Strong Wills and ODD: How do you parent a defiant child?

defiant childThere has been a movement swelling in American parenting circles for some time. From James Dobson’s book The Strong-Willed Child to articles throughout newspapers like this one, it’s a movement surrounding how exactly to rear a child with defiant behavior and opposition to authority. Where is the line, though, between a child who is strong-willed, which is an actual thing, by the way, and a child who is acting inappropriately for his developmental stage?

Get ready for some acronyms. Some people call this behavior Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). The gold standard of psychiatric diagnosis is the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) DSM-5, which is short for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

That’s a mouthful.

The DSM-5 describes ODD in this way: “a pattern of angry / irritable mood, argumentative / defiant behavior, or vindictiveness lasting at least six months.” Some of you might be thinking, “That sounds like every kid ever.” But this is a serious condition of a defiant child.

But where is that line between defiance and disorder exactly? How do you parent a defiant child?

There’s no easy solution. Kids don’t show up with instruction manuals like IKEA® desks. We get that. It takes a lot of sacrifice, humility and a lot of patience.

As is the case with adults, stress and lack of structure are major causes of ODD. Stress produced from school, family conflicts, or other external pressures inflame an already-aggravated emotional state. Lack of structure and boundaries, or at least ill-defined ones, provide too much latitude for the child to find balance, and she may externalize the anxiety through behavior.

But what do you actually do to provide structure and discipline? Many have offered advice with widely different approaches and convictions, but there are a few tips that are nearly universal you can implement today.

Follow through. When you warn your child with a discipline—like taking her away from the birthday party or taking away the TV—be sure you follow through. Most ODD children are acting out to get a reaction from you. It’s a sense of power and, oddly enough, affection to argue and defy authority, so following through on what you say in a calm but assertive and direct tone will give your child the boundary she needs.

Ignore it. Okay, this sounds counter-intuitive, but children often disobey because they want attention (in the negative sense). Refusing to give into their games while they’re disobeying is actually a helpful way to diffuse a highly reactive situation.

The flipside of this, however, is to praise positive behavior.

Praise positive behavior. Children want love, and they need to know they’re worthy people. Praising positive behavior and ignoring negative behavior will give the attention they need in the proper areas. This will provide them guidelines to follow in the future and it will provide them with positive reinforcement. In the end, this kind of attention is all they’re after.

At Kids ‘R’ Kids, we have the philosophy of “Hug first, then teach.” We know that positive praise definitely affects children in a productive way and contributes to self worth.  


For more information on preschool special programs that help your child reach learning goals, talk to the staff at Kids ‘R’ Kids Learning Academies Atlanta. They incorporate many learning tools that are fun and engaging and would love to discuss their programs and curriculum.

Kids R Kids Atlanta

Headquartered in the North Atlanta suburb of Duluth, GA, Kids ‘R’ Kids Learning Academies® provide secure, nurturing, and educational environment for children ages 6 weeks – 12 years. We help children to bloom into responsible, considerate, and contributing members of society. With over 160 locations in 15 states, Kids ‘R’ Kids International® is a family owned and operated organization that ranks in the top 10 nationwide for franchised early childhood education centers. Find a Kids R Kids location near you.

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