Episode 076: 5 Healthy Ways to Get Defiant Kids to Do What YOU Want

Listen here or READ the post below.

If you have listened to August at all, you know that we’re talking about the tough temperament of the strong willed child. Things that are just part of their personality that drive us nuts as parents. You need to listen or read our first interview from this month because we talk about some things that are critical to know about your strong-willed child’s personality. But we wanted to spend the rest of the month talking about some specific temperament issues that are frustrating and give you some tips on how to navigate those.

One of the biggest concerns that we hear from parents is that their child is oppositional. That everything is a fight.  They are oppositional from sunrise to sunset. Whether parents are trying to get them to eat breakfast, get dressed, get in the car, do a chore, or do their homework, their child just feels the need to put up a fight.  This process can be so exhausted for a parent and create real tension in the parent-child relationship. Luckily, marriage and family therapist, Jeff Tesch is going to teach us five ways we can decrease opposition in our strong-willed kids.

Jeff Tesch, LMFT

We have a few kids of our own that like to be oppositional and it does seem like they’re doing it intentionally.  But if you read last week’s post, you’ll remember that being oppositional is just how a strong-willed child’s brain is wired.

Knowing that can help us be more patient with them and not resent them so much.  It can also help us be motivated to learn how to work around that natural wiring.

Here are five things I suggest to my clients whose children are more oppositional by nature.

Tip #1 Give your child choices

We can really avoid a lot of power struggles, even with kids that aren’t strong willed, by giving them choices.  It’s healthy for kids to have appropriate choice and teaches them how to make choices for themselves. Giving choices also helps a child feel control in their own life and so much of the opposition that we face as parents is simply our child fighting for control.  So the more places you can give your child control, the better.

Giving your child choice and control doesn’t mean that you don’t enforce your boundaries.  Rather, it means you give your child choices that are still within your boundaries.

For example:

If it’s bedtime, you would state the expectation, then give two choices that you are comfortable with.

“Hey Sally, it’s bedtime.  Would you like to put your pajamas on first or get your teeth brushed first?  Which works better for you?

Choices help them feel some control and they’re less likely to resist.

Now this is a technique that we’ve used in our own home and we’ve seen it help in a lot of situations, yet not help in others.  Keep reading the other tips to see if they might help in those situations.

Tip #2 Be flexible as a parent

I have some parents in my office who have become oppositional in response to their oppositional child.  Parents who have had so many power struggles with their kids, that they aren’t willing to be flexible with their kids any more.  These parents aren’t bad, they’re just tired and need to be reminded that there are things that they can be flexible with.

I want to be clear, that family rules and boundaries are not flexible.  However, are there some things that your child wants control over that really would be OK for them to have control over?

My kids wanted to choose what time during the day they did their homework.  Initially, I wanted to tell them what time to do it, but decided that our boundary would just be what time it needed to be finished by.  I told them that boundary and now they have the freedom to choose any time before that boundary to finish their homework.  Flexibility on our part has avoided a lot of opposition.

Choosing your battles with a strong-willed child is a wise thing to do.  Think about which battles you could drop and which boundaries you want to keep firm.  Remember that your child is a strong individual and needs a lot of opportunities to express that individuality.

Now there will be times that they want you to be flexible about a family rule or boundary.  In these situations, you need to stick to your guns.  But you can do that in a loving and empathetic way.

I recommend using some validating statements, statements that tell you child that you understand their point of you and that it matters.  Validation is often what your child is seeking and offering some validating statements can help soothe negative emotions.

Here’s some examples:

  • They don’t want to go to bed-“You wish you didn’t have to go to bed.  You want to stay up ALL night long.  That is really hard.”
  • They don’t want to get dressed-“You love being in your pajamas.  Wouldn’t it be cool if every day at school were pajama day?  You would LOVE that!”

Try having a lot of empathy, love and using validating statements when you have to enforce a boundary.  It won’t help in all situations, but will help in many.

Tip #3 Allow your children to express their point of view

One of the elements of a healthy home is letting kids have a voice.  Not a yelling or disrespectful voice, but allowing them to express their point of view in a healthy way.  All people naturally desire to feel heard and feel like their thoughts matter.  Not allowing your child to express their point of view can actually make them more defiant and oppositional.

Think how you would feel if you worked in an office where you weren’t ever allowed to express your thoughts or feelings.  Where the boss shut you down any time you opened your mouth.  Would you have any feelings of resentment or resistance towards your boss?  Most likely you would.

Now what if you worked in an office where the boss patiently listened to what you needed to say and when appropriate, even followed your advice?  That’s an environment that you would feel more valued and important.

The same is true of our kids.  They are each individuals with thoughts and ideas that need to be expressed.  They do need to learn how to express those ideas in a healthy way. But as parents, we also need to learn to allow expression and listen.  This aids in the healthy development in your child and decreases opposition.

In fact, I had a teen in my office yesterday that told me very clearly, that many of her arguments with her mom have very little to do with what they’re arguing about.  Rather, the teen is arguing in an effort to just feel heard and feel like her thoughts matter!

