Handling Defiance: You’re Not the Boss of Me!

Photography:Tara Samuelson Photography

By Laura Markham

“Dr. Laura…How should I respond when he yells ‘You’re not the boss of me!’?”

Defiance. It’s guaranteed to push a parent’s buttons. After all, we’re supposed to be in charge, right? Defiance rubs our nose in the fact that we can’t really control another person, whether he’s three or thirteen, unless we use force. And who wants to be that parent?

Because when we overreact to defiance, we escalate the battle. Since force creates resistance, either openly or in a passive-aggressive form, it’s ultimately a losing strategy. (You might win the battle, but you’ll lose the war.) 

So what can a parent do about defiance?

Cure it at the source! Kids are defiant for a reason. Often, they feel controlled and pushed around, and they need some positive ways to feel powerful and capable in their lives. 

Because a defiant child is rejecting the parent as leader, at least at this moment, defiance also indicates that the child feels disconnected from the parent. Maybe the relationship needs some repair work, or maybe she’s just very upset at the moment, and since she’s in “fight or flight” we look like the enemy. 

Punishment will just make the disconnection worse. It will make the child feel more unfairly pushed around. And it won’t help her with the upset. So you have to address defiance, but you can’t solve it with discipline. You solve defiance with connection.

Your approach will depend on how old your child is. Here’s an age-by-age guide.

Toddlers

Toddlers are still figuring out that they can be themselves and get what they want without saying no to everything. Although we as parents sometimes forget this, even small humans are separate people who have the right to their opinions and need to protect the integrity of their own “selves.” That’s why they’re so fiercely committed to “NO!” and “Do it myself!” Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Let her know you hear: “You say NO bath, I hear you….” (Sometimes, that’s enough to get a toddler cooperating happily.)
  • Give her a hug. (Often, toddlers just need to reconnect.)
  • Decide how flexible you are: “OK, we can just wash your hands and face today” or “And you are so very dirty, we do need a bath, so let’s find a way to make it work for you.”
  • Kindly insist on your limit if you feel it’s essential: “You’re crying because you don’t want a bath…. I am right here…. You can cry as much as you need to…. When you’re done crying, let’s find your doll so she can take a bath with you, I know you like to wash her hair.”

Preschoolers

Preschoolers know the rules. When they’re defiant, they’re saying “Mom, Dad, I’m upset but I can’t really express it…. So I’m going to be as bad as possible to get you to pay attention… I am going to DEFY you!”. Their defiance is best handled by:

  • Remind yourself that his defiance is a bid for reconnection, not something that requires discipline.
  • Reconnect through play, if you can. Try being mock-outraged to get your child giggling: “Excuse me…WHAT was that? Did I hear you say NO? You WON’T do what I said? We’ll see about that, won’t we? En Garde!”. After your pillow fight or wrestling match, your preschooler will have giggled out his upset and reconnected with some oxytocin released by all that roughhousing; he’ll be ready to do what you ask.
  • If he’s too upset to play, listen. “You’re saying no, you won’t go to soccer practice? Something must be upsetting you about soccer practice…. What do you think it will be like if you go?”
  • If his upset persists, set a kind limit and welcome his tears. He might just need to get all those feelings out with a good cry in your warm presence, after which he’ll feel reconnected and able to cooperate.
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