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"Best-of" Disciplinary Strategies for Defiant Children and Teens

No one discipline technique can be relied upon for all situations. The wise mother or father develops a functional set of skills suited to different situations. Remember that the best discipline is “prevention,” and there is "no one size fits all" when it comes to promoting positive behavior and self-responsibility – and responding to unacceptable behaviors.

Below is a summary of the most effective disciplinary techniques for the oppositional, defiant child.

Effective discipline:

• advances development
• encourages self-responsibility
• is proactive
• promotes positive behavior and self-control
• protects and strengthens the youngster's self-esteem
• responds to unacceptable behavior and a lack of self-control
• strengthens the parent-youngster relationship

Basic disciplinary techniques include, but are not limited to, the following:

1. "I-Message": It is more helpful to try to make kids aware of how we feel, but leave responsibility for behavioral change with the youngster. A proper "I-message" identifies: the behavior; how it makes you feel; and a concrete impact this has on your life. For example, "When the music is on that loud I get upset because I can't hear the person I'm talking to on the phone."

2. Attention-ignore: Catch kids being good! Kids repeat behaviors that get attention; they give up behaviors that get no attention.

3. Charts and Rewards: If not overused, the handy chart posted on the refrigerator (or elsewhere) can help establish good behavior patterns.

4. Consequences: Consequences can be of two types: those that happen if you do nothing and those that you arrange. For example, if a youngster willfully or carelessly breaks a toy, the youngster no longer has that toy to play with. If the youngster hits another with a toy, you may take that toy away. Both are consequences of the youngster's actions.

5. Encouragement: Encouragement is a means to promote positive behavior and some argue that it is more effective than praise or reward. It implies reasonable expectations (one step at a time), and that we accept the youngster's mistakes, as well the successes.

6. Modifying the environment: This refers to steps the parent takes to change or structure the youngster's environment in a way that helps the youngster to succeed at tasks and remain safe. Be creative in how you organize, enhance, sooth, redirect, and childproof the environment to help promote the youngster's self-control.

7. Role modeling: Kids learn more about behavior by watching adults than in any other way.

8. Rules: Indeed rules are useful for providing predictability, consistency, and stability. They can be used for a variety of reasons that range from preventing problems from happening to responding to them when they do occur.

9. Setting limits: Kids need to know where the limits are and that these limits stay the same all the time. They feel secure when they know where the boundaries are. They test them frequently to find out.

10. Time out: Sometimes kids need time to calm down and collect themselves. (Adults do to!) Used sparingly, with consistency and repetition, it must be viewed as teaching the youngster, not punishing.

Moms and dads need the following skills to be effective with discipline:

1. An understanding of development & the factors that affect development
2. An understanding of the goals of effective discipline
3. An understanding of the meaning of behavior
4. Confidence
5. Determination
6. Effective communication
7. Friendly firmness
8. Genuineness and concern
9. Openness
10. Patience
11. Separateness

When considering what disciplinary method to use, moms and dads need to think about the following factors:

1. Factors affecting our ability & willingness to respond effectively
2. Our feelings about the behavior
3. Our relationship with the youngster
4. The behavior itself
5. The purpose we assign to the behavior
6. The youngster
7. Where the behavior is occurring
8. Who is present in the setting


1. Focus on contributions and appreciation, not judgments (e.g., “I appreciate the help you gave me. Your hard work sure did help the family.” vs. “What a good job you did!”).

2. Focus on effort and improvement, not winning or competition (e.g., “I can see the progress you've made. You have really been practicing hard.” vs. “I'm so proud of you for winning!”).

3. Focus on internal evaluation, not external (e.g., “You must be very proud of yourself. How do you think you are doing?” vs. “I'm so proud of you.”).

Ground Rules for Ignoring Misbehavior—

Many moms and dads don't realize that even scolding and yelling are forms of attention. Kids would rather have unpleasant attention than no attention at all. Therefore, when you get angry and punish kids you may actually be teaching them to do the exact things you don't want them to do. Ignoring behavior is simply pretending that the behavior is not occurring. The parent does not look at, talk to, or respond to the youngster until the inappropriate behavior ends.

