Memoirs of a Psychologist: Help for Parents of Defiant Teens: Part I - Is My Child Defiant?

The following is a piece on pre-teen parenting tips, co-authored with psychologist Robert Erdei. We partnered with Dr. Erdei to create a series of blog posts geared specifically toward the difficult parenting challenges we were experiencing ourselves. We call this series, "Memoirs of a Psychologist". We hope you enjoy this piece and please don't hesitate to leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Welcome to the Part I in the series on defiant teens by Psychologist Robert Erdei. Defiance in children is something that almost every parent will have to deal with to some degree and I can speak from experience that it can be one of the most challenging times in a parent-child relationship.

Resident Psychologist Dr. Robert Erdei provides some valuable information below on how to tell if your teen or pre-teen really is exhibiting defiant behavior or if they're just "kids being kids".

How can I tell if my teen is defiant?

One of the most frequent and common problems of adolescence is defiance among kids. Parents often find defiant and noncompliant behavior of their children very stressful, particularly when compared to previous patterns. Children can transform from nearly adoring their parents to seemingly loathing them within a few short years.

It can be a difficult transition for both children and parents alike.

Children can transform from nearly adoring their parents to seemingly loathing them within a few short years.

Lehman (n.d.) believes that it is difficult to be the parent of a defiant child. It may seem that your child hates you, but this is usually just not the case. It can be a constant and daily struggle with your child about homework, school, video games and many more everyday disputes. According to Bernstein (2006), one of the keys for parents is the importance of understanding defiant behavior before attempting to deal with it. Attempt to understand what your child is thinking and what they're going through before you decide on a solution.

Furthermore, parenting is not an innate ability we are born with, but is a learned set of skills. Waiting passively for your child to ‘out-grow’ defiant behavior will sometimes simply just not work. As a parent, you have to teach your child appropriate behavior and not tolerate poor behavior by making excuses for it.

Between five and ten percent of children fall into the extremely noncompliant, aggressive and/or defiant categorization. Parents might find some comfort in this fact - they (and their children) are not alone. They tend to believe that they are the only ones to suffer such a fate and all other children are obedient and nice. This is not true. This will not solve their problems with their children, but they need to know that they are not alone in this. (Hall & Hall, 2007)

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Memoirs of a Psychologist is a series of post in partnership with Dr. Robert Erdei. Memoirs of a Psychologist doesn't just scratch the surface of your parenting challenges. We dig deep, seeking to help you create the change needed to be a better parent and have better relationships with your children.

Click below to visit the Memoirs of a Psychologist blog post series home page for more parenting tips and resources.

What, exactly is considered defiant behavior?

Barkley and Benton (1998) defines defiant behavior as the child showing specific patterns of behavior. The most important characteristics are the child fails to start to do what was requested within a couple of minutes of the request, failing to finish what the parent requested, and the child violating the rules of conduct already taught. Noncompliance and defiance are most likely to appear at home or in public, but it might occur in school as well.

Occasional defiant behavior is not abnormal and doesn't necessarily mean that the parent must proactively do anything particular to correct it.

Oppositional and/or defiant children share certain characteristics:

  • Change from being content to being angry in a second,
  • Fight against inevitable things, like going to bed or school,
  • Argue about performing little tasks,
  • Insist to have their own way when they are playing with their friends,
  • May lie or cheat to escape consequences,
  • Do not forget about minor slights,
  • Are easily irritated,
  • May be hostile toward people without apparent reason,
  • Ignore commands,
  • Deliberately disobey,
  • Break rules,
  • Taunt people,
  • Resist interruptions of their activities,
  • Cannot control their temper,
  • Break or destroy things out of anger,
  • May indulge in self-destructive behavior,
  • Show little respect for their parents. (Barkley & Benton, 1998)

Occasional defiant behavior is not abnormal and doesn't necessarily mean that the parent must proactively do anything particular to correct it. Occasional defiance can just be a part of growing up and the child attempting to assert their independence.

When does defiance go beyond just being a normal teenager?

Certain patterns of defiant behavior do indicate the need for intervention. The most important signs are the child’s impairment by the defiant behavior, and emotional distress caused by defiance. The negative impact of the behavior on the child and on others should be considered when a parent is attempting to asses if corrective action is required.

Parents: it's not just you - defiance is becoming more and more common among children. Mental health professionals have seen early defiant behavior develop into a conduct disorder later, and cause increased conflicts within the family and other contexts. It's important to draw the line appropriately and not let defiant behavior get out of control.

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What causes defiance in teens and pre-teens?

It is impossible to tell what the exact cause is for defiant behavior in children. Some suspect that problems in the brain chemistry, others claim that the reactions of the family to the behavior of the child are the keys to defiance. Actually, many children start to disobey and defy authority under specific circumstances, for example when they are tired, upset or hungry. As children grow and develop, they learn socially acceptable ways to get what they want. In other words, parents themselves can sometimes be the source or reason for defiant behavior. We teach our children what is acceptable behavior and what is not. Defiant children become more and more difficult to deal with, they are demanding and oppositional. (Bernstein, 2006)

Another common cause behind defiance is often a personal problem or the feeling of inadequacy because peer rejection, learning problems, conflicts with parents, concerns about body image, traumas or simply just the perception that defiance is a cool thing. Defiance is deliberate and not just a phase, regardless of its cause. The child is not evil; but the parent may have trouble distinguishing the two sometimes. The child often struggles with the inability to handle difficult feelings and situations. Conventional methods to discipline or punish a defiant child usually fail. Punishments often are shrugged off as "no big deal" and eye-rolling ensues. Tactics used by parents in previous years are rendered ineffective because defiant children often believe that they are equal to adults.

