A Day in the Mind of Your Defiant Child

by James Lehman, MSW
A Day in the Mind of Your Defiant Child

If you’re the parent of a defiant child, you’ve probably wondered what makes him so angry at life—and angry at you. With the school year approaching, are you gearing up for another difficult year with your child,  just hoping that he’ll make it through—and that you’ll be able to manage without falling apart? Realize that it doesn’t have to be a daily battle of wills once you understand what’s actually going on in your child’s head. Here, James Lehman MSW breaks down some of your child’s thinking on a typical school day.

Although it may feel like your defiant child hates you, that’s usually far from the truth.

It’s another day and another battle. The alarm goes off, and your child yells, “School sucks. Why do I have to go? It’s not fair!” He hasn’t done his homework (again) because, as he sees it, the teacher didn’t explain the assignment to him. He adds, “Besides, my teacher is a jerk, and she doesn’t like me, anyway.” You find yourself yelling, “Hurry, you’re going to miss the bus,” but instead of getting ready, now your child is dragging his feet and shouting, “Leave me alone!” As on countless other days, he misses the bus and starts pleading with you for a ride to school, saying, “You don’t want me to be late, do you, Mom?” Before he gets out of the car, he reacts to your speech about trying harder tomorrow by screaming, “All right, get off my back. Why are you always yelling at me?” and slams the door. At school, he gravitates to the wrong group of friends and goofs off in class; even worse, he talks back to the teacher instead of paying attention. When he comes home in the afternoon, he grunts at you before getting onto his video games (you think they’re way too violent, but he loves them) listens to music which you find offensive, and talks openly about admiring people who are crooks and criminals. That night, you know your child is probably going to stay up until all hours playing more of those video games you can’t stand, but you’re so tired of fighting with him that you just fall into bed exhausted.

As a parent, you live this kind of situation every day when you have a defiant or “difficult” kid, but have you ever wondered what’s going on in your child’s head when he’s fighting with you? Although it may feel like he hates you, that’s usually far from the truth. Rather, kids get caught up in a long chain of what we call “thinking errors” that can tangle up their emotions and behavior—and make no mistake, unless they get help, thinking errors can dominate a person’s thought processes throughout their entire lives.

Here’s how some of the thinking errors used by the child above break down—and what you can do to challenge these faulty ways of thinking in your own child.

Thinking Error #1: “School sucks. Why do I have to go? It’s not fair.”

What It Means: One of the thinking errors this child is using is called “Injustice.” Realize that many kids see things as being unfair. The danger is that once they label something as “not fair” they feel like they don’t have to follow the rules or honor your expectations. This is pretty common in our society. If you’re on the turnpike and the speed limit is fifty-five miles an hour, you’ll see many people going sixty-five and seventy. It’s because they think fifty-five miles an hour isn’t fair—and once they decide it’s not fair, then in their minds, the speed limit rules don’t apply to them.

We all use thinking errors to justify doing things we know are risky or unhealthy. People use errors every day to gamble, lie, steal and cheat—or simply to justify having that second helping of pie. The problem is when kids use thinking errors to avoid taking responsibility. When they do this, they’re not realistically preparing for the adult world which awaits them. Remember, it’s not what the thinking error does—it’s what the thinking error justifies or permits.

What You Can Do: It’s important for you as a parent to challenge the error in thinking in a non-confrontational way. One thing the mother in our example could have said was, “You know school is your responsibility. If you don’t get up, you’re going to get an earlier bedtime. And it looks to me like you need to get more rest so you can get up on time.”

Thinking Error #2: “The Teacher is a jerk—and she hates me.”

What It Means: When a child says something like this, he’s using a thinking error called “The Victim Stance”. Some kids see themselves as victims all the time and in almost every situation. What they’re doing is trying to reject the idea that they’re responsible for anything. You’ll ask them a question and they’ve always got a sad story. Part of that sad story is who they blame for not meeting their responsibilities. That’s because when you’re a victim, you blame other people. So these kids blame the teacher, they blame you, or they blame somebody else—and what they learn is if they stick to their story long enough, they won’t be held accountable.