With a strong-willed child, you are going to want to find ways for them to express themselves.  You will want to jump in and say something, but don’t.  Just listen, ask what more they think about the topic, then listen again.

After you listen, use some reflective listening statements to make it clear you understood them (basically re-state what they said to you so they feel understood).  Try your best to not demean their point of view and to be really empathetic.

Now, I want to be clear that you can listen to what they need to say but still expect your children to follow the family rules. It is always appropriate to stay firm about the boundaries you’ve created in your home

Tip #4 Drop the rope

When your child is oppositional, it is really easy to get sucked in to a power struggle with that child.   I use a rope in my office to illustrate what that looks like.   Tug of war is a game where one person pulls on one side of the rope and another person on the other side.  Someone wins by pulling the other person over.

We can get into verbal “tug of wars” with our kids.  We want them to do something and they argue back.  We say why we want them to do that thing and they argue back again. Tug, tug, tug, tug.  We can stay engaged in this tug of war of wills simply because we want to win!  However, I have never seen a tug of war that has helped the parent-child relationship.

In fact, engaging in the tug of war is a win for the child!  The child gets to delay doing what they’ve been asked, gets to receive attention for negative behavior, and may even get you to give them their way!

So what do you do instead?

You clearly state the expectation, allow the child to express their point of view calmly, use a validating statement, then if the child argues, walk away and do not engage again.

Here’s a real-life example to show you how.

We have a nine year old who thinks that he should stay up till 11 pm because some of the kids in our neighborhood do get to stay up quite late.  We know that this son gets really emotional and challenging when he’s tired, so we’ve had an earlier bedtime for him.

The other night, I called him in for bed and he was upset because he was the only one that had to go to bed.  He started to argue with me.  In response, I started telling him my point of view.  This kept going back and forth for a while until I thought “I’m in a tug of war and I need to drop my side of the rope.”

So I asked him to share his point of view.  Then asked what else he thought.  Then kept asking that until he had nothing left to say.  This allowed him to have a voice.

After he shared his thoughts, I said, “It’s got to be so frustrating to be the only one going to bed. You wish you could stay up forever. Bedtime is still a firm rule even though.  I love you and I’ll see you in the morning.”  Then I walked away.

He tried to continue to engage and I just ignored those attempts by walking to another room.  He’d been heard, I’d stayed true to our family rules, it was time to just be done.

I have had times where my children have wanted to continue to engage even after I’ve walked away.  In that situation, you have two choices:

  1. Continue to ignore the child
  2. Give the child a consequence for continuing to engage after the discussion was over

If you are consistent in dropping the rope, your children will try to engage you in a tug of war less frequently.

Tip #5 Allow your children lots of freedoms while keeping your boundaries firm

What on earth do I mean by this?  Well, to be frank, parents are often too controlling of their children.  Parents want to tell their children what to do each step of the way rather than having a handful of family rules that are enforced consistently, then allowing their children to be independent within those boundaries.

I find that it’s better to teach this tip using a few examples:

Example One:

If bedtime is an issue for your family, set a clear time each child needs to be in their bed.  Then choose a consequence for not being in bed on time.  After you’ve told your kids clearly the expectation and the consequence, you get to allow your child the freedom to get ready for bed or to not. If they choose to get into their bedroom on time, they get the privilege the next day.  If they don’t get into bed on time, they lose the privilege the next day. You get to have the consequence be the teacher instead of you having to nag your child. It won’t take your child very many nights before they decide that going to bed on time is worth it. Plus, your child will start to be responsible for themselves.  They’ll start to watch the clock on their own, they’ll try to be in their bedroom on time on their own, and you’ll get the space you need without having to say much at all.

Example Two:

If your kids leave their toys out a lot, create a firm rule that toys that are out at the end of the night go to “Toy Jail”.  The child can only “bail” the toy out by doing a chore.  Again, be clear with your kids about the rule, then say nothing.  You are going to allow them the freedom to make their choice, while being firm about the rules.

At night, pick up all the toys that are left out and put them in a place that’s hard to reach.  The next time the child wants to play with that toy, give the child a chore that needs to be completed to “bail” the toy out. 

Once again, the child has the freedom to choose while the consequence is being a fantastic teacher.

When I have parents whose children are being oppositional I ask them to:

  1. Find a way their child can have more freedom
  2. Identify what boundaries needs to be in place for the home to be filled with love and respect
  3. Decide what consequences will occur if the boundaries are violated
  4. Be clear with their child about the boundaries and the consequences
  5. Sit back and let the consequences be the teacher, saying as little as possible

I should mention that all of this is done with love and empathy, not with anger or revenge.  We know that our kids will make mistakes.  We want them to make mistakes.  We want them to learn from their mistakes.  They will only learn if we are firm and loving.

In the end we want our kids to understand that they have choices. They’re in control of what good things come into their life and that they might miss out on things when they aren’t obedient.

Good luck applying what you learned today and as always,

Happy Parenting!

Want YOUR Parenting Questions Answered By a Child Therapist?

Join our private Facebook group where we host a weekly "Ask the Expert" Facebook live. You can ask YOUR parenting question and a child therapist will answer it.

We've answered hundreds of questions and want yours to be next!

Powered by ConvertKit