Defiance might be the sign of ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), which is characterized by chronic anger, blaming others for mistakes, being touchy, easily annoyed and vindictive. The diagnosis requires certain behavioral signs, such as talking back, refusing to do chores, and using foul language. (Bernstein, 2006)

Can defiant behavior be traced to genetics?

Hall and Hall (2007) believe that parenting is not the only factor affecting the personality and behavior of children. Heredity plays an important part as well. Factors like temperament are engrained in us. Defiant children are often born with a difficult temperament; they are hard to console, easily irritated and never seem to be satisfied. Needless to say, it is a greater challenge to raise a child with a difficult temperament than one with an easy temperament.

Barkley and Robin (2008) believe that four factors contribute to defiance, such as the child’s characteristics, the parent’s characteristics, stress and parenting style. One of the most important developmental tasks of adolescence is to become independent from the parents. Teens define their identity and discover who they are. Searching for one’s own identity can be stressful and make the adolescent fragile, but kids do not want to show weakness. The start of striving for independence usually occurs between 12 and 14 years of age. That age also comes with the fact that friends and peers start to play an increasingly important role in the lives of adolescents, often at the expense of relationships with parents. Mothers usually suffer more from the developing independence of their adolescent children than fathers do.

Gartright and Tyler (n. d.) describe disruptive behaviors in children and adolescents from a psychiatric perspective. The trajectory of disruptive behaviors ranges from obsessive-compulsive disorder to conduct disorder, which can lead to an antisocial personality disorder at a later age. Disruptive behaviors have various associated risk factors. Parents or siblings with a history of psychiatric problems or disruptive behavior are such a risk. The environment can also provide risk, like parental neglect, harsh discipline, and lack of supervision, single parenthood, abuse or exposure to violence. Defiance with adults is an early warning sign.

More helpful information for parents of defiant teens.

According to Hall and Hall (2007), many defiant children are impulsive. They can do dumb things without considering the consequences. These children do not only oppose the wishes and requests of their parents, but also have difficulties playing with other children. It's common for children to get into fights with other children and often display problems in academics as well. They fail to follow the directions of teachers, often get into arguments with other children, and refuse to work and might even disrupt the whole classroom and make hard for other students to learn.

The Thought Processes of Defiant Children Are Flawed

The defiant child has several thinking errors, which negatively influences the relationship with the social environment. One of the most common thinking errors is the feeling of injustice. If the child labels some rules as not fair or not just, not following these rules becomes justified from his perspective.

Another thinking error is the victim stance. It is easier to blame everybody else and not take any responsibility for their own actions. If you are a victim, the negative events are not your fault; the parent, the teacher or another kid is to blame. The behavior of the child often contradicts his or her victim story. As a parent, you always need to look behind the sad story of the victim and see the behavior of your child. He is responsible for what he did.

The third common thinking error is the so-called concrete transaction. This refers to the way of thinking by children that relationships are for getting around rules. Rules and others’ rights are nothing more than obstacles in relationships. If you allow your child to use concrete transactions, you become a role model to them. Treat your child the way you'd treat a co-worker, for example. Give and demand respect from them, rather than trying to befriend them. Children need limits, directions, structure and parental presence and control, let us make no mistake about roles.

The fourth thinking error is pride in negativity. Defiant children often take pride in their knowledge of unhealthy and secretive things. They see negative role models as powerful. These kids usually have low self-esteem and try to re-establish their self-evaluation with negative behaviors. (Lehmann, n.d.)


Barkley, R. A., Benton, C. M. (1998): Your Defiant Child, 8 Steps to Better Behavior, The Guilford Press, New York, London

Barkley, R. A., Robin, A. L. (2008): Your Defiant Teen, 10 Steps to Resolve Conflict and Rebuild Your Relationship, The Guilford Press, New York, London

Bernstein, J. (2006): 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child’s Difficult Behavior, Marlowe & Company

Gathright, M. M., Tyler, L. H. (n. d.): Disruptive behaviors in Children and Adolescents, University of Arkansas, Psychiatric Research Institute

Hall, P. S., Hall, N. D. (2007): Parenting a Defiant Child, A Sanity-Saving Guide to Finally Stopping the Bad Behavior, AMACOM, New York

Intervention Central (n. d.): School-Wide Strategies for Managing Defiance/Non-Compliance,

Lehman, J. (n. d.): A Day in the Mind of Your Defiant Child,

The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (2009): Oppositional Defiant Disorder, A Guide for Families, The American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry

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What do you think? Do you struggle with a defiant teen? Leave a comment below with your story!

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