What I try to tell parents is that there is a sad story, and then there’s a behavior story. The sad story is your child playing the victim; the behavior story is what your child did to other people or to property. And as parents, we always have to focus on the behavior story. Every child has to be responsible for the behavior story, not the sad story. Don’t forget, when kids see themselves as victims, that gives them the justification they need to not meet their responsibilities. If you’re a victim, they reason, you shouldn’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. And focusing on the sad story somehow supports their right not to meet responsibilities.

What You Can Do: When your child adopts the Victim Stance, what he needs to be hearing from you is, “You’re not a victim. You’re responsible for your actions.” In this case, the parent could also say, “It sounds like you’re blaming your teacher for not having your homework done. But you’re the homework-doer—that’s your responsibility. And it’s not your teacher’s job to get along with you; it’s your job to get along with your teacher.” 

Thinking Error #3: “You don’t want me to be late for school, do you?”

What It Means: This is the thinking error I call "Concrete Transactions". The Concrete Transactions mode is a way of thinking about things in which relationships with people in authority are simply vehicles your child uses to get around the rules. What he is saying is, “I’m your friend, and since I’m your friend, you’re going to help me get away with things—or help me get things I’m not entitled to.” So in your child’s mind, relationships are designed to help him get around rules, expectations and responsibilities. In other words, he thinks, “If I have a relationship with you, then you won’t make me follow the rules. You’re going to let me stay up past bedtime and sleep late in the morning.” So to your child, rules and the rights of others are seen as obstacles in relationships. The use of “Concrete Transactions” is designed to make you remove those obstacles instead of helping your child develop the problem solving skills he needs to manage the challenges he faces.

Know that if you’re in this kind of relationship with your child, you’re not really a person—you’re a role. Simply put, your child will treat you the right way as long as you stay in your role. If you try to leave it and be more responsible and hold your child accountable, you will often get a very nasty reaction.

By the way, whenever I hear parents say they want to be their kid’s friend, I become concerned. If parents want a friend, they should seek it outside of the home or get a puppy. These kids don’t need their parents to be their friends. They need direction, limits, coaching, teaching and structure. Look at it this way: if you define friendship as a mutual relationship where two people really try to take care of each other, then the best way to be your child’s friend is by being an effective parent.

What You Can Do:  It’s important that children face the true consequences of their behavior. And when an authority figure such as a parent or teacher lets them off the hook, it doesn’t matter what they say to the child to justify it. As far as the child’s concerned, it works:  He won.

In the example above, I would suggest that if possible, and if it’s safe, the mother should leave her child at home. Most kids complain about going to school, but they have no place else to go. And remember, if you leave him home, take the video game, cable box and computer control panel with you in the trunk of your car—and don’t forget his cell phone.

Thinking Error #4: “This video game is cool. Mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about—she’s so uptight.”

What It Means: This child is using a thinking error called “Pride in Negativity”. Defiant kids often take a lot of pride in their knowledge of unhealthy, secretive things. They have a fascination with negative role models because they see them as being powerful. These kids might hint at having a secretive, negative life. They may also take great pride in telling you that they know about different drugs and where to get them, and in their knowledge of crime—and how to shoplift and steal.

Kids who have low self esteem and no way to solve problems will gravitate towards peers who don’t expect anything out of them. Those kids in general will see negative behavior as a solution to their problem. In the end, “Pride in Negativity” means self esteem and identity from negativity.

What You Can Do: One of the big mistakes parents make is to argue with their kids about the negative things their child is fascinated with. But fighting about those issues only gives the child more power. I personally think parents should have a structure in their home that forbids the games they’re not comfortable with. You should also really ignore any Pride in Negativity statements by saying, “Look, I’m not interested in that stuff,” and then walk away. In other words, give it no power. Remember, if you show your child that certain behaviors have power over you, those behaviors are going to be repeated. Conversely, behaviors that have no power over you will diminish.

