Behavior Modification for the Strong Willed or Defiant Child

Some children have a strong will that makes them exceedingly challenging to parent. These children may have a combination of both developmental factors and learned behaviors that contribute to a defiant attitude, states the Boston Children’s Hospital. When you have a strong willed or defiant child, you might use behavior modification tactics to help lead and guide your child to more positive behavior.


Communicate clearly with your strong-willed child. Mary M. Gottesman, associate professor with the Ohio State University College of Nursing, advocates sitting down with your child to discuss your expectations. Tell your child that you have some non-negotiable rules that won’t ever change, such as treating others respectfully, attending school and abiding curfews. Other areas of your child’s life might be areas where you can back off and allow your child some independence. Examples of these areas might be clothing choices, food, music and homework.


Once you define and communicate your expectations with your child, enforce your rules consistently. The Zero to Three website warns that giving in to your child’s misbehavior or tantrums will teach your child that with effort he can push you to change your mind or give in 2. Inconsistency teaches your child that you don’t mean what you say. As you enforce your expectations and rules, strive to ignore your child’s misbehavior. Again, the Zero to Three website recommends that you ignore the behavior you want to discourage. If your child is engaging in physical attacks, however, you must use an appropriate consequence to teach him that hitting or kicking is not acceptable.

Connected Consequences

Attach a suitable consequence to each misbehavior. Mary M. Gottesman advises that the natural consequences that follow a mistake or a faulty decision are often the most effective way to teach lasting lessons. For example, if your child won’t cooperate and complete her homework, she will be the person facing her teacher to explain the lack of finished assignments. If your child doesn’t place dirty laundry into the hamper, she won’t have her clothing washed. If your child refuses to keep her curfew and won’t answer your calls to her cellphone when she’s out, you might revoke her cellphone until she conducts herself responsibly. If your child hits or kicks, separate her from others until she calms down. Explain that lashing out physically is never acceptable and that you will always separate her from other people if she engages in this behavior.


Although it may be tempting to heap loads of praise on your child when he makes improvement, Debbie Laffranchini, teaching faculty with Modesto Junior College, advises that parents proceed carefully 3. Praise may succeed in motivating your child to perform, but the effect on your child’s self-esteem might be negative. Your praise may cause a dependence in your child to constantly hear positive feedback. Instead, give your child positive encouragement with a subtle shift from parental judgment to your child’s internal satisfaction with his accomplishments. Encouragement also motivates your child to perform for personal satisfaction instead of receiving parental praise 3. Give encouraging feedback such as, “Nice work!” and “Congratulations on a job well done!”