December 13, 2017 — By Wendy Sachs

Sometimes, managing defiant behavior in young children feels impossible. What can parents and caregivers do when they refuse to listen or continue to engage in disobedience? Most children go through a phase where ‘no’ is their favorite word, but there are some concrete strategies to help parents and caregivers manage this behavior effectively. We’ve detailed some of the most important approaches to this phase below.

Communicate the Positive Opposite

Instead of telling a child not to do something — or just yelling ‘no’ — try communicating what you want them to do instead. Refocusing on the positive opposite will help reinforce good behavior, showing children that positive actions are more important than negative ones. For example, if a child throws a tantrum when you won’t buy them something they want, instead of saying ‘no’ or stop,’ try saying ‘we’re leaving the store now, please stand up and come with me.’ If they oblige, you can praise them for their good behavior!

Ignore Negative Actions

Sometimes when children are defiant, they’re simply looking for attention; continuing to engage with their bad behavior could reinforce it. If possible, try only giving instructions once and ignoring behavior that is annoying (but not too disruptive). By only giving instructions once, you’re declining to argue or entertain their disobedience. This can help children learn that negative behavior does not merit attention.

Provide Positive Reinforcement

Many children become frustrated when they lack control over a situation, or when they’re unable to communicate what they want or how they feel. It can help to provide a child with a small amount of control by setting up a system where they work toward privileges or rewards they’ve chosen themselves. Children are more likely to exhibit positive behavior when they’re working towards something, instead of being threatened with having something taken away.  

Make Expectations and Responsibilities Known

Children thrive when they’re aware of their responsibilities and your expectations, especially when meeting them has rewards and failing to do so has consequences. Consider establishing clear and consistent boundaries with children and rewarding good behavior.

You can help reinforce responsibilities and expectations by talking with them during moments of calm. These chats can be times for you to check in, communicate what is expected, and let them know that they’re doing a great job. Even if a child is young, this can help establish a positive relationship with open lines of communication.