It’s important to remember that kids believe in the thinking errors they’re using. As a parent, I believe to be overly confrontational is not the way to go. What’s preferred is a corrective response that challenges or refutes the thinking error. After all, these errors are part of every day life. You’ll find that people use them all the time. In fact, I find myself using thinking errors, and you might find yourself using them, too. But here’s the risk for your child: kids, and especially teens, use these errors in thinking to avoid doing things that are difficult for them, and that’s what makes them dangerous. Remember, adolescence is one of the most critical times in your child’s development for them to learn how to solve life’s problems—not avoid them by using excuses, manipulation or lies.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Wow! This article addressed 100% the issues we are having with our 15 yo son. He is defiant and hates school and we argue every morning trying to get him up. The issue is trying to curtail his bedtime. Once we are in bed, he seems to get up and play games till all hours of the morning. However, beginning next week, the controllers will be mine once we go to bed. This information is extremely good, but difficult to follow when your son is yelling at you, and refusing to get out of bed and swearing at you. Tough love is the hardest thing ever!

Comment By : Scaredmom

This is a great article. I sent it to my daughter hoping that she can take adavange of it in dealing with her son. Thanks for the timely advice. Carmen

Comment By : prprincess

This is an excellent article, because it specifically explains the thinking errors that I vaguely thought my son was making. What's more, James also gives concrete things parents can say to combat each type of erroneous thinking. Thank you, James Lehman, for these wonderfully helpful ways to help our family during the back to school season and (I hope) our son grow into more mature ways of thinking.

Comment By : Worried Mom

Great article- I realize more and more how my actions seem to esculate the problem- I'm trying to do better when dealing with my son. He is 10 and I'm afraid for his future if things continue on the path they are on- very loving child with lots of anger- sometimes I think triggered by my actions more than his.


I am speechless. Since my son was 3 I have tried to put this into words and seek specific advice in books, and through counseling.This hits it exact. He is now 9 and has 7yr. old triplet brothers.He has a beautiful heart, but possesses all of these negative behaviors. I am so grateful for this information

Comment By : multiple mom

This article could have been scripted verbatim the daily grind I have with my 15 yr. old daughter. Nothing is ever her fault--I either, according to her, don't give her enough information to make the "right decisions" or I am hovering with too much information and "treating her like a 4 yr. old. Darned if you do; darned if you don't. I will use every word of this article to work toward getting Daughter to step up and stop abusing. Thank you, Mr. Lehman!

Comment By : CelesteWolffe

This is awesome, not only for the mothers of defiant childrent, but for most mothers of adolescents and teenagers. I have a 13 year old son who is beginning to exhibit some of these behaviors. He has although, been playing the "Victim" for a couple of years now with his school work. He's gotten quite good at drawing me into the "my teacher hates me" mentality. I don't argue with him anymore about the teacher "hating him". I just tell him it doesn't matter and that in life, we run across all sorts of people who "don't like" us. We cannot use this as an excuse to avoid our responsibilities. WELCOME TO REALITY! As some of the other mothers said, thanks for putting this problem into words.

Comment By : K

My daughter is 18 an off to college on Friday. I wish I bought the CD's and became a more informed parent sooner. James, you have take the guilt away for me and have given me tools to take back some control in my life. You can only teach your child so much and if they refuse, it is their problem. I have made their problem mine and have fixed, helped and made their problems go away. My daughter has been left with few problem solving skills, thanks to me. I offer support, advice, although unwanted, but let her know that she is in charge of her life and if she is not responsible, she will fail in school. I have been using the program since 11/08 and it has helped, but I have not had the life I could have had if I had begun using the program sooner.

Comment By : Sary63

I really appreciate this article because it gave me a focus, that is often get lost in the heat of the moment, common sense. I found myself getting frustrated, angry and basically losing ground by confronting situations in a double negative way, instead of focusing on the solution. Which is to emphasize on the lessons that are crucial to the success of my sons future, taking responsibility for his behavior, addressing the errors in thinking that he is not a victim and that he is again responsible! Definitely looking forward to more articles and newsletters. Greatful Mother

Comment By : Greatful Mother

This was very useful informative information. Sometimes we as parents "fuel the fire." I have finally learned to get on with my life knowing i have planted the seeds but it is the child's responsibility to make them grow. Thanks for all the information.

