How to deal with defiant kids

What to do when your school-ager stages a sit-in

Photo: iStockphoto

Great. Your school-ager has just pulled a tantrum and the family reunion starts in 20 minutes. Or it’s time to leave for dance class and she’s in jeans, reading a book in her room.

Children from ages five to 10 will sometimes dig in their heels and refuse to attend their after-school activities or family commitments. So what’s with the attitude?

Find the reason

“It’s not just about the child being defiant for the sake of being defiant,” says Sara Dimerman, a Toronto-based child and family therapist and the author of Am I a Normal Parent? “For children of this age, there’s something going on.”

It could be that she’s worried about being bored at Aunt Mabel’s house. Or perhaps she has an illogical fear — that she’ll have to swim in the deep end after just a few swim classes, for example. The problem could also be something more serious — such as a cousin who bullies her when the grown-ups’ backs are turned.

Ask your child what’s up. After discussing his concerns, you may decide together that he’ll drop out of basketball at the end of the season. Or maybe he simply needs to hear that while Grandma’s nursing home may be smelly and dull, visiting her is important. It might not be the answer he wanted, but at least he’ll feel listened to.

Make a plan

Sometimes, all kids really need is a heads-up from you to psych themselves up for an outing. “Children are aware of their rights,” says Dimerman. Your daughter may object to attending your workplace fundraiser, but mentioning it to her a day or two in advance gives her time to anticipate and talk through any concerns she may have. Wouldn’t you rather figure out some coping strategies — such as bringing along a friend — before the car’s already running in the driveway?

Getting through it

So you forgot to write down that dinner party at the neighbours’ house on the family calendar and, suddenly, it’s time to go — only your school-ager is saying no (and looks on the verge of kicking and screaming). Your best bet here is to be firm but sympathetic. Tell him you’re all going together and you’re sorry you didn’t realize the party was at the same time as the big hockey game on TV. Promise that you will talk about it later, and then follow through with a chat before bed that night, or the following day.

As you corral him out the door, you may feel deeply annoyed. But take comfort that a little defiance is a good thing. “It’s healthy and natural for a child to assert himself,” says Dimerman. “It’s better that than someone who’s blindly obedient.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2010 issue.

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