A Guide for Parents of a Highly Defiant Child

By Greg Baer M.D.

May 16, 2024

Throughout the Parenting Training, I teach that first, we love our children. Then we LoveandTeach them with words. We listen carefully to them. (Watch “Listen to the Whispers”)

If all that fails, we teach them with the use of consequences, sometimes escalating them until we get the attention of the child and they decide that they’d rather choose wisely than choose poorly and incur the consequences that go along with poor decisions.

A Defiant Child Learns from Bad Examples

Sometimes those consequences can become almost unbearably severe. Following is an example:

Sybil had been divorced for a year from a seriously disturbed narcissist, Ricky. People with narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) have an effect on their spouses and children that cannot be overstated. Sybil’s eight-year-old son, Marcus, for example, saw a tutorial every day in:

  • How to be demanding, childish, and petulant, a course taught by his father.
  • How those behaviors always resulted in his father getting what he wanted.
  • How to be completely irresponsible.
  • How to get what you want without any concern for anyone else.
  • How to manipulate, intimidate, and force people to do what you want.

Such lessons are powerful to a young child, and Marcus learned them well. He lived with Ricky half the time, and then he came to Sybil’s home, filled with the lessons and attitudes above. You can imagine his reactions to Mom’s attempts at loving, teaching love, and teaching responsibility.

Defiant Child Defies All Attempts at LovingandTeaching

Marcus entirely rejected anything Mom tried to teach, and if he didn’t get what he wanted, he pitched a fit worthy of a two-year-old. He refused to do his homework, teased his sister, and disrupted every activity in the home. Mom consistently loved and taught. No positive response.

She imposed consequences for his unacceptable behaviors, and he responded by screaming and punching the walls. Oddly, he enjoyed his mother loving him—which never occurred at his father’s house—but he defied all her attempts at teaching.

I spoke with Sybil on many occasions, suggesting modifications to her loving and teaching, but nothing succeeded. Marcus would behave better on occasion, but his lapses into insane and violent defiance became the norm. This persisted over a period of many months.

Finally, Sybil told me she couldn’t take it anymore. She couldn’t sleep, her work was suffering, and Marcus’s younger sister was beginning to have trouble with sleep, schoolwork, and behavior.

Marcus was overwhelming and disturbing the entire family with the skills, defiance, selfishness, and more learned from his father. Mom was at her wits’ end and wanted to know what she could do.

Suggestions of Consequences for a Defiant Child

I suggested the following:

  1. It’s time to irrefutably tell Marcus that he can make any choice he wants, but now he will experience the consequences of those choices. Up to this point, you (Mom) and his sister have been suffering those consequences.
  2. He will not be convinced of this easily. He really believes that he is in charge of the world when he’s at your house. That is not the case at his father’s house because his father has far more experience with selfishness and getting his way, so Marcus doesn’t stand a chance there. But at your house, he has learned to use techniques that you can’t cope with, the same techniques that intimidated you when you lived with his father, the same techniques that led to the end of your marriage.
  3. Tell Marcus that he has WON the game he’s playing. He really does have the skills to ruin life in your house, but the consequence will not be the victory he thought he was achieving. What he has “won” is the right to live entirely with his father. Why would you do such a seemingly extreme thing? Because NOTHING ELSE HAS WORKED, and neither you nor your daughter is strong enough to deal with the strength of his manipulations and emotional and physical violence.
  4. Are you trying to get rid of your son? NO. You’re simply letting Marcus know that the natural result of his continued defiance will be to return to the environment where he won’t completely disturb the home—in this case, to live with his father. In most cases where I have recommended this course of action, the child is awakened to the seriousness of his behavior and makes a decision to be more teachable and compliant.
  5. The moment after you tell Marcus what your intentions are, call his father, Ricky, and tell him that you simply cannot handle Marcus any longer, so that leaves only two choices:
    1. You take Marcus full-time. You won’t tell Ricky—who couldn’t hear it—but this will enable you to love and teach Marcus without the fatally distracting influence of Ricky’s selfishness. Marcus will likely reject this option because he would do almost anything to deprive you of what you want.
    2. Ricky takes Marcus full-time. Unfortunately, Ricky will probably reject this option too, because he doesn’t really want to raise Marcus. I already know from past conversations that Marcus has complained that his father spends no time with him at all, so he just plays video games, a life he finds boring.
  6. Because Ricky will likely reject both options, you’ll then need to explore other options. You’ll be sharing all these with Marcus because he needs to understand—finally—that his choices have consequences for HIM. To this point, he thought he could do anything he wanted without any inconvenience to himself.
  7. Contact Social Services or Child Protective Services—which go by different names from state to state—and tell them that you have a completely incorrigible child in your home, who refuses to do anything he’s told, punches holes in walls, frightens his sister, and has hit you with his fist. Some of these are crimes when committed by adults, and in some states, he can be institutionalized for brief periods. Tell Marcus you’re doing this.
  8. The next time he hits you, call the police. It’s not likely they’ll do much, but their arrival will cause Marcus to hesitate the next time he behaves badly.
  9. Install cameras in every room Marcus inhabits, and record his behavior. You can show these recordings to Marcus, which sometimes makes an impression. He will see that he behaves like a child, and sometimes that is embarrassing. You can also show these recordings to law enforcement or child services, to document Marcus’s behavior.

Possible Results of these Consequences

What will happen as a result of all this? Impossible to know, but I’ve seen many results:

  • The child is motivated to stop his defiance.
  • The child goes to the other parent’s house for a while, but then he realizes that he would rather be loved and taught at one home than to be neither loved nor taught.
  • The child enjoys the indulgence of the other parent but eventually wakes up to the downsides of this approach.
  • The child continues to live with the other parent, which might seem like an unthinkable loss, but the defiant child was not responding to loving and teaching, and without him, the loving parent blossoms and is able to help save the life of any remaining siblings.

In short, I’m saying that there is no appreciable risk in taking the above steps, which is not to say that it won’t be very difficult emotionally, legally, and in other ways.

I’m not recommending that you do something that would result in the loss of your son, but I AM suggesting that you do whatever it takes to communicate to your son that his behavior could easily result in his living with his father.

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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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