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How Do I Handle My Child's Defiant Behaviors?

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Disclaimer:  Any advice or suggestions that I write here CANNOT be considered therapy or professional consultation, due to counseling ethics standards. It is not really practical or possible to do counseling with someone I have never met. What I hope to offer IS my personal experience as a person with ASD, AHD, and Anxiety Disorder NOS, combined with experience as a parent of special needs children, plus the things I have learned as a professional counselor.  Take any advice that fits, leave aside what doesn't fits.

While we should expect some degree of defiance from children all along the developmental path, sometimes there is an anger or aggressiveness that is unnerving for a parent. There are many elements that might play a role in an episode of defiance.

Toddler Development

As we mentioned in last week's post about transitions, one of the major goals of the toddler years is autonomy and self-determination. Your child is learning what is within and without his/her control. When mom asks her 2-3 year old son or daughter to pick up their toys, this is perceived as the end of play time, (which is sad) and a loss of control over his or her time (which is frustrating.) Also remember with toddlers, there is the lack of verbal expression, especially when it comes to talking about feelings. We as parents see the anger and defiance. What we don't see is the child's inner conflict and frustration about not being able to find the words to describe what they want or why they feel the way they feel. A researcher named Neal Miller developed the frustration-anger-displacement theory to explain what might be happening (Click here for original link to article first published in 1941.) In basic terms, Miller said that when we are frustrated by someone that we cannot challenge (because the other person is bigger, has more authority, etc.) we can become aggressive and take out the frustration on an innocent target. So, when the 3-year old boy is being aggressive towards his little sister for example, it could be that he is acting out his frustration about being told "no" or directed to complete a task.

1. Take a step back, regroup and remember that you are the adult.  

2. Be firm, consistent, and calm.

3. Distract and redirect when possible.

4. Pick your battles.

For more information about helping toddlers transition, click HERE.

Finally, remember that your child's brain is a complicated and amazing thing. It is undergoing so many huge changes and absorbing so much information, there are bound to be bumps along the road to normal development. Integrating cognition, behavior, movement, memory, sensory input and emotional processing, all within a complex and sometimes baffling social context, is hard work for young brains (not to mention some adult brains as well). Be patient.

Emotional Regulation

Not surprisingly, kids with developmental disabilities, mood disorders, reactive attachment, ADHD, and other related disorders have a hard time managing their feelings. This deficit goes beyond the normal social-emotional development issues, and lasts well into adulthood sometimes. While the defiance of toddlers goes away as the child learns to communicate and develops coping strategies, some special needs kids lack the emotional regulation skills that their normal peers gain over time. They continue to display behaviors that appear to be defiant and oppositional, but actually are not, and instead a result of their lack of emotional regulation. Take it from me, when an ASD person is anxious or upset about something that happened hours or even days ago, it can result in some attitudes that look defiant or oppositional here and now. So, how can you cut through your child's emotional turmoil and avoid negative interactions?

1. Get to know your child's self-soothing behaviors. These can be clues to guide the way you choose to interact with him or her, and will help you avoid escalating things with a request or direction the child isn't ready for. If your child is already in a self-soothing mode, you don't want to require something more of them, because they can't handle it at the moment. Doing this can also reduce the likelihood of a meltdown or temper tantrum. 

2. Keep the daily routine consistent. This reduces stress/frustration, and therefore decreases the likelihood of aggression and unintentional defiant-like behaviors. 

3. Consider your child's sensory needs. When you are seeing a lot of agitation or irritability, try to minimize the amount and/or intensity of sensory input before making requests of the child.

Behavioral Plans

Once you have accounted for developmental and emotional regulation issues, oppositional and defiant behaviors are addressed most effectively with behavior plans. Toddlers, and older children, both with and without special needs, can all benefit from a solid, comprehensive, and efficient behavioral plan. There are dozens of approaches and programs available to help parents manage their children's behavior, so you need to do your homework and choose one that you think you can manage. No matter what you choose-

1. All behavior is purposeful

This means that whenever your child does anything, you have to consider the context in which it happens. Remember ABC. What was going on just before (A or antecedent)? What is the behavior (B) that's occurring? What resulted from that behavior (C or consequence)? If screaming "no!" is a guaranteed way to get parental attention (negative or positive), your child will try it every time, whether you "approve of" his behavioral choice or not. Your job is to understand why your child is non-compliant, and to make any necessary arrangements to convince him or her that compliance is in his or her interest.

