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A Strong-Willed and Defiant Child: What You Should Know

by: Guest Writer
Parenting never finishes. No matter your child’s age, when they’re in front of you, you are their guardian, and they are your child. It’s a hierarchy that is very, very difficult to break and avoid. As such, you will have a hand, to varying degrees and through different methods, in how they are, who they are throughout your life. Certain qualities some parents – and society – favor over others. Ones you have yourself and feel are important to pass on, or ones you believe are universally necessary. Being considerate, enthusiastic, persistent, humble, generous – all these are the kinds of traits many people prioritize. On the road to developing these, there may be unexpected forks, misdirection, obstacles. Your child may have an extreme emphasis on one of these qualities, which may have some negative impacts. A notable example would be being ‘strong-willed’.
Knowing what you want is one thing; pursuing and insisting on it is another. Children (in the ages from 4 to 16), as they’re developing sympathy and compassion, are liable to take this to an extreme. They want what they want, which is either led by their desire for that thing or by their opposition to what’s being asked of them. If they want the latest iteration of Woody from Toy Story or a fidget popper, you will know about it, and they will not let it go lightly. If they want to stay out longer with their friends despite you clearly stating a time to be home by, an argument will be had. This is part of the process of your child testing independence, separating themselves from you, rules, the order of time, standard language.
Nonetheless, are there points at which you should be worried? Are there moments when you need to action a solution to help them and help yourself? How should you handle them?
Should You be Worried?
Children and teenagers who are defiant can be a nightmare. Simple tasks and expectations are long, drawn-out negotiations, taxing both physically and emotionally for you (and them). You may have moments where you’re reminded you were like this once. Your mom tells a long story about how she could never get you to tidy up after yourself. But look at you now – ‘you turned out fine,’ she’ll say with a wink. It may remind you that being strong-willed doesn’t necessarily equate to being naughty.
There will be times, though, where you might need to pay closer attention to their defiance, their stubbornness, as it may indicate problems that need to be resolved for the betterment of their health.
Younger Children: Oppositional Defiant Disorder
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is one such thing to keep an eye out for. Diagnosed mostly in childhood, it means that your child is hostile, defiant, and uncooperative. It is sometimes misdiagnosed as ADHD as there are some similarities, but there are key differences between ADHD and disruptive behaviour disorders.
Over a prolonged period, almost daily, a child with ODD will have tantrums, question and refuse rules and commands, deliberately upset others, be angry and/or vindictive, and argue a lot. Experts suggest development hang-ups – a struggle to be independent leftover from their toddler years – can cause it or learned behavior – mirrored attitudes from peers, parents, and others, or attitudes reinforced by positive associations, like receiving attention and reactions after a tantrum. One solution would be behavior therapy for children, which can help both you, as a parent, and your child. They can provide the means to better understand what is causing such defiance and give them and you the tools to improve their behavior, enabling them to function better in a group environment.
Tweens and Teenagers: Environmental Factors
In many cases, your tween and/or teenager are likely to be guided by their environment: who they’re around, what they’re doing. Their defiance will likely only appear in opposition to something, and not when they’re on their own. ADHD is a possibility, though, should they display symptoms on their own. In 2016, 3.3 million children between the ages of 12 and 17 were diagnosed with ADHD.
Lecturing, you may have already found, is not a fruitful method to get through to children with ADHD. Be mindful of exactly what they are defiant towards. Try to understand the triggers and patterns. It might be an influential friend, something at school, or your home life. However, being aware of them is half the battle, which will allow you to begin the approach to change.
How Should You Handle Them?
Handling your strong-willed and defiant child is complicated. Largely, as you may have gleaned, it depends on their age.
With your tween or teenager, validating and affirming their decisions and feelings will create a much more positive and cooperative relationship. At their age, going through puberty and other significant life moments, being told ‘yes’ or ‘okay’ can go a long way when things can feel unstable and uncertain.
With your children, you can have a more active role. Validation works here, too. Listening to their opinions and arguments, rather than dismissing them, gives them a chance to express themselves fully, which may uncover the root of the issue (tiredness, i.e.). Giving them options is part of this validation. Allowing them to choose (within your clear and cleverly presented parameters) will reduce their defiance. Reinforcing the right kinds of behavior is also important.
Having a strong-willed child is something to be proud of. It is desirable. You’ll be able to trust them to do what’s right for them and, hopefully, others. Don’t be scared of defiance. It’s part of the journey.