Although all young children need to learn how to best regulate their emotions as they develop, some children are more prone to what psychologists refer to as externalizing behavior, characterized as problematic behaviors directed toward one's external environment. For example, approximately 40 percent of children with ADHD will also develop oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
The following tips are intended to help improve behavior in kids, supporting your journey as a parent and as a family as a whole.
1. Avoid harsh discipline
Contrary to conventional wisdom, you should avoid harsh discipline when it comes to your defiant child. The research shows that this approach can actually backfire, as you push your child further and further away.
Instead, you need to focus on helping your child develop coping and problem-solving skills. Approach your child with compassion, not with an eager willingness to punish them.
2. Make your message clear while remaining connected
In order for children to improve and thrive, they require positive, connected relationships. Unfortunately, problematic behaviors can evoke negative reactions and counterproductive patterns in parents. Instead of acting in a punitive or disengaged manner, it's imperative to choose your battles, all while enforcing the fact that unacceptable behaviors will not be tolerated.
For example, if your child acts in a way that causes physical injury, causes damage, or hurts someone's feelings, this is the time to enforce the strictest message. The research shows that when aggressive behaviors are left unchecked, they can escalate over time.
In less severe circumstances, address your child's behavior, but in a manner that is not rejecting — be mindful of your tone. Focus on supportive communication, so that you will remain a positive influence in your child's development across time.
3. Be realistic about your child's milestones
If you put your child in situations that are not age-appropriate in regard to their development, you can expect conflict. For example, if your defiant three-year-old is asked to sit quietly through the duration of a long family meal at a restaurant, they may become inattentive and uncooperative.
Maintain realistic expectations about their current skill set, avoiding situations that simply demand too much from them.
4. Be open.
Make sure your child feels comfortable talking to you about their emotions. What makes them sad? What makes them angry? When children grow up feeling as though they can openly discuss their emotions, they often have better outcomes.
5. Choose activities that enhance development.
Children learn through play, which is why you should discuss the benefits of self-regulation games with your child's therapist or educator. "Simon Says" is a classic example, as it teaches your child to listen with intent and practice self-restraint. Movement activities and exercise not only increase heart rate for all over body wellness but are also great ways to enhance learning and brain development.
6. Observe and become more aware.
In order to understand your child, you need to observe them — especially in regard to their triggers. At this point, you may already be aware of how they feel emotionally, but you must also consider their environment. Do behaviors worsen when they're hungry? Anxious? Tired? Keep a detailed journal of specific incidents so that you can recognize patterns.
7. Give your child structured choice.
As your child develops, it's important that they feel as though they have some say in terms of their everyday activities. If your child feels more empowered and supported, they'll likely become more self-regulating. For example, instead of telling your child they have to take a shower at that exact moment, give them an option — "would you like to take a shower before or after lunch?"
8. Alter your child's environment when needed.
If your child struggles to do their homework, look around their immediate environment. Is the TV on in the background? Are their toys around? Create a fun, organized spot that is intended specifically for homework and other important activities that require their attention. Encourage short breaks for healthy snacks and one-on-one discussions.
9. Provide positive feedback.
Even if your child responds positively to a minor issue, give them praise for their cooperation. Positive reinforcement can significantly reduce the amount of negative attention your child receives, supporting their developmental journey.
10. Invest in family therapy.
In many cases, children are put into therapy alone. Although this can benefit a child's development, defiant behavior is a family issue, and as a parent, you need to understand your role. Your therapist will be able to provide you with the learning tools you need to better manage your child's behavior.
It's important to understand that there is no single answer when it comes to defiant and disruptive behavior. Your child is unique and in turn, requires an individualized plan. Work with your child, as well as their professional support system to optimize their development.
For over a decade, we’ve helped over 40,000 children improve the critical and behavioral skills needed to create a brighter path for their future. You can also view the research and results of the program on the website.