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Why your child is defiant - and how to handle it

What we adults refer to as “defiance” is in reality the child's project to find out who he or she is. 

Mother and child

The child's protests are not unwillingness, but rather a natural and positive development and a step on the path to becoming an independent human being and developing important qualities.

The screaming child on the floor of the supermarket represents for many people the essence of the so-called “terrible twos”. When the child gets a tantrum, especially in public, it can feel both embarrassing, overwhelming and very difficult for the parents. We try desperately to get the situation under control and to devise a smooth and quick solution to the problem.

You may be concerned that your child might become a self-centred and stubborn person who can’t get along with others, and you may be afraid that people think that you have no control of your child?

It is important to remember that young children, just like older children, adolescents and adults, can be tired or have a bad day, without meaning they are "defiant". Protests and intense outbursts of anger are usually perceived as overwhelming and are also difficult for the child himself. It is also important to have empathy with the child when he gets “stuck” in this way.

Why does the child get “defiant”?

At the toddler stage, many children have strong emotional outbursts for things that seem trivial to you as a parent, and a strong tendency to manage things by themselves - without any help from you. This is because they discover their own will, and that "you are you, but I am me.”

The child needs to experience that she can influence the world, and not just have to adapt to the surroundings. This lays a foundation for later life, so the child can use her own initiative, take responsibility and relate to others in a good way. What we perceive as "defiance" is the beginning of being able to dress oneself, brush one’s own teeth, and everything else the child will have to learn in order to stand on her own two feet.

As parents, therefore, the goal should not be to remove this strong self-determination, but to relate to it in constructive ways. When you acknowledge the child's expressions of her own will, she experiences that she has importance and influence. Even though you acknowledge your child's feelings and wishes, this does not necessarily imply that your child will get her own will.

Your child’s development

Through protests, your child explores the world for himself, as well as his own ability to influence what is happening. It may be helpful for parents to remember that this is something the child must do, that he must explore his own will in relation to others’ will, and see where opportunities and boundaries exist, what is possible and what is not.

What can the “defiance” mean?

Have you thought about what might lie behind your child's actions and words when your child is protesting? This is perhaps especially important if the child protests against something that seems trivial to you. Can your child's outburst alternatively be expressed as:

  • Stop nagging me!
  • Prepare me for what is going to happen!
  • I can do it myself!
  • Let me try by myself!
  • Let me decide something!
  • I'm frustrated, and I don't know what to do about it.

It is far from certain that the child himself is aware of what makes him feel like protesting or why he feels the need for an outburst. Your attempts to understand what is happening can help you stay calm and can help your child understand what is happening.

How to handle defiance, protests and outbursts of anger

  • Remember, emotions are “contagious”. If you meet an angry child by being equally angry yourself, the chances are greater that your child just gets even more furious. Children`s defiance can be contagious — some parents experience becoming equally defiant and stubborn as their children. In that case, it’s important to take a step back and regain control of your own feelings.
  • When your child really wants to do something by himself, but can’t quite manage it, you might suggest that you can do it together. It’s often easier for the child to accept this, than that you take over completely. You may want to ask if he needs help, rather than saying I`ll help you.
  • Sometimes, the child only knows what he doesn’t want, and not what he wants. In this case, he might need help to figure out what he wants, and that the parent comes with various suggestions without being pushy. Often the child may need some time to have a think about what he wants.
  • In situations that often “get stuck”, try to let your child decide something. For instance, if it’s often the case that getting your child dressed ends with intense protests, the child may be able to determine the colour of her tights or choose between two things, such as the red or the yellow jumper?
  • Letting your child make a few choices within safe and acceptable limits can help your child develop independence and self-confidence.
  • Fear of losing control completely by being inconsistent or breaking the routines you have worked hard to establish, can make it difficult for you to assess whether on this particular day a situation has arisen which requires a slightly different approach. Being flexible in a good way does not mean that you give up and let your child win. For example, it is fine to make exceptions to the usual bedtime on special occasions. This is just an exception to a rule. You may also want to tell your child why you are making an exception just for tonight.

Ask yourself: What struggles are important to see through to the end, and where can I give the child some room to decide?” Sometimes you may want to accept that your child does something that you see as odd, for example wearing a ballet skirt on the outside of their winter clothes, or choosing unusual things to put on their slice of bread.

When should the child have her will?

Always - or never? A good balance is important when finding out what your child can decide. If the child never gets to experience that she has influence on her surroundings, then she can get a sense of impotence, humiliation and that she is not important or worth considering. But it can also create insecurity in children if they always get their will. It can give the child a sense that she has more responsibility for what is happening than her parents have.

However, when parents show that they are making judgments about what is good for the child, this helps her to sense that there are safe boundaries. When parents are clear and determine what the child can decide for themselves, and when things can’t be as the child wants, the child gets a sense that the parents are there to help and support.

Another important aspect is that being able to balance satisfying one’s own needs, as opposed to adapting and adjusting to the needs of others, is an important part of the socializing process for children.

Lack of predictability can create protest

For most children, transitions are difficult. Some children need more time than others to adjust, such as in the morning when going to the nursery or when they’re leaving the nursery in the afternoon. It can be useful to be aware of this and prepare the child for these transitions.

Sudden transitions that are determined by others can also be difficult for many adults. When children leave their daily routines, and are uncertain about what is going to happen, protests can be stronger and harder to understand for adults. In such cases, the protests might be expressing that this unpredictability is frightening for the child. The protests or the emotional outburst can be understood as one way the child tries to create predictability. It’s good when parents manage to pick up on such underlying fears that the child has and understand that the child needs more reassurance and explanation.

Try to be calm and clear in the situation. Even if the situation doesn’t resolve completely at the time, it usually has a positive effect on the child that you keep calm when the child is turbulent. The fact that you remain calm creates predictability and security for the child when he himself is experiencing chaotic feelings.

Sometimes your child needs you to take the lead and be clear, and to see that you take control of the situation in a friendly but determined way. Other times, the situation may be such that it’s better for the child that you hold back for a while, readjust, show flexibility or change strategy along the way.

Do not ask if the child cannot choose

When you have children at the toddler stage, it is usually best not to ask questions when your child does not in fact have a choice. So don’t ask: "Should we go and brush our teeth?", but rather say: "Now we're going to brush our teeth.”

Strong emotions are challenging

The strong, overwhelming feelings that your child can experience are also difficult for him to deal with. Therefore, it is important that you get involved and support him as best you can. Judge the situation and your particular child: what does he need from you right now? Perhaps he needs the security of sitting on your lap until the feelings have subsided, or perhaps it’s enough that you are nearby and keep calm? Perhaps your child needs you to lead him out of a difficult situation in a safe and good way?

Children need help from parents to understand their own feelings. It is helpful to be able to understand your own feelings, put words to what you feel, and be able to express your own wishes and needs in ways that allow others to understand. When you help your child understand their feelings, he will eventually find a balance between regulating his feelings by himself and understanding when he needs the help of others.

It is good to acknowledge that your child may have a different will to yours, and that it can be frustrating and disappointing for the child when he cannot get his will through.