Comment By : Keep the Faith

Thank you. This fits in my program where I 'fired the old mom and hired a new mom' and make my kids more accountable and expect more responsibilities of them. Great article , very helpful

Comment By : There and Back Again

I have a child that is 8yrs old that has been diagnosed with ADHA ODD and mood swings in the past 2 yrs. this is all extreamly new to me and i understand nothing. when i try to talk to him about what he should do instead he laughs at me. any time i try to correct him or anything he has a really sarcastic response. he is constantly stealing things just because (i know this has to do with impulsiveness which is part of his disablity). but with no exageration i catch him correct him and seconds later he does it again and again and again continuously all day at home and in school. nothing we do can or will stop this behavior. i have had tons of behavioral specialist in our home and nobody has come to any conclusion with any results. somebody please help me. this is only 1 of 4 boys. i have a 10 yr old, 8 yr old, 7yr old and a 6 yr old. the 3 oldest have been diagnosed with these adhd odd and mood swings. they are all extremely violent and rebellious in all ways. somebody needs to help me understand the actions i need to take to help these children get out of this negative attiotion cycle. its causing so much stress and constant chaos in my family.

Comment By : oldhippie1959

* It sounds like there is a lot going on in your family. If you are not already a Total Transformation customer, you might look into James' Lehman's program. www.thetotaltransformation.com The Total Transformation Program has helped hundreds of families like yours. As a customer, you would also have access to the parent support line; they can help you customize a plan to help each of your children learn better, more appropriate skills. If there is violence or aggression in your home, James recommends you address those safety issues first. You mentioned many behaviors that concern you, but it seems your main question relates to stealing. Once any safety issues are addressed, you might consider sitting down with your son and clearly stating the house rules around stealing. Let him know that when he can get through a certain amount of time without stealing, he will earn a privilege. For example, if he can go three hours without stealing, he can earn half an hour on the computer. If he steals within that three hours, the time clock starts over. Remember, you want your consequences to help your son learn better behavior, not just punish him, because as James says, you can't punish a child into better behavior. If your son says he can't help it, or you feel he needs help with impulse control, brainstorm with him things he might do to help him keep from stealing when he is tempted. It is not enough to say "don't do it;" he will also need to know what he can do to help himself resist the urge to take something that is not his. Some ideas to start with might be telling someone he is tempted to steal (asking for help), or reminding himself that he really wants to be on the computer tonight. See what ideas he can come up with. It will be a work in progress, so be sure to recognize when he has been able to resist those urges to steal. Let him know that he can work towards more computer time when he shows improvement in this behavior. Check out the article "how dare you lie to me?" for why it is more effective to deal with lying and stealing as behavioral issues rather than moral issues. For help with the other issues you mentioned, you might also check out these articles: Oppositional Defiant d/o: the war at home; Why don't consequences work, We got a diagnosis, now what?; When kids get violent; Why is my child stealing?; How Dare you lie to me?

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

After reading this advice,I went out and bought an alarm clock for my 13 year old. He got up the first week pretty well. Than he would forget to set the clock. We just let him sleep on. He awakened and blamed us for letting him sleep in. We let him no it was his responsibility, not our's. He sure makes a point now, that his clock is set!

Comment By : sari29

Hey Sari29...LOVE IT! I did the same thing with my 15 year old. And my son has an alarm clock with 2 snooze bottons. I'm tired of spending a half hour every morning getting him out of bed, making sure he brushes his teeth, eats breakfast and gets the bus on time. I told him I go in to his room and get him up once and once only. After that if he chooses to sleep in (his choice) I call the school and he is marked truant for the day. And no school means no going out that night. That is his consequence. (plus detention at school) Even if he blames me for not getting him up and making sure he gets to school on time. Now he makes sure he is up every morning and gets the bus on time. Heaven forbid he would miss a chance to go out with friends.