There are three basic guidelines for ignoring:

• Be consistent with your approach. Ignoring once, and paying attention the next time, will likely increase the intensity of the behavior. The youngster will think he or she must escalate the behavior in order for you to respond. Expect the intensity of the behavior to increase before it decreases.

• Give the youngster no recognition when exhibiting unacceptable behavior. Don't have eye contact, physical contact, or in any way acknowledge the youngster.

• Recognize the youngster as soon as the unacceptable behavior stops. Ignoring must always be combined with supporting and encouraging positive behaviors.

Points to remember:

• Ignoring does not always render immediate results.

• Ignoring is difficult.

• Other adults and kids in the family (and community) may continue to recognize the behavior, jeopardizing the success of the technique.

• There are situations where ignoring would NOT be appropriate (behaviors that could harm the youngster, others or property, and those that are not motivated by the desire to create a reaction).


Some moms and dads like to use charts to instill good habits in their kids. You could, for example, use a chart for brushing teeth. Even the youngster too young to read understands a star. Rewards can be given for the achievement of a certain number of stars.

Suggestions for using charts include:

• Determine ahead how to end their use. For example, a youngster needs to learn how to brush her teeth without a reward.
• Don't overdo charts.
• Keep them small and simple.
• Use them for one behavior at a time.


Rewards do not have to be part of a behavior modification technique. Rewards can be used to express approval for certain behaviors or actions. Rewards are positive responses to positive behaviors and they don't have to be tangible or concrete actions. Like praise, some moms and dads may not think about rewards as a discipline technique.

Some examples of rewards include, but are not limited to:

• Increasing responsibility is similar to granting privileges. To reward kids for keeping their room picked up, you may increasingly give them total responsibility for the care and cleaning of their room. While this involves work for them, it also says, "You are able to do this on your own. You do not need me coming in your room."

• Privileges are rewards that allow a youngster to experience greater freedom or opportunity. Privileges might involve extending bedtime, giving extra play time, or allowing a youngster to borrow or sue a valued object. They are most effective when they are connected to the behavior being recognized.

• Supporting interests and talents acknowledges the youngster's efforts in pursing interests. It is important that you reward the youngster for interest, desire, ad effort. Be clear that the behavior you are rewarding is the youngster's interest, participation, and efforts, not the youngster's performance, talent, or ability.

• Tangible rewards may be what come to mind when we hear the term reward. A tangible reward may be money or a toy. Rewards need to be small. They are "gestures" of approval. Kids should not get expensive gifts, or large sums of money as a reward. Nor should kids always get tangible rewards. You do not want to promote the sense that a youngster needs to be good in order to receive gifts. In fact, most tangible rewards have their greatest value in the praise that accompanies them.


Sometimes the best form of discipline is to let the youngster experience the consequences of his or her action. What happens if you fail to put gas in your car? Are you likely to forget to put gas in again? Experience really is the best educator.

Natural and logical consequences are effective ways to intervene while maintaining respect for the youngster's ability to make decisions. Consequences rely to some degree on the natural order of life itself to teach lessons about the world. In some instances you might have to arrange for a consequence to happen.

Natural consequences are things that happen in response to a behavior. No one has to make these things happen. They are often the result of the "rules of nature". For example when a youngster does not eat his dinner, he will get very hungry before he goes to bed. Sometimes a natural consequence is the result of human nature. The youngster who hits his friends will lose playmates.

A disadvantage of relying on natural consequences is that sometimes they take a long time to work. Also, young kids may have difficulty understanding them. Some natural consequences are not desirable.

Logical consequences require that the parent impose a consequence for a given behavior. The consequence connects to the behavior that is not acceptable. For example, if the youngster leaves the bike out, the parent restricts bike riding the next day.

In order for consequences to be effective you must use them correctly:

• Be calm and firm in your efforts.

