How to Handle a Defiant Child in the Middle of a Meltdown


Most parents welcome the idea of raising a child that’s capable of thinking for herself and actively seek ways of helping their kids gain age-appropriate levels of independence. When your strong-willed little angel becomes downright defiant, however, it can cause a host of behavioral issues that make parenting anything but a walk in the park. Reasoning with even a normally mild-mannered child can be a challenge when she’s in the throes of a tantrum; calming a defiant and spirited child can be exponentially more difficult. Before you chalk your child’s insolence and emotional meltdowns up to a lost-cause personality quirk, however, you should realize that there are effective ways of managing a defiant child who’s in the middle of a tantrum.

Know the Difference Between “Defiant” and “Distraught”

Before you heap punishments on your child who refuses to follow directions when she’s upset, try to objectively appraise her behavior. What comes across as defiance at first blush may actually be a complete emotional overload that makes it difficult for your child to focus on what you’re saying. It’s important that you make an effort to understand the underlying cause of what seems like a stubborn refusal to acknowledge you. If she’s completely distraught and overwhelmed by the onslaught of emotion she’s forced to deal with, the last thing that your child is going to be able to do is stop in order to follow even simple directions. Remember that your child’s brain is still developing, and it’s just not capable of consistent self-regulation at such a young age.

Remove Sources of Over-Stimulation

Temper tantrums and behavior that adults term as being “defiant” are both natural responses for children that are just coming to terms with their need for appropriate independence. That behavior can be greatly exacerbated when your child is in an environment that’s overly stimulating or overwhelming for her. Rather than trying to reason with your hysterical child as he’s having a tantrum in the middle of a busy shopping mall, think about the situation from his perspective. He’s already upset and confused; the hustle and bustle of the location and the endless stream of unfamiliar faces only make him feel more distraught. When tantrums spiral out of control in public, it’s best to remove your child from the environment until he’s able to calm himself. Explosive behavior at home may also be mitigated by removing your child to a calmer, more sedate part of the house. Blaring televisions, screaming siblings, ringing telephones and the chiming of a doorbell will make it even more difficult for your child to process his feelings, a task that’s challenging even for adults.

Be Prepared

If you know that your child is particularly prone to emotional episodes, it really pays to take advantage of the quiet and relaxed moments in your day to think about how you would like to respond to the next one. When you enter the battle with a temper tantrum or tearful defiance forearmed with a determination to react in a specific way, you won’t be as likely to give in to angry or frustrated impulses that you’ll later regret. Picture the reaction you’d like to have to a tantrum and fix it in your mind during times of calm. When the next emotional storm arises, look for the mental image of that reaction and do your best to imitate it.

Provide Realistic Consequences

The moment between the warning signs of an impending tantrum and the escalation to all-out hysteria is often a brief one, but it pays to take advantage of that last moment of coherence. Make sure that your child knows what the consequences of inappropriate behavior will be, then stick to your guns. If you’ve stated that you’ll leave a fun
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place to go back home for a long nap if he has a tantrum, you need to do just that. Kids need to understand that not only are there consequences for their behavior, but also that they are capable of reigning their emotions to a reasonable extent.

If you feel that your child’s level of defiance is beyond that of the average child his age, or if you’re concerned that he’s exhibiting signs of Oppositional Defiance Disorder, it’s always wise to bring your fears and suspicions to an experienced medical professional. While the vast majority of tantrums and defiant behavior are the result of kids’ natural curiosity regarding boundaries and a struggle with their developing brains’ ability to process complex emotional stimuli, there are those who do require a bit of special attention when it comes to reigning in their emotions. Your child’s pediatrician should be able to provide some information, along with any behavioral referrals she deems necessary.


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