Comment By : stillhope

My son is 14 and for the past yr it has been hell! He is a good kid but don't like to do what he's told. He don't like to go to bed when he know he needs to, don't like to get up on time and it's a hassle each morning, when it comes time for homework afterschool he either won't do it, lies and says he completed it and he is failing classes in school that he is capable of getting A's n B's in etc. I have to remind him daily to shower and brush teeth and half the time he argues about it. He swears and I told him that that type of language is not aloud but he still does it. He also blames others for his responsibilities that don't get done. He says the teachers are jerks etc... I've been reading trying different suggestions, medications and honestly, I don't know what to do anymore. I'm stressed and cry often because I don't know what to do. He does have a tic disorder (blinking) and ADD (in-attentive type) and has never been diagnosed with ODD, but this is the first that I've heard of ODD. Pamela

Comment By : Pamela

* To Pamela: It sounds like you are quite overwhelmed with all that is going on, and it is easy to see why—there are several things you want to change right now. Give yourself permission to take some of this off your plate and really focus on one behavior at a time. It might help you to rank these behaviors in order from most troublesome to least troublesome to get an idea of where to start. If you are still feeling overwhelmed after choosing just one thing to work on, it might be helpful to seek some local support. Local support could mean getting some guidance from your son’s school counselor, a support group, a local counselor or therapist, your primary care doctor, or a religious leader, to name a few examples. To see what kind of help is available to parents in your area, you can try dialing 2-1-1 on your phone (this works best from a landline) to talk to a specialist from the United Way’s information and referral service called 211. This service links people with beneficial resources in the community, and it is available in most of the U.S.. You can also visit www.211.org and enter your zip code to see if the service is available where you live. If it is available, the link for your local 211 branch will pop up. Some local branches provide the public with the option of searching for services on their website. We wish you the best.

Comment By : Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

What makes some children more defiant than others? How do you help them manage this part of their personality?

Comment By : tweetyssweety

* To ‘tweetyssweety’: Thank you for your question. James Lehman felt that children act out because they don’t know how to solve their problems in effective and appropriate ways. He also felt that faulty thinking, such as that described in this article, plays a role in defiant behavior as well, i.e., “it’s not fair so I don’t have to do it.” James did not believe that defiance is part of personality, in most cases. He felt that helping children learn new ways to solve their problems and holding them accountable is the solution. You can read more about this topic here: Oppositional Defiant Disorder: The War at Home.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Oh gosh, the above sounds just like our ADD, ODD, 15 year old daughter. Your tips are very insightful, however they are based on assuming the child wants a change for a better, wants a relationship with their family, wants to get good grades, get a high school diploma and other goals. What if the child doesn't care about any of that and would rather run away and live on the street to avoid it? I just ordered your program, but am skeptical about it working after reading your above advice to seek counseling, which hasn't worked.

Comment By : skeptical and losing hope

* To ‘skeptical and losing hope’: I am very sorry to learn that you are feeling so discouraged. It can be very difficult to give people sound advice through a website like this because we are often get a very limited amount of information and are left to read between the lines. Our goal here on the website is to help people find a starting point, and that starting point looks different for everyone depending on what details we get. That said, having purchased the program, you will be able to take advantage of the Parental Support Line which is here to offer you specific, detailed recommendations based on your unique situation. Using the Support Line will enable you to get the soundest advice possible as we can discuss important details such as what your relationship with your daughter is like, how she responds to you, and what you have tried in the past. I would encourage you to call the Support Line and talk to one of the advisors. That phone number is included in your package material. We are open Monday through Friday, 9:00 AM to 10:00 PM, Eastern Standard Time, and your first month is only $1. Keep in mind that there are some cases where the Total Transformation Program is only one piece of the puzzle. We look forward to hearing from you and being able to come up with solutions together.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

I have a 9yo boy who has not been diagnosed with ODD, but certainly has lots of the symptoms. We are trying new tactics on him and don't have any clear answer if they are working yet. However, I would love to have more resources for younger children so that when he is 15 he will even be able to handle this better. Also, he is the middle child of three. The other two are already fed up with this behavior. Are there resources for them as well so they don't feel they are missing out on mom and dad's time.

