You are here

Dealing With Defiance

Dealing with outright disobedience is the parenting job we dread most. In part because most of us have no idea how to handle it, but also because decades of advice from parenting experts have both confused us and left us scared that we'll somehow compromise our darlings' burgeoning self-esteem if we react in the wrong way.

But take heart. The fact is, dealing swiftly with a child's misbehavior—and doing so consistently—matters more than the details of your response.

Below, eight proven ways to deal with high-test naughtiness. What works one day in one situation might not work the next when the stakes and setting are different, so it pays to be flexible. Just make sure, however you manifest your intolerance, that your child knows quickly and for certain that defiance won't be tolerated. A one-size-doesn't-fit-all guide to solutions:

Remove her

This is the gold standard of defiance busting. When the going gets out of control, simply swoop in and physically leave the store, take her out of the sandbox, end the playdate, and head home. In order for this to work, there must be no hesitation on your part. "Don't do any cajoling, begging or convincing," says Valerie Hedrick, a Concord, California, mom of three. "Pick her up and leave. Your child's banking on her outrageous behavior to score some points in the form of an emotional reaction from you. If there isn't one, then she gets no payoff." Just say in very clear language why you're taking action ("You didn't stop throwing sand when I told you to, so now I'm taking you out of the sandbox.") This is bottom-line, no-nonsense discipline and it makes the most sense when used with obviously egregious behaviors.

"Of course your child won't take you seriously if you just threaten and don't follow through," says Linda McGivern, a mom of three, in Rollinsford, New Hampshire. Once, when Abby, her oldest daughter, was 4, she had a fit in a store because she couldn't have the toy she wanted. "I told her to stop and that we would leave if she didn't stop," she said. "She didn't quit her crying, so I put away the items I wanted to buy and left the store with her screaming under my arm. When we got home, she had a nice, age-appropriate time-out and that behavior never happened again."

Keeping your cool is as important as consistency. "March out calmly, with an air of command," says Jennifer Ingle, a mom of two, in Conover, North Carolina. "This lets spectators know you have the situation in hand. It's much better than sputtering apologies." This attitude isn't lost on the child, who's also noting that you're the one in control. Removing her from any "audience" may quell further defiance as well.

Create consequences

When the misbehavior isn't so site-specific, or when you can't just leave, or you're at home, you've got to find a threat that matters to your child. And as his or her mom, you're uniquely qualified to find her Achilles' heel. After all, one child's time-out is another child's excuse to daydream. When Ingle's 5-year-old daughter, Sarah, hit her, part of her punishment was to help write, then sign, an odious list of punishments, to be used for only the most outrageous behavior, such as hitting or lying. It included first a spanking, then no TV for the day (forcing Sarah to miss Animal Planet!) and finally, horribly, she'd have to call her dad at work and tell him how she'd been misbehaving. "She's never gone past number two," says her mom.

Removal of a privilege also fits in this category. When Dawn Blanchfield's son Kyle won't put his shoes on for school in the morning, he loses his video-game privileges that afternoon. "He ties his shoes real fast so he can redeem himself," laughs the Sacramento, California, mom.

Consequences that are directly tied to the misbehavior in question are the best. When her two boys won't get into bed, Cathy O'Brien of Durham, New Hampshire, doesn't move bedtime. She calmly tells them, "The longer you delay, the fewer stories I have time to read to you." This usually works, she says.

Expand the consequences

The lesson that you don't forget bad behavior can pack a wallop. And having a way to punish that behavior without raining on a larger group's parade can come in handy. A mom of eight in Alaska has lots of experience with discipline, but sometimes even she has to get creative. Once, when her son was acting up at a party, she told him he'd have to miss the next party he was invited to. But first she took a photo of him in mid-naughtiness. Then, two weeks later when he was asked to another party, she brought out the picture and reminded him of why he couldn't go. This made it immediate to a child who might otherwise have relegated the episode to long-ago history. At the next birthday party he attended, he was on his best behavior. "These things happen," she says, "but mostly it happens only once or twice per child because I make sure—and they know—that they'll face the consequences later."

Mary Rees, a mom of two in Albany, California, tried several tactics before she hit on the one that got the desired reaction when her 5-year-old, Joey, used to refuse to leave the park. "I told him that next time we came to the park, we'd have to leave fifteen minutes earlier than normal because he hadn't listened to me when I said it was time to go," she says.

If he did as he was told next time, she told him, the park date after that would last the full hour. That may seem complicated, but Rees enlisted the help of other moms she knew in the park to hammer this idea home. The next park playdate, one of these moms told Joey, "It's sad you have to leave so early today, Joey, but we hope you can stay longer next week."

