How can I deal with the children

How do I best deal with defiant children?

What is defiant behavior?

Defiant behavior is mainly found between the ages of around 2 and 4 years. Both children and parents suffer from spontaneous outbursts of anger. The symptoms are very different: some people quietly take it off, withdraw, speak and eat little. Others behave so defiantly that they can no longer be reached with words (Metzger, 1956). Most of the time, however, the typical outbursts of anger appear. These are affects that appear with varying degrees of intensity. Often there are physical reactions that cannot be overlooked: red head, shortness of breath, stamping, kicking, throwing yourself on the floor, and the like. In many cases, the seizures are short-lived (a few minutes).

What is the significance of defiant behavior?

The behavior is difficult for the parents to understand because the cause of such anger need only be minor. Parents and educators may be of help if they realize that anger is not directed against them personally. The child tries to cut itself off from its parents (adults) and to achieve more independence. In addition, your own assertiveness should be tested and the limit of will should be experienced. (Hetzer, 1970). Remplein (1964) interprets defiant behavior as a sign of an emerging self-awareness. This detachment process is both difficult and tedious and painful. According to this opinion, children who show little or no defiance behavior are severely restricted in terms of independence and assertiveness.

State of the child's development

The second year of life is characterized by the fact that the child learns to walk and speak. However, the more he masters walking and speaking, the more uncertainty arises and the return to her parents is not long in coming. The American psychologist Margaret Mahler calls this phase “rapprochement”. In this phase the child seeks his identity and realizes that the parents (all adults) have very individual interests. The feeling of omnipotence turns into a feeling of being limited. This insecurity makes the presence of mother and father necessary as poles of calm, islands of safety, so to speak. Problems can arise now because the child no longer wants to stay with friends etc. without the parents. The famous hanging on the top of the mother's skirt can be observed.

The motor skills are constantly being refined. The realization that it can make a difference matures: Sometimes it makes the parents happy, other times it makes the parents sad or angry. The child knows that the parents can feel differently than they do themselves. Children urge more autonomy. Even in certain words that were very popular at the time, the desire to set boundaries is expressed. Such words are: “no”, “I”, “myself”, “alone”. In addition, they strive to move further away from their parents. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that it still needs the protection of its parents, security and stability.

Newly acquired skills (walking, speaking) strengthen the child's self-esteem; it dares a lot. In reality, however, it reaches its limits very quickly. Example: putting on shoes is very easy, but how do you tie your shoes? If the parents have something completely different to plan than they do themselves (cleaning up instead of the playground, for example), it starts to rage, which shows that it is desperate. Finally it notices that some things are not at all what they imagined. The parents' wishes are very different from his own. It also wants to achieve more than its capabilities allow.

What is the ideal response to defiant behavior?

Showing serenity would be the ideal response to childish defiance. Understanding for the child's plight helps: "Unfortunately you cannot tie a bow yet, but you will soon be able to do so, definitely!" If the child cannot be calmed down, it has to rage until the anger is "gone". The limit here is where it hurts itself or others. After the seizure, the child usually needs comfort and closeness, because they want to make sure of the mother's affection. Kemmler (1957) found that every tantrum that occurred increases the likelihood of another attack in the near future. So there are often rows of tantrums. This is probably due to the fact that the child still shows an increased level of basic arousal and general irritability. For this reason, it reacts more susceptibly to appropriate irritation.

If there is a reaction to dramatic defiant behavior and the child then gets its will, it learns through affirmation how it must behave so that the parents do what it wants. It should be noted that defiant behavior is a socially conditioned phenomenon and not a necessary peculiarity of psychological development. If defiant reactions occur more often, this is an alarm signal. The demands are probably too restrictive and one should consider whether a loosening would not be advisable. Unless there is an imperative, children should not be restricted. A number of conflicts can thus be avoided.

You cannot prevent tantrums. Only the extent can be reduced. For this you have to guarantee the following:

  • Allow freedom, but also draw boundaries at the same time. Freedoms are required for the child to know, explore, and examine the world. The need for curiosity must be satisfied. Limits are necessary in order not to expose the child to a dangerous situation, e.g. as few rules as possible should be consistently observed (see article “Consequence” in the family handbook). The more precisely the child knows where the boundaries are, the less protest there will be.
  • negotiations: The child should get the feeling that they are being taken seriously. It can decide where nothing speaks against it. Example: Whether it is wearing red or blue trousers; whether one reads one story or another; etc. However, there can be limits here as well: If the child did not want the 1st and 2nd dishes for lunch, you can't give them another one. A “no” can be explained to the child. Example: "You won't get any more ice cream today, you already had one." Compromises can be made. Example: "Today I have very little time, but on the weekend we do something really great together, you choose what it should be." Alternatives can be offered. Example: "I won't buy you a cola, but I can always have a decaffeinated lemonade."
  • Avoid conflicts: It is quite difficult for children to choose. There is a choice: at the same time wanting to forego something else. Children have problems with that. Example: Children have a hard time deciding between going to the cinema, swimming pool or going to grandparents. It is better to proceed like this: "The weather is so nice today, don't we want to go swimming?"
  • Deflection: Point out something else, get attention with something else. Example: If a child is angry about not receiving any more ice cream, then you can point them out to the pretty dog ​​behind you.
  • Warning: Announce early on when something else should be done. In this way, the child can slowly get used to the idea of ​​ending what they are doing. Take into account the wishes and needs of the moment and allow a certain relaxation time. An adult is also reluctant to stop abruptly. Example: “If the church tower clock strikes 5 times, we leave the playground. As soon as dad comes into the apartment, there is lunch. You can ride 2 more laps, then we go. “Doing this can save the child some negative emotional and social experiences.
  • The tantrum should be possible little attention be given.
  • A A tightrope walk between overprotection and leaving alone is necessary for self-confidence to develop. Not everything should be taken from the child, but on the other hand everything should not be left to either. The child must also be able to experience failures. The ideal way is to leave some things to the child, but not refuse help on the other hand, or offer help if it does not get any further.

The child learns the following in this phase

It has realized that its capabilities are not unlimited; it can prevail; it has realized that the parents' feelings can be very different from their own; it is ready to compromise; Adaptation is easier; it realizes that consideration is indispensable; Waiver is possible. The child feels loved by his parents despite differences of opinion.


  • Parents: The right upbringing from A-Z, VEMAG, Cologne
  • Horst Nickel: Developmental Psychology of Childhood and Adolescence, Verlag Hans Huber, Stuttgart, 1982
  • Wolfgang Schmidbauer: Psychology - Lexicon of Basic Concepts, Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg, 1991
  • Dorsch, Friedrich: Psychological dictionary, Hans Huber, Stuttgart, 1987
  • Metzger, F .: early childhood defiance. Karger, Basel, 1956.
  • Remplein, H .: Die seel. Human Development in Childhood and Adolescence, E. Reinhardt, Munich, 1964
  • Hetzer, H .: Child and Adolescent in Development. Schroedel, Hanover, 1970.
  • Kemmler, L .: Studies on early childhood defiance, Psychol. Research, 1957, 25, 279-338.

Further contributions by the author can be found here in our family handbook


Beate Weymann, qualified social pedagogue
37586 Dassel

Created on July 17, 2001, last changed on January 27, 2010