Comment By : Made in His image

* To "Made in His Image": You're very wise to be looking for resources for your other children at this time, especially if your son is either verbally or physically abusive to them. I would recommend that you check out this article by James Lehman for your other kids: http://www.empoweringparents.com/Abusive-Sibling-Rivalry-Families-Children-Teen-Behavior-Problems.php Also, this one: http://www.empoweringparents.com/siblings-at-war-in-your-home.php?&key=Sibling-Rivalry For your son who you suspect might have ODD, I would encourage you to check out The Total Transformation Program. It's designed to help parents of kids with behavioral problems, but will also help give you effective parenting techniques for all your kids. You can currently get the program free of charge after filling out a feedback survey. (Just click on the ad on this page to find out more.) I hope this is helpful! Best of luck, and please keep in touch.

Comment By : Elisabeth Wilkins, Editor

I am having a specific problem of getting my 13 year old son to do his homework and chores when I am not there to oversee and redirect him constantly. I created a schedule with a structured routine that lists what he needs to do. I bought a dry erase board with a to do list, which he erased, then claimed there was never anything written on it. I used post-its, which he wadded up and threw away and claimed they "must've blown away," and I also tried email and texting him. In those instances, he just said he forgot, lost track of time, etc. If the chores are not done when I get home, he loses privileges, but he doesn't seem to be effected by that. He's pretty content to read a book if he can't play video games or watch tv. I guess my real problem is motivation. How do you motivated a kid that can just amuse himself some other way if you take his electronics or limit his freedom?

Comment By : wordwizjenn

* To wordwizjenn: It can be pretty frustrating when you have set up a routine for your son, and then he refuses to follow it. One of the authors on this site, Debbie Pincus, talks about the concept of boxes; that is, looking at what is your responsibility, and what is your son’s responsibility. It is your son’s responsibility to get his homework and chores done, and it is your responsibility to hold him accountable if he doesn’t do this. It is true that electronics are not motivating for some kids; you might want to look at other things he enjoys doing in order to hold him accountable such as spending time with friends. I am attaching some articles I think you might find helpful: Unmotivated Child? 6 Ways to Get Your Child Going & Irresponsible Children: Why Nagging and Lecturing Don't Work. Good luck to you and your son as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank you for this information. I have followed the Total Transformation and I recently purchased the ODD Lifeline which I'm looking forward to receive. My 17 yo son has both ADHD and ODD. What a nightmare! (trouble with school, stealing, defiance, drug abuse, bullying, suicide attempts, you name it!).A year ago I caught him smoking marihuana in his bedroom, I took the door of the hinges and he did not have privacy for several months. We started doing random drug screening on him and that seemed to work for awhile as a deterrent. He changed from a traditional highschool to an alternative school and his grades went from straight F's to A's and B's. That lasted for 4 months. Now he is back to failing all his classes. I suspect he is back to abusing drugs, but his test comes up negative. I believe he might be bringing somebody else's urine sample to the lab. We have another boy (12 yo) who is a sweetheart and responsible, but that is fed up with his bully big brother. His belongings are being stolen and/or destroyed by his 17 yo out-of-control sibling. We have tried everything since he is 6 years old, several therapists, ADHD drugs, we even hospitalized in a pediatric clinic when he was suicidal. I'm frankly very tired and can't wait for him to move out. At the same time I feel extremely anxious and guilty because he is our "product" and apparently we have failed at Quality Control. He will be out there without skills to fend for himself. My feelings are always in a rollercoaster. I try to focus on my job (I'm a scientist and I love what I do), I exercise, try to enjoy the good things in life and try to spend as much time as I can with my husband and my youngest child. Nevertheless, nothing can take this overwhelming feeling of helplesness away.

Comment By : quality control issue

This article was helpful in understanding reasons why kids act like they do. I really appreciate the information and explanations Empowering Parents provides it really helps me focus on being a better parent and leader to our children.

Comment By : CMTS

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