Rees thinks the reactions and reinforcement that Joey got from the other moms were the key to the technique's success. "The issue became less of a power struggle between parent and child and more of a community ethos, a 'this is what we do' message."


Currently in vogue is the notion of letting the child know that you understand how he feels. "I know how frustrated you are. I wish we could stay at the park all day, too, but, " This works for some kids, but less well for others. "Empathy worked with my oldest son, Nick—that was all it took to restore him to sanity," says Mollie Hart, a mom of two boys, in Berkeley, California. "But George, who's 5, is a different animal. So I combine empathy with action. I scoop him up and walk out, and he's flailing around, but I try to keep my cool and keep talking to him: 'Oh, I know you had a good time, and wouldn't it be great if we could just stay all day,' and so on. Believe it or not, it does work—it calms him down, and he seems to absorb the message."

Empathy is a good choice when you suspect something besides outright defiance is causing the problem. Once, my daughter Annie had the mother of all meltdowns in a store because she wanted stickers I wouldn't buy her. I was about to pick her up and carry her to the car when I realized: She hadn't eaten lunch yet, and there was a brand-new baby brother at home getting all the attention. I took a deep breath and let go of the stickers. I said kindly, "You must be starving. I get really mad when I'm hungry, too. Let's go get a hamburger. And then we'll go home and you can show me your sticker book, because I think you have some of these stickers in there already. Can you show me?" She calmed down, I lured her outside, got some food into her, and gave her some much-needed extra mom attention.

Count down

"I want you in here by the time I count to five!" This tells your child that you're done asking and her time is nigh. This can be a very effective method of getting her to come or stop what she's doing, as long as you're prepared to follow through (and have done so in the past). It's when you reach the magic number and then continue to plead that this ceases to be effective. That battle has been lost. If you don't want to lose it, you've got to show your kids you mean business, every time.

"My kids know that if I get to three, I will do something that has an immediate and undesirable effect on them," says Christina Bess, a mom of two, in Maplewood, New Jersey, who adds that at various times she's picked up her screaming charges and carried them to the car or put them into bed fully clothed. "At this point, I rarely have to say anything more than 'Stop that...ONE..."

Some parents swear by counting backward, because zero is much more final than five, which is just so tempting to stretch to siiiiiixxxxx or even sevvvvvvvennnn.

Laugh it off

Often a toddler can simply be distracted from bad behavior. Jennifer Ingle has a "Manners" poem she gets her two kids singing if they start acting up at a restaurant: Matthew, Matthew, strong and able/Get your foot off the table/This is not a horse's stable/But a first-rate dining table. "The poem turns it into a silly situation," she says, "which is much easier to defuse."

Plain old distraction can work, too. "The only way I can get my three-year-old into the car for preschool every morning is if I make it a big excursion to go see the garbage trucks," says Rae Sullivan of Durham, North Carolina. "He's obsessed with garbage trucks, so as long as that's where we're going, it works."

Make a deal

When power struggles with my daughter Annie started when she was around 3, I decided to cut a deal. I agreed to keep the hall light on so she could sit in bed and look at a book as long as she promised to stay there and "rest." She won a little, and I won a little. And she'd fall asleep within 20 minutes every time.

Another name for deal-making? Bribery. It's frowned upon by some, and you'd be wise to use it sparingly and only for annoying (but predictable) behavior, rather than out-and-out misbehavior. But it can stop a brewing storm in its tracks. Georgia McNamara of San Francisco recently had trouble getting her 5-year-old son to listen to her and get ready to leave a store. Tensions were starting to mount when she suddenly remembered she had something in her pocket that was bound to interest him. "I flashed him the M&M's in my pocket, and he was holding my hand and heading out the door in a flash," she says.

Do nothing

Unfortunately, as every parent knows, hunger and exhaustion (or, worse, both) can render your child immune to any discipline technique you have. What do you do then?

Sometimes, not a thing. Jennifer Greenberg of Portland, Oregon, was stuck in traffic with her newborn and preschooler when 3 ½-year-old Solomon demanded a lollipop to top off his snow cone. He hadn't slept well the night before and it was a sweltering 100-degree day, so when Mom said no way, it sent him over the edge. She considered every one of the above-mentioned discipline tricks, then realized the best she could do was stay calm and get everyone home safely. "It wasn't like I could pull over in traffic and give him a time-out."

Finally home, she carried her thrashing, shrieking child into the house under her arm and plopped him in the time-out chair. When she returned to him a few moments later, her little monster had fallen sound asleep where he sat, slumped in the chair. Sometimes, it seems, kids deal with their defiance all by themselves.

Julie Tilsner's most recent book, Mommy Yoga, came out in October 2005.