2. Motivate your child with positive reinforcement.

People tend to do things that are rewarding or enjoyable, and avoid things that are painful. Use this principle to your advantage. Millions of words have been published in books and online about positive reinforcement, punishment, etc. and there are almost as many opinions about how to best use them. No matter how you choose to do it, just remember to keep if simple, consistent, and effective. The plan should be made in advance, with the child's input, so that when the parent gives the direction, the child knows what is expected, when it should be done, and most importantly, what the reinforcement is for following the direction. If mom says, "time to put away your toys", the child knows where to put the toys, when to do it, and knows that he will get a big hug and/or a dinosaur sticker on his behavior chart for complying fully.

3. EVERYONE involved in the behavioral plan must be on the same page and carry out the plan consistently.

Any variation in parental expectations or responses to behaviors (good or bad) will undermine the plan and undo any effectiveness you might have had in changing the behaviors. Getting everyone on board might be the hardest part of putting a plan together, but it is essential.

Special Cases
I want to make a distinction between defiant behavior and Oppositional-Defiant Disorder (ODD). You can find all of the criteria for ODD at many sources online (This link takes you to the Mayo Clinic's website). Please note that ODD is a consistent pattern of negativity, arguing, and vindictive behaviors that occur across multiple settings, for at least six months. If your kid is in a "funk" for a few days, this does not meet criteria for full-blown ODD. If the behaviors occur in one setting, whether school or home, consider environmental factors influencing behavior. The main component that sets ODD apart from other mood and behavioral disorders is the willful vindictiveness towards authority figures. With some mood disorders, the negative behaviors are directed towards whoever might happen to be in the path of the upset or agitated child, but with ODD, there is something more planned out and specific to adult authority figures that set it apart. ODD only occurs in 10% of children. That said, if your child does have ODD, you will likely need the assistance of a whole team of professionals to develop a comprehensive plan for managing it.

Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) is another special case where the basic rules mentioned above, don't necessarily apply. With RAD, behavioral plans are not effective. One reason for this, as noted by several attachment experts, is that the behavior is intended to create chaos, or to reduce anxiety and fear that come from the child feeling out of control of himself or herself. No reward for "good behavior" is stronger than the fear of feeling out of control with some RAD kids. Many will actively try to sabotage a carefully constructed behavioral plan, to see what you will do about it. There is a lot going on inside the brain of a RAD child, and this deserves attention in a separate post. Just know that with RAD, basic behavioral approaches are not recommended.

Thanks again for reading. I look forward to your comments and questions. Check back here for a new post next week!

If you have a parenting question you'd like Jason to address, please e-mail him at or send him a message on facebook.

About the Author:
Jason has a master's degree in Marriage and Family Counseling.  He has spent the last eight years working as a therapist to adults and children, in a private and group counseling sessions, and in residential facilities.  At home, Jason has four plus years experience as a foster parent with his wife, caring for children ages newborn to eighteen years of age with multiple special needs.   He is also a parent to four special needs children, two biological, and two adopted, with diagnoses of autism, ADHD, RAD, PTSD, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome of Effect, anxieties, and sleep disorders.  Within the last year, Jason was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD and Anxiety Disorder NOS.


  1. This is so great to read perspective of a professional and a dad! Thank you for sharing your thoughts and knowledge! These are very clear and reasonable points that make total sense!

  2. Thanks Anastasia. You are very kind. We appreciate all of your support!

  3. This is a really great article - thanks so much. Some good points, really well articulated. Thanks so much for joining in with the parenitng pin it party again.

    1. Thank you for the compliments! I'm so glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Some really good advice, I have four challenging children for different reasons, but only one has ASD and ADHD, it's a whole different ball game! However strategies that help him also help my others :)

    1. What fun you must have at your house! You're correct in that most of what you implement for your ASD and ADHD child will work on others. There are very few exceptions.

  5. What a helpful and well written article!

  6. What a helpful and well written article!