The question of how to handle defiant children is something most parents have struggled with at one point or another. Defiance in children is a common problem, especially in young children in their toddler years and in adolescents. It’s a normal part of a child’s development and can be expressed in behaviors such as talking back or disobeying parents, teachers, and other adults.

Among school-age children, defiance will more likely take the form of arguing with you or not doing something you asked (or doing it very, very slowly) rather than a full-out tantrum, which is more likely to occur in younger children. Your child may be trying to exert control over a situation or declaring her independence. He may be testing his limits and your authority. Or she may be expressing her dislike for something you asked her to do, such as picking up her toys or doing her chores.

When Defiance Isn’t What It Seems

In some cases, what appears to be defiance may simply be a child who’s dawdling because he is so focused on an activity. Understanding what’s behind your child’s behavior is an important part of addressing the problem of a child who seems to be defying you.

On the other hand, defiant behavior that persists for a prolonged period of time and interferes with a child’s performance at school and his relationship with family and friends can be a sign of something called oppositional defiant disorder, or ODD.1

In children who have ODD, the defiance is characterized by behaviors such as temper tantrums or aggression that often seems inappropriate for a child’s age. Children who have ODD may also exhibit other problems such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD.2 If you suspect that your child may have ODD, consult your child’s doctor, support groups, and other ODD resources to get help and information.

How to handle defiant children

Here are practical tips to help you manage defiance in children.

Get to the root of the behavior. Look for causes and triggers and try to keep track of your child’s defiance. Is there a pattern? Are there certain specific things he doesn’t like or want to do? Is she defiant when things are too hectic or hurried?

Also, make sure that you’ve been clear enough about the rules and chores of the house, and that they are age-appropriate so your child can follow them. For instance, a 5- or 6-year-old child may find it overwhelming to be told to clean his or her room and may be able to do the job better if you break it down into smaller tasks, such as picking up toys off the floor and helping you put them away.

Once you investigate the cause, you can take steps to adjust situations so your child is less apt to oppose you.

Set your child up for good behavior. Try to avoid situations in which a child may be more likely to be defiant or exhibit other bad behavior. For instance, if you know your child tends to get cranky if he has too much on his plate, try not to schedule too many things after school or on the weekends. If your kid hates abrupt transitions, try to allow a bit of extra time when you go from one thing to another.

Treat your child as you’d want to be treated. Just as with grownups, your normally well-behaved child can have an off day. He may be in a bad mood, or may be feeling overwhelmed and want some downtime. Be firm about what your child must do, but speak to him in a loving and understanding manner. When you set a good example of how to express an opinion or disagree in a loving and respectful manner, your children will follow.

Take advantage of your kid’s verbal skills. Parents of school-age children have a distinct advantage over parents of younger kids when it comes to dealing with bad behavior such as defiance: They can talk it out. Calmly discuss with your child what she wants, and then try to work out a solution that works for both of you.

Establish absolute ground rules. Make sure your child knows exactly what he must and must not do. For instance, if talking to you in a disrespectful manner is something that’s an absolute no-no in your house, make it clear to her that there will be consequences if he demonstrates that kind of behavior—no compromises or second chances. Be sure to choose a consequence you’re willing to enforce—no TV for the rest of the day or doing an extra chore—so he doesn’t learn to ignore your requests and undermine your authority.

Compromise when you can. Is your daughter insisting on wearing her pretty summery skirt on a cold fall day? Rather than engaging in a battle, you may be able to come up with a compromise, such as asking her to wear tights or leggings with the skirt. Generally speaking, it’s a good idea to give in when your child wants to exert control over something minor so that you can stay firm when it comes to the bigger stuff.

Discuss options. Sometimes, a child may exhibit defiant behavior because he wants to have more say in when or how he does things. One way to help children feel like they have more control is to give them some choices.3 For example, once you set up the parameters—“The toys must be put away” or “Homework must be finished”—work out with your child when he will do those tasks. For instance, toys can be put away before bed or homework can be done after a snack or 30 minutes of free play