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How to Curb Defiant Behavior in Children

Three simple steps to reduce temper tantrums and talking back.

Key points

  • Counterintuitively, focusing on positive behavior, rather than behavior that needs improvement, is more effective at increasing good behavior.
  • Using rewards, rather than consequences, is more effective at reducing defiant behavior.
  • Problem-solving with your child to find a solution together is the most effective way to address challenging behavior.
  • These techniques work with children of all ages; joint problem-solving is effective from age three onward.

Sigh, we’ve all been there. The temper tantrum at Target. The request to bring in the dinner plate that gets met with crossed arms and staunch refusal. The dilly-dallying that makes it seemingly impossible to get out the door in the morning. Why can’t our children just do the simple things we ask?!

There can be countless frustrating behaviors that our little bundles of joy display. In my new book The Child Code, I spend a lot of time unpacking where defiant behavior comes from (spoiler alert: it’s related to children's genetic makeup) and walking through science-based strategies for improving child compliance for kids with different dispositions. Here are three key steps to get you started:

1. Focus on the positive.

Imagine for a second that your partner followed you around the house pointing out all your areas for improvement. “Honey, hustle faster to get ready for work!” “Dear, make sure you get the back of your teeth when brushing.” “Sweetie, please fold the laundry more carefully.” Or imagine that your boss gave you a list of 20 things that all need immediate improvement, but when you turn in quality work on time, they say nothing.

Those scenarios probably generated a pretty unpleasant reaction, but that’s what we do with our children all the time. We have the good intention of trying to shape their behavior in positive ways—just like the nightmare partner or boss did—but it’s completely ineffective because no one likes someone constantly pointing out all our areas for improvement. It’s just too much, so it inspires no change in the intended direction.

Here’s your parenting challenge: for the next day, try to comment only on your child’s good behavior. Point out all the things your child does that you appreciate, no matter how small. “Thanks for getting out of bed when I woke you up this morning” (resist the urge to mention that they didn’t brush their teeth as requested). “Thanks for pulling on your shoes.” “I love how you ate your dinner so nicely.” “That was great that you and your sibling didn’t squabble in the car.”

Too often, when our children are behaving in the way we want—a peaceful dinner, or a quiet car ride—we ignore it. We quietly go about our day. But when they hit their sibling or refuse to get dressed, that always gets a reaction! Kids love rewards (don’t we all?!) and praise and attention from parents is a potent form of reward. There’s a lot of evidence that giving children positive feedback for good behavior actually leads to more good behavior, and less acting out. Start by making a conscious effort to focus, and enthusiastically comment on, your child’s good behavior—even if that just entails a trip to the grocery store that is mundanely uneventful.

2. Be generous with rewards, and use consequences sparingly.

Very often, we parents get the ratio of rewards and consequences wrong. We’re focused on our children’s challenging behaviors and how to fix them. It’s understandable: those are the pieces that most drive us crazy!

But we’re inadvertently being the boss we would hate to work for. Very often our default parenting reflex is to use consequences as a way to motivate our children to behave. Stop this behavior, or else. If the misbehavior continues, we double down, with the idea that piling on consequences will provide more motivation.

It turns out that there’s lots of evidence this doesn’t work. There are, however, ways to use rewards and consequences to actually get your child to behave—but they have to be implemented in a certain way to work! (Here’s a cheat sheet to get you started.)

3. Problem-solve with your child.

As parents, we often feel like it’s all on us to shape our child’s behavior. I have some good news and some bad news for you. Bad news first: if you’ve ever tried to buckle a screaming, squirming toddler into a car seat, you know that it’s very hard to force anyone to do something they don’t want to do—no matter their age or size! The person who has the most influence over your child’s behavior is… drumroll… your child.

So, here’s the good news: That takes the pressure off you! It means that you are not solely responsible for your child’s behavior. Very often we are imposing our ideas about how to get our children to behave on our children. If you have a High Em child, who is more naturally prone to distress and frustration, imagine how it must feel for them to have someone else constantly imposing their will—frustrating! This creates a negative feedback loop. The child gets easily upset, the parent imposes consequences, the child gets more upset—and the next thing you know, everyone is worked up and the behavior isn’t any closer to getting better.

The way to break this cycle is to work with your child, instead of trying to solve the problem on your own. Talk with your child about the challenging behavior: Ask them why they hit their sibling, or refuse to brush their teeth, or throw their toys. Figure out what the triggers are for challenging behavior. Common ones include completing tasks under pressure (getting dressed for school, hurrying through bedtime routine), when things don’t turn out as expected (especially for High Em children, who are highly emotional), being overwhelmed by people or activities (especially for Low Ex children, who are low in extraversion), or completing tasks that are boring (particularly for Low Ef children, who are low in effortful control).

When you problem-solve with your child, you both generate ideas for how to make things better, and then you come up with a solution that works for both of you. With some trial and error—and lots of rewards for small steps in the right direction—working together with your child to make the behavior better is a far more effective way to get them invested in the positive change you want to see!

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