Defiance: Managing it through different stages of kids' development

Defiance: Managing it through different stages of kids' development

Find out age specific ways to defuse your child's defiance with help from an expert in the field! Learn more here.

Defiance. It's something that's bound to grind the gears of even the most cool and collected parents. Why wouldn't it? As a parental figure, you're supposed to be the head honcho, and the one who calls the shots. No matter which age or stage of your kid, defiance rubs parents the wrong way.

The friction and tension of defiance often leads to heated conversations, and sometimes yelling. Obviously, no parent likes being the one who has to raise their voice and/or escalate a situation, but it's a necessary evil...or is it?

Author and clinical Psychologist, Laura Markham, Ph. D. seems to disagree. In her opinion, there are proper ways to defuse a situation without resulting in a battle or even a war. Not only that, but she lists a number of ways that are completely age specific to your child's stage of development.



Check out Dr. Markham's tips and tricks for handling defiance for each stage of your kids' development:


Though toddlers may shock you with how far they've come and developed since being a tiny baby, are still learning every second of the day. This means that even as they learn a sense of identity, they're still learning that they can say "no" and do things by themselves. While there's nothing wrong with them wanting to develop a sense of self and self-reliance, they often fiercely apply a sense of defiance to prove they can do things on their own. According to Dr. Markham, here's how to handle a toddler's defiance:

  • 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."



By this age, your kids know and understand basic rules and guidelines. Whenever they are being defiant, what they're really saying is, "I'm upset, I just don't know how to properly express it. So, I'm going to use bad behavior to defy you and show you how angry I am."

Dr. Markham suggests handling this stage and age of defiance as so:

  • 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.


Parents! Learn the appropriate way to deal with your kids' defiance based on their specific age and stage! Click next for more!

Elementary/Grade School

Usually, children of this age use defiance when they feel indignant. They respond to unfair treatment by defying you through arguments; and often it's because they feel as though they aren't being heard, or connected. Markham recommends defusing their defiance by:

  • Stop, Drop (your agenda) and Breathe. Since your buttons are pushed, you need to get calm before you address the defiance.
  • Remind your child that disrespect is out of bounds: "You know we don't speak to each other that way. You must be very upset." 
  • Consider that when kids are defiant it's a relationship problem. You're losing your child somewhere, so he's not willingly following you. Are you being unfair? Are you not listening? Are you losing his respect by having your own tantrums?
  • Reconnect by listening and reflecting: "You're saying No because you don't think it's fair? Hmm....Maybe I'm missing something here. Tell me more." 
  • Empathize: "Oh, so you feel....You wish...It must feel so hard that...." 
  • Look for win/win solutions. "So you want...and I want...How about we...?"


Preteens and tweens

For the most part, preteens and tweens resort to defiance because it's something they've learned through observation. In other words, they see defiance from their peers or older kids and use it a recourse for their own behavior. They also use it to see just how far they can go with their behavior. Here are Dr. Markham's recommendations:

  • Stop, Drop (your agenda) and Breathe. Since your buttons are pushed, you need to get calm before you address the defiance.
  • Reinforce your expectation about the standard of respect in your family: "Ouch! You know we don't speak to each other that way." 
  • Give your child a chance to correct herself while you reopen communication: "I know you didn't mean to be disrespectful. I do want to hear what you have to say. Can we try a do-over?" 
  • Consider your approach. No one likes to be told what to do. And yet research shows that the average parent gives hundreds of orders every day, most in a negative tone. If your preteen is bristling, consider how you can help her step into more responsibility, instead of feeling ordered around.

Parents! Learn the appropriate way to deal with your teens' defiance! Click next for more!


Teenagers are often regarded as the most defiant of the ages and stages of development--and for good reason! Teens typically feel detached from the world around them as they develop their true sense of identity. It's because of this that they may begin to lose connect and respect with you as a a parent. Markham says to deal with their defiance by:

  • Translate your teen's defiant words. Your child may sound like she never wants to see you again, but underneath her rudeness, she's saying "I'm all alone out here and pretty miserable...I wish you'd find a way to come out in the cold and get me, because I don't know how to find my way back." 
  • Stay compassionate. Say "Ouch! That was pretty rude...You must be very upset to speak to me that way....I try to always speak respectfully to you....What's going on, Sweetie?" (If you realize your role modeling of speaking respectfully has been lacking, admit that, apologize, promise to do better, and state your expectation that everyone in the family needs to turn over a new leaf.)
  • Stay compassionate while he expresses his upset: "Wow...I see...I'm so sorry...I didn't realize...Thanks for telling me." Just keep breathing and stay calm. He needs to tell you about all his built-up feelings that have been making him feel so disconnected from you.
  • Find a way to re-connect. Listen. Reflect. Seek to understand. Tell him how much you love him and how much he means to you. Find a common ground. Problem-solve so you both get your needs met. Model the respect you expect.


No matter what age and stage of your child, there is an appropriate and constructive way to address defiance. However, while you certainly want to consider defusing a situation whenever you can, it's also important  to develop a sense of perspective. Understand where your kids are coming from and why they're defying you. In the end, you need to respect that sometimes, kids have a justifiable reason to defy you. Be sure to handle each instance accordingly, and never go over the top.


This article was originally shared by Psychology Today

READ: 9 Things only your kids are allowed to say to you

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