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Who’s at Fault When Kids Become Defiant, Stubborn Little Jerks?

Children don’t generally want to piss off their parents. So why do they spend so much time doing it? Turns out, there's an answer.

A defiant, hard-to-punish, and unresponsive child can make life at home an exercise in frustration for caring parents, who often struggle to understand their beloved antagonist’s motives. Suddenly, a once sweet baby has become a button-pushing toddler, or a cuddly toddler has become a willful preschooler, or a curious preschooler has become a sullen elementary schooler or, far worse, a churlish tween. The silver lining to this dark cloud? Defiance can be easily understood, as it all stems from the same boundary-testing impulse. In truth, defiance is a good sign developmentally, but it can lead to real trouble if parents don’t react appropriately.

“It’s totally developmentally appropriate to be defiant,” explains American Academy of Pediatrics Fellow Dr. Phil Bouchard of Lincoln Pediatric Group, “Even in the 12-, 15-, and 18-month range.”

Bouchard notes that it’s important for very young children to begin testing boundaries as they enter toddlerhood. By defying parents or scampering away when they’re wanted, a kid feels out social limits, discovering the differences between suggestions and rules. Generally, this is not an issue of right and wrong. It’s an issue of call and response. How will dad react to a new behavior? There’s only one way to find out.

Understanding the inevitability of this kind of defiance should take some of the sting out of it for parents. Understanding that a child is being a pain in the ass in the service of learning helps parents cope with the anger that defiant behaviors often trigger. It is, after all, easy to assign intention where there is none. “It’s rare a child that’s being outwardly defiant is actually just trying to be a jerk or trying to maliciously irritate the parent,” Bouchard says.

This is where problems crop up. The common experience among parents is that defiance breeds defiance, which does not track with the idea that it’s a learning behavior. But this doesn’t happen because kids are stubborn, it happens because their parents react inappropriately to provocations so kids don’t learn clear lessons. Bouchard notes that kids keep looking for boundaries when the boundaries and expectations are inconsistent.

“That can cause more defiance because they just don’t know what to expect,” he says. “So kids keep kind of pushing out the boundaries further to find where they will get pushed back. They have to push further to find out where those boundaries actually lie.”

And that’s how normal developmental defiance becomes something more serious. If a parent is consistently inconsistent, kids will continue to push. And soon enough those pushing behaviors will become habit. At that point, the parent has a kid with behavioral problems.

Dr. Ben Springer, educational psychologist and author of the memorably named book Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face, works with parents to help stop the cycle of defiance. ”No parent is trying to program defiance,” he says. “But we accidentally reinforce these behaviors like tantrums of screaming because we’re just busy. We’re just trying to get through the day.”

Springer notes that it helps when parents have a good discipline plan that works for their own kids and home. And that requires that a parent approaches their job with a bit of intention. He knows it’s not easy, but it’s necessary.

“When we don’t have a plan we basically make it up,” Springer says. “And it turns out we’re not great at making things up, particularly living with difficult behaviors.”

The plan doesn’t have to be hard. But it should start early, Springer notes. He suggests parents look at their values and choose three or four behaviors that they will not tolerate. These behaviors can be as simple as hitting or swearing. Then parents need to set the expectation and reasonable consequence when those expectations are not met. And, importantly, they need to model the behavior they expect. When a parent engages in the behavior they are asking a child to avoid, they are violating the boundaries and reinforcing the negative behavior.

Springer notes parenting with intention can be tough, but much easier than raising a truly disruptive child. “Parenting with intention is hard,” he says. “But it’s not as hard as what you’re doing right now.”