Your Defiant Child’s Behavior: What You Can—and Can’t—Control as a Parent

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What can you do when your defiant child just absolutely refuses to get up and go to school? For many parents of defiant children, this is an every-day event.

Parents who have not experienced this kind of defiance may immediately respond, “I’d make my kid go!”

But without using physical means, how would you do that? If a child outright refuses to comply, other than using physical force—which no parent wants to do or ever should do, for that matter—what options does a parent have?

The good news for parents of defiant kids is that you do have options, but you first need to understand the thought processes of a defiant child.

It’s All About Control

For a defiant child or a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), not being controlled by others is of paramount importance. For this reason, your child or teenager will fight against any attempts made to control him by his parents, teachers, or any authority figure. 

To the parent, the child’s resistance doesn’t seem to make sense. The child does not want to be controlled by others, but, at the same time, the child does not appear to have any control over his own choices, impulses, and behaviors. It’s as if the child needs to be in control and out-of-control at the same time.

The parents of these kids are in a very difficult position. Family life is chaotic and the more you try to control your child, the worse the defiance gets.

And to make matters even worse, society demands that you “get that kid under control,” so parents fight even harder still to control their child. And the parents begin to feel personally responsible for their child’s behavior.

In the end, your child simply digs in his heels. He pushes back and becomes even more defiant, leading him to behave even more impulsively. It becomes more about the power struggle than the behavior itself.

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Why Do We Fight Our Child for Control?

Let’s face it, our society puts two competing messages out there. On the one hand, there’s a high value placed on individuality and standing out from the crowd. Yet on the other hand, when our young people do make choices that aren’t consistent with the norm, there’s often a backlash and pressure to conform. And when a child or teen refuses to conform, the pressure is put on parents to make the child follow the path others believe is the right one.

As parents, we’re terrified of what will happen if we don’t control our kids. What if she makes bad decisions? What will happen? Will she survive? But think back to your own childhood. We all had to learn some life lessons along the way. Some made us stronger. Some left scars. But we learned and we survived. And our parents weren’t controlling our actions, we were.

But for some reason, we believe our kids will surely meet with disaster.

Sometimes the Battle Isn’t Worth It

Sometimes we find ourselves in a dispute with our child and, before we know it, we’re in a full-blown battle of wills. And we become determined to win.

It’s not something we recognize consciously, but underneath our own actions is the belief that to let go of control is to give in to our child. We continue to act in an effort to gain control over our child’s behavior. And he becomes just as determined to keep that control.

Who’s going to win in the end? We may win a battle, or we may think we’ve won a battle, but our child will have the ultimate control over his behavior. Why? Because he physically has control over his own body, his own actions, and his own thoughts. There is only so much a parent can do.

Recognize When You Are Controlling

Take a day and pay attention to the idea of control as it relates to yourself and those around you. Listen to conversations. How often do you advise people on what they should do? How frequently do others share their suggestions on what you should do? How often do we hear this in the media? Do this. Don’t do that. It’s everywhere.

Most of us know an Aunt Martha who just loves to tell people how things should be. It’s human nature to try and direct things. Often we truly believe we know what’s best for that other person. And maybe we do. But maybe we don’t.

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Parents often believe it’s our role—indeed, our responsibility—to control our children. But, unless you use physical force, it’s impossible to control another human being unless they allow you to do so.

You can threaten, bribe, reward, beg, guilt, and shame that other person into doing what you believe is best. However, the only way to influence another person’s behavior is if they allow you to influence it. It doesn’t matter whether they’re eight, eighteen, or eighty years old.

Giving Up the Need to Control Doesn’t Mean You’re Giving In

In reality, once we let go of trying to control our child’s behavior and choices, we actually gain much more power. Fighting every day with someone whose main purpose is to avoid being controlled will leave you feeling exhausted, angry, and frustrated.

In contrast, putting energy into what you can control leaves you feeling empowered, confident, and stronger. And, believe it or not, there’s actually more you can control than can’t. If you feel out of control, you’re probably trying to control the wrong things.

It’s our job as parents to provide an environment that allows our child to learn lessons that will prepare him for the world. To prepare him not only to survive, but to thrive. Everything we do as parents comes back to this guiding principle.

We control providing food, clothing, and shelter to our child. We control whether or not we show our child how to cope and deal with conflict, adversity, and life’s challenges. And we control whether or not we allow him to experience consequences for the choices he makes. Nevertheless, whether or not that child chooses to learn from those life lessons to is up to him, not us.

Below I’ve listed 4 important things that you can control and the 1 important thing that you can’t control as a parent. Understanding these will empower you by putting you in control of the things you can control and relieving you of responsibility for those you can’t.

1. You Can Set Expectations

You can control whether or not your child knows what your expectations are. You can say this to him:

“Johnny, my expectation is that you will handle your anger without physical violence.”

Your child may not like your expectations, but those are your expectations and you can make them known, which is important.

2. You Can Help Him Meet Expectations

You can control whether or not you give your child the opportunity to meet expectations.

“Johnny, if you find you’re getting angry, it’s okay to walk away, go listen to music, talk to your friend on the phone to blow off steam, whatever will help you release some of that anger and we can talk again later.”

Your child may not take advantage of the opportunity—that’s up to him—but you can offer the opportunity and make it available to him.

3. You Can Set Consequences

You can decide the consequences of an action and you can control whether or not your child knows what the potential consequences will be if he chooses not to meet your expectation.

“Johnny, you’re fifteen years old. If you hit me when you’re angry, that’s domestic violence. If it happens again, I will call the police. I would hate to see that happen, so I hope you choose to handle your anger without getting physical.”

Again, your child can still behave badly—that’s up to him—but you can implement the consequence and hold him accountable.

Related content: Consequences That Work for Oppositional Defiant Children

4. You Can Control Your Own Behavior

You can control your own behavior. When you get angry, you can model for your child how to cope effectively without using physical violence. You can walk away or practice other effective coping skills when you get angry yourself.

Related content: Calm Parenting: How to Get Control When Your Child is Making You Angry

5. But…You Can’t Control Your Child’s Behavior

Parents of severely defiant kids need to understand that, ultimately, they cannot control their child’s behavior. You can’t control whether or not he behaves in a physically aggressive way when he’s angry. Your power does not lie in the arguing, defending, and power struggles that tend to go hand-in-hand with attempts to control an ODD child.

Instead, your power lies in what you can control—your own behavior. Just as you can’t control your child, he can’t control you either. Some days it may feel like he can. But he can’t.

Related content: You Are Not to Blame for Your Child’s Behavior

Parenting a Defiant Child is Hard

We know some people will read this article and think, “Parents should control their children.” It’s tempting to judge parents of ODD children on what they should and shouldn’t do.

But until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, it’s difficult to know the pain and shame that comes from parenting a child who simply will not be controlled.

For ODD children, being controlled feels as if they’re drowning. They will fight tooth and nail to keep control, arguing and outright refusing to comply with an authority figure’s directives.

We can spend time as a society judging that child and talking about how they ought to behave. Or we can accept that our world has always had rebels—those who will take the path less traveled, even if it’s a path filled with bumps and potholes. And we can support the parents of those individuals in their own journey, without blame or shame.

We hope this article will help those parents let go of some of the techniques that should work but don’t, and find strength in focusing on what they can control.

“While we try to teach our children all about life,
Our children teach us what life is all about.”
— Angela Schwindt

About and

Kimberly Abraham and Marney Studaker-Cordner are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline® for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence™, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues (both programs are included in The Total Transformation® Online Package). Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are also the co-creators of their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, which teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

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