make blanket “I can’t do it” or “It’s too hard” statements about homework. Ask the child to point out on the page or worksheet specifically where the hurdle exists. She says, “You could say, ‘Teach me a little bit about what you learned in class. Show me where the wall is. It’s not the whole paper, because you can put your name at the top and you know the first problem.’”

Ages 13-15

“No” Moment: Speaking respectfully to others

The “no” at this age is frequently nonverbal, says Gilboa, coming in the form of eyerolls and dramatic huffs.

“Yes” Solution: Let kids know these actions translate into words that feel dismissive and hurtful. “Get the teen to talk to you about what message they want to send,” Gilboa says. “Say to them, ‘When you huff at me, these are the words that I hear. Is that what you meant? Is it OK to speak to an adult like that? When someone speaks to you that way, how does it make you feel?’”

She adds, “Having really clear boundaries about how you can be spoken to and interacted with is really important for kids this age because we want them to have clear boundaries about how their friends may speak to them or how the person they’re interested in romantically can speak to them and treat them.”

Ages 16-18

“No” Moment: Monitoring their whereabouts and activity outside of the home

The teen years are a complex period for both parents and children, says Kazdin. Older teens engage in increasingly risky behavior—and they often do it away from the watchful eyes of their parents. They’re likely itching for more independence and may resist curfews or time at home for chores and family activities.

“Yes” Solution: Older teens are preparing to become adults, so conversations with them must likewise become more adult-like and allow for negotiation. “Sit down at calm points and try to negotiate,” Kazdin says. “Compromise is not so difficult for a child, but it’s often very difficult for a parent.”

Kazdin urges parents of teens to pick their battles and let some things go in order to garner more cooperation. “Yield to the things that probably won’t be there in 10 years,” he says, citing unusual hairdos or purposely ripped jeans as examples. “Parents have a ‘slippery slope’ thinking I can’t let this go because once I do, it’s just going to go downhill. It turns out it’s the opposite. The more you can let go, it makes you more effective on the issues you can’t.”

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