Managing Defiance from Children During a Crisis

By James McGuirk

As we continue to isolate ourselves to prevent the spread of COVID-19, immediate families are spending more time together, and therefore likely to feel more tension at times. If you have noticed increased fighting, yelling and defiance from your children or other family members, including refusal of simple requests or demands, this is likely related to the stress caused by the pandemic, or sheer frustration from being cooped up at home.

It is not uncommon to observe this behavior in 3-year-olds when they are hungry or tired. Because of the prolonged nature of the current pandemic, we are seeing similar behavior with much older children, and even adults. Rest assured that there are steps you can take if you find yourself in this situation with your children. Here are four:

  1. Stay Positive. Overall, children want to do well and get along with others. When they are upset, worried or tired, their ability to regulate their own behavior is compromised and, as a result, you may notice an increase in negative conduct. When this happens, it is best to focus on what your children do well, and not on what they are doing wrong. Recognizing good behavior tends to change their mood and inspire continuation of positive actions. If you can accomplish this, do not be surprised if your children are more compliant. 
  2. Listen Intently. Children often communicate through their behavior. It is helpful to view defiance as a message about how they are feeling, and it is up to parents to discover what their children are trying to communicate. To do this, you should engage in what is known as active listening. This is when you reflect back what you think someone is feeling. Even if they do not articulate their emotions, you can let your child know what their behavior is seemingly communicating. For instance, “I see from your face that you are frustrated about something. Can you tell me more?”
  3. Avoid Power Struggles. Imagine that you want your child to do something, like pick up the play area, and they refuse. If you push back and believe they should obey simply because they are the child and you are the parent, you may be in a power struggle. If you find yourself in this situation, consider giving your child a choice. For example, if you want them to pick up the play area and they don’t want to, you can ask them if they want to do it now or after they play video games for a half hour. This will give your child the feeling that they are deciding for themselves, but the task will still ultimately be accomplished. You can also suggest swapping tasks and entice them further by making it fun. Offer to clean the play area and ask if your child will vacuum the family room, or another task that is age-appropriate. Once you agree on the tasks, put on some music and have a race to see who gets their cleaning done more quickly. 
  4. Time Yourself Out. Any stress and anxiety you feel during this time is normal. If you are juggling multiple demands like your children and career, you may be thinking, “How can I take care of myself? Too many people depend on me.” This is precisely why it is important. If you find yourself yelling, try to remove yourself from the situation. If possible and you can safely leave your children for a moment, step outside or go to your room to gather your composure. Shut your eyes, take deep breaths and remind yourself that you can and will get through this. Even if your alone time is brief, you will be allowing yourself an opportunity to calm your body and mind. Not only are you helping yourself cope, you are teaching your children, through your behavior, skills that they can use when they have similar feelings.

Sometimes you can do everything correctly and things will not improve. If this is what you are experiencing and you need additional support, Astor Services for Children & Families is there for you. For assistance, please visit or call our hotline at 1-866-ASTOR01 (866-278-6701).


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