“My Kid is So Defiant! Is it My Fault?”
So your kid isn’t a perfect angel – they talk back, resent you, and push your buttons like you’re a high-rise elevator. You say yes, they say no – it’s like they feed on making you angry. As frustrating as it feels, all parents deal with their kids being defiant to some degree (hint: YouTube “epic tantrums” if you need a reminder that you aren’t alone!).
A certain level of defiance is expected as a child matures. However, some kids struggle with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) – a condition that causes them to develop a pattern of disobedient behaviors toward authority figures. Without support, ODD can harm a kid’s relationships, academic performance, and emotional health.
So how do parents know if their kid’s defiance is a harmless phase or a serious problem? Here are 11 questions to consider:
1. Why does my kid act this way?
Your kid’s defiant behaviors may be caused by their genetic makeup, environmental factors, or both. A child’s temperament has a lot to do with how their brain is wired, something you’ve probably witnessed if you have multiple kids with very different personalities. Kids can also develop defiant behaviors as a way to cope with trauma, abuse, or other negative life experiences. While genetics and bad experiences play a role, parenting does as well. Many loving parents unintentionally encourage defiance by disciplining in ways that are too permissive, too harsh, or inconsistent.
2. Is it my fault?
It’s impossible to pinpoint the exact influence of genetics, negative psychological experiences, and parenting on your child’s behavior, but nothing good will come from beating yourself up. Most parents struggle with responding to their child’s defiance and it’s never too late to discover new tools for strengthening your family. Take a minute to release any guilt that you’ve been carrying and know that you are a great parent for seeking new ways to connect with your kid.
3. Is my kid just a spoiled punk?
ODD is a bit of a controversial diagnosis. Some people believe that defiant kids are just being disrespectful little punks and need nothing more than a “good old-fashioned spanking.” Regardless of your perspective, understanding ODD’s symptoms can help you determine whether your kid’s behavior goes beyond what’s considered normal. If your child exhibits four or more of the following symptoms for 6+ months, they may fit the criteria for an ODD diagnosis:
Loses their temper
Argues with adults
Actively refuses to comply with rules or requests
Deliberately annoys people 4+ times a week
Blames others for their mistakes or misbehavior
Is touchy or easily annoyed by others 2+ times a week
Is angry and resentful 4+ times a week
Their behavior negatively impacts their social or academic functioning
An official diagnosis can only be made by a mental health specialist.
4. Are my rules consistent?
Kids with defiance issues have a strong need to feel control over their environment. Help them understand your expectations by setting clear rules and explaining the consequences of breaking them ahead of time. Keep your rules listed in a visible area of the house and be consistent in following through with consequences when rules are broken.
5. Do I rehash mistakes?
Your child is going to slip up along the way, but don’t define them by their worst moments. After enforcing the consequences that you’ve set, move on and don’t rehash old arguments or bring up past outbursts. Show your child that each day is a new chance to make better choices, and that you believe in their ability to do so.
6. Am I emotionally intelligent?
One of the best ways for you to support your child is to show them what healthy emotional management looks like. Parents can model emotional intelligence (EQ) by talking openly about their feelings, expressing empathy for their child’s emotions, and stepping away to focus on their breathing when they are feeling angry or overwhelmed.
7. Can I “Keep calm and parent on”?
Try to use a calm and neutral tone when dealing with your child's behavior. That can be difficult when your kid is about to throw a tuna can across aisle 4 because he didn’t get his way, but calmly enforcing consequences will yield better results than losing your cool. Remember, a child with ODD often hopes to engage their parents in a battle of wills, so blowing up will only fuel their fire. Explain your position in as few words as possible and don’t continue to discuss it.
8. When do I give them attention?
Parents often give more attention to negative behaviors, so make an effort to point out when your child acts appropriately. Celebrate behavioral wins like your child staying in their seat at a restaurant or completing their homework calmly. Let your kid know that you appreciate their extra effort and incentivize them for good behavior with praise, small prizes, or fun family activities.
9. Can I commit to staying structured?
It’s easier for children to regulate their emotions when they are rested, physically active, and well-nourished. Be intentional about scheduling at least an hour a day for your kid to engage in physical activity. Offer healthy meals and ensure adequate sleep by sticking to a nightly bedtime that allows them to get the recommended amount of sleep for their age.
10. Can parenting programs help?
There are several programs that empower parents with tools to improve their child’s behaviors. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) and PC-CARE have shown success in reducing disruptive behaviors in kids with ODD. Your child’s school may also offer programs for students that focus on peer groups or antisocial behavior. If your school has a mental health professional, ask them if there are programs available that could benefit your child.
11. Should I seek support?
If your child has defiance issues, there is no reason for you to struggle alone. There are several tools a mental health specialist can offer to help you support your child in increasing positive behaviors and overcoming symptoms of ODD.
Dr. Marta M. Shinn, Ph.D., is an expert in child and educational psychology. If you are concerned with your child’s defiant behaviors, Dr. Shinn can provide diagnostic testing and educational consulting to support your child’s healthy emotional and behavioral development.
Cynthia R. Johnson, LMFT, is a specialist in Parenting and Child Therapy at Variations Psychology. If your child’s defiant behavior is putting a strain on your family, Cynthia can empower you and your child with effective tips for managing emotions and strengthening your relationships.
Dr. Christopher J. Sample, Psy.D. specializes in supporting men and teenage boys through life’s transitions. If you have a teenage son who struggles with symptoms of ODD, Dr. Sample can provide a comfortable place for him to overcome obstacles and develop healthy behavioral habits.
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Variations Psychology is a group practice specializing in Child and Family Psychology.
Our specialists provide therapy to infants, children, adolescents, and adults to help them overcome the many challenges they may face throughout the lifespan of a family. We also conduct diagnostic testing of child and adult conditions that may impact the family’s mental health and development (e.g. ADHD, Autism Depression, Anxiety, Learning Disorders, college entrance exams, graduate and professional licensing exams such as MCAT, LSAT, GRE, CBEST, NCLEX, GMAT, CA Cosmetology Exam, CA Contractors State Licensing Exam, and CA Bar Exam).
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American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychology. (2009). ODD: A Guide for Families by the
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McNeil, C.B. (2008). Parent-Child Interaction Therapy
Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/videos/4310814.aspx?tab=2