• Be patient and don't jump in and "save" the youngster. It may be hard for you to watch the youngster experience the consequences. But this is necessary for the youngster to develop good self-control.

• Be sure to provide choices and allow the youngster to make the decision. For example, you may turn down the volume of your radio, or listen to it in your room without disturbing others."

• Make sure the consequence holds meaning for the youngster.

Time Out—

Time out involves physically removing a youngster from a situation that is dangerous and/or a situation where the youngster is exhibiting behavior that is not acceptable. The purpose of time out is to allow the youngster to reestablish self-control, to end unacceptable behavior, and to provide an opportunity to think about behavior and its impact.

Time out is not punishment. It is simply providing the youngster an opportunity to regain control of his or her behavior. You are helping in that process by removing the youngster from the situation or the stimulation that brought about the loss of control. If you are angry or yelling, it is doubtful that the time out will be effective. Some basic guidelines for using time out include:

• Take time to gain your composure and self-control.
• Give the youngster an opportunity to change the behavior.
• If this effort fails, tell the youngster where to go for a time out.
• Select a quiet and safe time out area away from other stimuli.
• Tell the youngster how long the time out will be, but explain that you will only begin timing when the youngster becomes quiet.
• Ignore the youngster's behavior while in time out.
• Focus the youngster on a positive activity after the time out.


There are many ways and opportunities to convey our expectations to kids. Talking to kids and clearly conveying expectations involves communication skills. Modeling the type of behavior you expect is also important. Rules can be used as a means to convey expectations.

Rules can be used to:

• eliminate a lot of discussion and decision-making about ordinary life events
• help make the world feel safe and predictable
• prevent problems from happening
• replace ineffective ways of dealing with situations
• respond to problems that happen repeatedly

The following are guidelines to consider in using rules:

• Be consistent.
• Involve family members in setting rules.
• Make only those rules that you are confident you can enforce over time.
• Make rules clear.
• Make rules positive and action oriented. Save "don't" for specific safety situations.
• Make sure kids understand the exceptions to the rule.
• Make sure kids understand the reasons or rationale for the rule.
• Make sure rules "grow" with the youngster.
• Make sure the rule addresses the issue it is intended to address.
• Prioritize and establish a few rules that are most important to the well-being and safety of the family.

Modifying the Environment—

Modifying the environment can be supportive in helping kids develop self-control. It is precautionary in that it attempts to prevent difficulties from arising. It is reactive in that it can be done in response to a problem.

The following list includes techniques for building success into the youngster's environment. Think of some concrete examples or ideas for every category that you may use. You can be creative in how you wish to modify the environment to help promote the youngster's self-control.

• CHILDPROOFING is something you probably do and don't even think about it. This is critical in terms of making the youngster's world safe. If you are concerned about the youngster breaking something, it is best to put it away. It is the job of the toddler to grab and explore. Help the youngster do that job well. Don't be concerned that the toddler will be unable to learn not to touch or break things. It would be impossible for you to control the youngster's entire environment to the extent that the youngster would never be exposed to forbidden items.

• ENHANCING the environment involves those activities that make the youngster's world full of age-appropriate and interesting items. Posters, books, wall hangings, and toys enhance the youngster's environment. This helps kids learn how to spend time alone, occupy themselves, develop hobbies, focus, and concentrate.

• ORGANIZING helps kids learn how to sort, pick up, and find their own things. Organizing increases the youngster's ability to accomplish self-care tasks.

• REDIRECTING does not restrict activities, but rather structures them to occur in a different way. Establishing certain rooms for certain activities is one way to redirect. Exchanging a safe item for an unsafe one is another way.

• SOOTHING is a technique used most often with babies, particularly babies who are born cocaine-affected. Essentially sources of stimulation are removed from the environment. These may include light, noise, activity, bright colors, etc.

Do time outs in a firm, matter-of-fact way. As with other forms of discipline, consistency and repetition are crucial. If you find yourself using time out very often, you need to reexamine your expectations. Maybe they are unrealistic for a youngster that age. Time out should be used sparingly or it will cease to be effective. If you decide to use it, select a single behavior and use it for that behavior.

