Positive Parenting

Parenting the Defiant Child: Long-Term Solutions for Rebuilding Relationships

Changing patterns of negative, hostile, or defiant behavior require patience and practice. Start with this roadmap for positive parenting and begin to ease challenging behaviors associated with ADHD.

Q: “I’m raising a child who has ADHD, and, at times, seems to act with willful defiance. When he loses his temper, annoys his sibling, or argues with teachers, I’m not sure how to handle it. Do you have suggestions?”

With or without a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), many children with ADHD can get overly angry, irritable, and argumentative. Home life can feel stressful and out of control when you’re living with an emotionally dysregulated child who doesn’t listen or who seems to consistently misbehave. In these situations, the path toward longer-term solutions begins by focusing on what we can actually control as parents. Follow these steps:

  1. Treat ADHD. The more comprehensively we address ADHD, the more likely oppositional behaviors will resolve. ADHD medication, parent training programs, and cognitive behavioral therapy all go a long way toward managing difficult behavior. Minimizing ADHD symptoms alone may break difficult behavioral cycles.

[Download: A 2-Week Guide to Ending Defiant Behavior]

  1. Understand executive function. ADHD symptoms may appear oppositional, which is different from being purposely difficult. There’s a difference between “won’t” and “can’t.” Children with ADHD struggle to shift attention, so if you make a request while your child is reading or playing a video game, it may not be heard. ADHD-related symptoms like impulsiveness, emotionality, and forgetfulness also can lead to non-compliance. Seeing ADHD as a delay in executive function allows you to reframe requests and provide structure for success; for example, getting a child’s full attention before talking to them may improve compliance.
  2. Maintain a formal behavioral plan: Early childhood behavior often derives from basic cause and effect. I want a reaction from someone, so I will do something to get a reaction. Or, when I drag my feet and fuss enough, I get more video game time. Consistent use of praise and rewards, and dispassionately setting limits, can rein in oppositional behaviors by encouraging compliance or by making sure problematic behaviors become ineffective for a child.
  3. Don’t take it personally. When children say the dreaded, “I hate you,” it usually means they are grasping for words to label an intense emotion. If you think there is a reality in what is being said, take it seriously. If a child crosses a line, provide fair consequences. But most of the time, it’s best to ignore those words and seek out the meaning behind them—typically, it’s something like, I’m hurt, frustrated, or angry.
  4. Practice managing your own emotions: Ultimately, we can only control our own choices and behavior in any situation. By staying non-reactive when rattled, we create the opportunity to hold onto our best intentions. One option is to practice mindfulness, which helps us to develop patience and resolve through ongoing repetition.

Positive Parenting Solutions with ADHD: Next Steps

Mark Bertin, M.D., is a developmental pediatrician in Pleasantville, New York, and author of How Children Thrive and Mindful Parenting for ADHD.

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