Frustrated with Your Child’s Defiant Behavior?   
Throw a Party!  Your Child Just Wants to Grow up

By Jacob Azerrad, PhD
Lexington, Massachusetts

In the supermarket checkout line, your three-year-old leans out of the grocery cart and grabs a candy bar.  You say, “You’ve had enough candy today,” then take the bar and put it back.  He lunges for the rack wailing, “I want candy NOW!”  You try to get through the line before the tantrum escalates out of control.  Too late.  He’s banging his feet, flailing for candy and screaming at the top of his lungs.
When you ask people how they deal with defiant behavior and tantrums, parents, teachers, or your pediatrician are likely to say this defiance is a sign of a “chemical imbalance.”  They point to a host of drugs that “treat” these behaviors.  But are drugs the answer?  Whatever happened to the Terrible Twos?  Wasn’t it a normal stage every parent expected their child to go through?
The good news is, it is a stage but contrary to what all the professionals have told you, your child won’t out-grow it without your firm guidance and direction.  In fact, defiance is a young child’s expression of something quite worthy: the desire to grow up.  So what do you do when these behaviors start?  Throw a party may seem like the last thing you want to do, but this a new stage in your child’s development and in your life as a parent.  It’s time to teach your child two essential life skills.  How to:
1. Respect the needs of others
2. Exercise self-control
These are essential life skills all children need to learn in order to be successful at their jobs, to make and keep friends, and to find a life partner and raise families of their own.  A life filled with friends, family and prosperity are gifts every parent wants for their child.  There is a tried and true method to help your child grow into a caring, responsible adult.  A method that focuses on cultivating and nurturing not just good behaviors but relationship skill (social skill) behaviors, the fourth “R.” After ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic there is relationship. 
Out-of-control behavior in children has become an epidemic and so have the medical “solutions.”  When you share your frustration about your child’s behavior with your pediatrician, s/he is more likely to suggest your child may have ADD or ADHD rather than say they’re showing a healthy desire for independence and now it’s time to set limits and boundaries.  Or you may have read about childhood bipolar, sensory integration disorder or sensory processing disorder and fear your child has one of those disorders!  A Frontline documentary, The Medicated Child, examined the scandal of medicating children as young as four with powerful psychotropic drugs untested on children.  One frustrated parent says, “Nowhere we ever turned was there this therapeutic solution, nobody every said we can work without this drug therapy.  Everywhere we looked it was take meds, take meds, take meds.”  But there is a non-drug alternative! An approach that’s so simple it’s radical:
• A time-tested method that combines the goals of a therapeutic approach with the behavioral commonsense approach of our grandparents.
• A method that understands a child’s healthy desire to grow up and their desire for attention, and nurtures qualities that will help a child grow up to be a caring, responsible adult.
Parents must redefine for their child what it truly means to be grownup.  This redefinition is critically important!  Children think defiance and demanding behaviors mean being grown-up.  Being self-centered is not grown-up behavior, but respecting the needs of others is.  Being demanding, yelling or hitting is not grown-up but learning how to wait your turn, sharing with friends and siblings, exercising self-control is grown-up.
Before the 1960’s, when a child entered their Terrible Twos, parents usually spanked the child who misbehaved.  When the 60’s counter-culture generation rejected authority, especially parental authority, they also rejected traditional childrearing methods.  That dovetailed with the rise in a psychological approach to problem solving, an approach that encouraged methods urging parents to “understand” their child’s motives, telling them that “the biter needs the most comfort” or “don’t get furious get curious.”  The problem with cajoling and reasoning, or hugging a tantrum is – it doesn’t work!  Witness a generation of self-absorbed children and young people, still living in an extended state of toddlerhood!
Parents have been taught to focus their love and attention on the very behaviors that drive them crazy.  They love their children into behaving badly, then a doctor diagnoses them with a disorder and prescribes drugs!  Children just want to grow up.  At 2 and 3 years old their defiant behavior says “You are not the boss over me!”  Being grownup is being caring towards others and taking disappointment calmly; it’s grownup to have self-control. And those are the behaviors you want to reward with your love and attention.  Because it is your attention and love that your child wants!
Parents need to learn three important parenting skills:
1. Notice caring and social skill behaviors, such as putting toys away without being asked, sharing with a friend or sibling, etc.
2. Praise that behavior.  Not just “good job” but “You handled that like a big boy/girl.  I’m so proud of you!”
3. Immediately follow the praise by doing something with your child that they enjoy.
Here is a concrete example of the method.  Your three-year-old has a favorite pair of shoes.  You’re in a hurry to get out the door and don’t have time to look for them.  She says, “That’s OK Mommy, I can wear them tomorrow.”  In the moment, you praise her patience and later that day you do two things:
1.  You say: “I know how disappointed you were when you couldn’t find your shoes.  I was so proud of you.  You said ‘That’s OK Mommy, I can wear them tomorrow.’  You  handled that like such a big girl!”
2. Then spend 5-l0 minutes of special time with your child. 
Of course there are children who have serious problems that cannot be resolved without intensive intervention and psychiatric medication but those cases are much rarer than parents think.  What’s much more common is the perfectly normal child who has simply learned to misbehave because it’s an effective way for him/her to get what they want.  It’s obvious that if children can win attention by being patient, kind and grown up they don’t need to have tantrums, throw things or hit.  Children have enough common sense to figure this out.  Parents can also rely on their common sense to figure out the same things. 
But what about serious and destructive behavioral issues?  What should you do when your child hits, bites, throws food or has a tantrum?  Use Time Out.  Many parents say, “I’m already using time out and it doesn’t work!”  If you are “reasoning” with your child while they’re sitting in their time out corner, or if you’ve sent your child to their bedroom full of computer games, videos and toys “to think about their misdeeds” then you are not using a REAL Time Out.
We don’t spank our children anymore and that’s a good thing!  But children need discipline and consequences.  Time Out is a short-hand term for time-out from reinforcement, it is not a time to calm the child or for him or her to reflect on misdeeds but time away from mom and dad’s attention, away from the wonderful world of play and stimulation - nothing to look at, nothing to do, nothing to listen to and no one to talk to. 
Children need discipline and consequences for out-of-control, or harmful behavior.  Time out is often recommended but people rarely use it properly, which is why many people say it doesn’t work.  Time-out is extremely effective when used properly. 
A real time out is total nothingness for 3 – 4 minutes, regardless of age.  Nothing to look at nothing to do and most importantly – NO PARENTAL INVOLVEMENT.  No talking, discussing, explaining or lecturing.  Remember a child craves your attention, so even yelling is preferable to no interaction at all. 
When a child hits or bites, immediately name it and say, “We do not bite our sister.”  “We do not hit.”  And put them in time out where there’s no stimulus.  Soon the child will pair those words with the time out experience.
Parents can guide children to be helpful, kind and caring adults.  That’s their job.  It isn’t the job of doctors, pills or the pharmaceutical industry.  It's up to parents to “say no to drugs” and teach their children that life is meant to be learned and experienced - it's not just a pill to be swallowed.
(Jacob Azerrad, PhD is a clinical psychologist, in private practice in Lexington, Massachusetts.  He is the author of From Difficult to Delightful in Just 30 Days (McGraw Hill) and Anyone Can Have a Happy Child (Warner Books). Visit him online at


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
2004 . All Rights Reserved.