Time out can be an effective tool for anyone feeling overwhelmed or angry. But, we know it will not be an effective tool with a youngster if it is used in anger. There will always be situations where you find yourself overwhelmed with feelings. It may be helpful to you to think about whether you need to give a time out to the youngster, or take a time out for yourself.

Reasons Kids Lie—

1. To achieve power
2. To appear more important, glamorous and exciting to others
3. To avoid creating an awkward situation
4. To avoid feeling trapped, embarrassed and/or threatened
5. To avoid punishment
6. To avoid rejection
7. To belong
8. To challenge authority
9. To compensate for not having the factual information
10. To conceal an unintended mistake
11. To deny painful feelings and/or memories
12. To experience fun/excitement
13. To fulfill someone's expectations
14. To fulfill wishes
15. To get something which couldn't be gotten otherwise
16. To increase one's status
17. To protect friends from trouble
18. To protect oneself from harm
19. To protect privacy
20. To test the limits


I. Responding to Lying:

A. Ask yourself the following questions:

1. Are my feelings/responses a clue to why the youngster might behave this way?

2. Are there certain situations in which this behavior seems to occur?

3. Should I gather more information about the situation before I react?

4. What might be the reason for lying?

5. What need(s) might the youngster be attempting to meet?

6. Are my actions encouraging the youngster to lie?
  • Am I invading the youngster's privacy?
  • Am I overprotective?
  • Are the rules too strict?
  • Do I tell lies in front of the youngster?

B. In response to the reason for lying, consider doing one or more of the following:

1. Assist the youngster in meeting underlying needs without addressing the lie (e.g., by exploring alternatives, problem-solving, etc.).

2. Don't overreact to the behavior by calling the youngster a liar.

3. Explain how lying affects trust and how hard it is for people who live together to get along without trust.

4. Focus on solutions to problems instead of blame.

5. Give the youngster accurate information so the youngster won't have to rely on imagination to fill in any gaps.

6. Help kids to understand that mistakes are opportunities to learn so that they won't believe they are bad and need to conceal their mistakes.

7. Ignore the lie and show appreciation when the youngster does not lie to meet a specific need.

8. Respect kid's privacy when they don't want to share it with you.

9. Set rules and be consistent in enforcing them if the youngster is testing your response to certain behaviors.

10. Use an I-message to share your feelings about his or her behavior and to describe the effects of it on you and others.

11. Use consequences related to the original wrongdoing.

12. Use reflective listening to show your understanding of the youngster's underlying needs.

II. Planning Ahead to Prevent /Reduce Future Problems:

A. Be certain the youngster understands that you do not accept lying and the reasons why.

B. Build and help maintain the conditions for positive self-esteem.

C. Distinguish between what you would like to know about the youngster's behavior and what you have to know.

D. Don't ask set-up questions that invite lying.

E. Establish and clearly communicate expectations, limits and rules and make sure you enforce them.

F. Focus on building closeness, openness and trust in your relationships instead of on the problem behaviors.

G. Let kids know they are unconditionally loved.

H. Look at lying as a developmental phenomenon.

I. Model honesty.

J. Rather than focusing on trapping the youngster in a lie, develop a trusting relationship by focusing on the reason for the lie.

K. Remember that who the youngster is now is not who he or she will be forever. Don't overreact and expect that the youngster will lead a life filled with antisocial behavior. Remember that kids will behave as they are expected to.

L. Set an example in telling the truth. Talk about times when it may have been difficult for you to tell the truth, but you decided it was more important to deal with the consequences and to maintain your self-respect.

M. Show appreciation when the youngster tells the truth. For example, "Thanks for telling me the truth. I know it must be hard. I like the courage you show in being willing to face the consequences. I know you can handle them and learn from them too."

==> My Out-of-Control Teen: Help for Parents with Oppositional Defiant Teens

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