Handling Defiance: You're Not the Boss of Me

Part 2: How to handle defiance in elementary schoolers, preteens, and tweens.

Posted Mar 06, 2021 |

In our last post, we started the discussion of how to solve defiance with connection. Today we will continue that discussion by looking specifically at elementary schoolers, preteens and tweens, and teens.

Вячеслав Чичаев/AdobeStock
Source: Вячеслав Чичаев/AdobeStock

Elementary Schoolers

Elementary schoolers respond with defiance when they feel that we're unfair. When kids argue all the time, they're saying they don't feel heard or connected. Their defiance is best handled 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: Remember that anger won't begin to fade until it feels heard. "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

Preteens and tweens begin experimenting with defiance because they hear it from peers, and to see where the limits are. Their defiance is best handled by:

  • 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. Let's 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.


Teens are defiant when they feel disconnected or have lost respect for us. Their defiance is best handled 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.

Whatever your child's age, respect his right to refuse sometimes.

Maybe he's studying for a test or only has five minutes to finish building his castle before bath time. If he cooperates most of the time, and asks respectfully, why isn't it OK for him to ask for special dispensation tonight? The more he feels you'll listen when he makes his request, the less he needs to resort to defiance to express his wishes. Of course, that doesn't mean you don't put your foot down when you need to. But you never need to be mean about it; that just breeds more defiance.

Finally, notice that defiance is an opportunity, not an emergency.

Most of us get so triggered by our child's defiance that we automatically come down like a sledgehammer. After all, we wouldn't have been allowed to act that way when we were young.

But defiance is like a red light on the dashboard of your car; a signal that something is wrong that you need to fix. What's wrong isn't the child, but the relationship, and you fix that by reconnecting, not by attacking. 

So the next time your child is defiant, remind yourself that you don't have to attend every power struggle to which you're invited. Try setting a clear limit about the standard of respect in your house, while at the same time reconnecting. Be grateful that your child's defiance gave you a warning about how much distance had crept in between you.

Then, use this opportunity to change the course of your relationship with your child! And, maybe, of his life.