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Dealing with a defiant child

Our child is having behaviour problems at preschool. He becomes defiant when there's a change in the schedule or when the teacher asks him to switch activities. He wants to do things his own way and in his own time. How do we break him of this?

We'd suggest that the solution to your problem may need to begin at home. It's rare for a child who is normally compliant and well-behaved with his or her parents to become defiant and uncooperative in other settings. You didn't mention anything about your son's attitudes and behaviour around the house, but is it possible that he's just as defiant with you as he is with his teachers?

If so, it's very likely that you've developed a pattern of giving in to his demands and allowing him to have his way when he resists your authority or throws a tantrum. Now, at preschool, he finds himself in a situation where this mode of operation no longer “works” for him - where he's expected to obey adults, follow rules and get along with other children. This is all new to him, and he doesn't like having limits set to his behaviour. That may be why he's acting out with the preschool staff.

That's one scenario that may describe your situation. Another possibility is that you've been anything but too permissive with your child - that, on the contrary, your parenting style has been overly strict and punitive, in which case he may be experiencing a high level of stress. In a situation like this, the child never internalises the positive character traits his mom and dad are attempting to instil in him through their harsh disciplinary methods. He simply obeys in order to avoid punishment. Then, when he's outside the home, in a less rigid environment, he “lets loose” and misbehaves in a variety of ways.

You alone are in a position to decide which of these two hypothetical situations best characterises your relationship with your child. We'd encourage you to take the time to subject your parenting practices to a careful examination. Are you providing a healthy balance between love and limits? Are you affirming and rewarding your child for good behaviour as well as punishing him for negative behaviour? Are you helping him to develop compassion and understanding for others rather than simply adhering to a strict set of rules and regulations? Are mum and dad on the same page when it comes to discipline, or is one of you more permissive while the other is more authoritarian?

If after an honest examination of the facts you conclude that your child does indeed have a problem with defiance, you should start implementing consistent limits at home. This will involve administering specific consequences for specific instances of misbehaviour. Your son probably won't like this. As a matter of fact, we predict that his behaviour will get much worse before it gets better. That's because he'll be doing everything he can to convince you to give up on this new programme of discipline. But if you stick to your guns, you should begin to see positive results within a couple of weeks.

It might be helpful to ask the preschool supervisor if it would be possible to observe your child in the classroom setting, so that you can see how he interacts with the other children. If that is difficult to arrange, another option would be to ask one of the staff members to videotape your son during preschool hours. That way you'll be able to get a clear and accurate picture of his behaviour there.

You can also work with the preschool staff to establish a prearranged set of consequences at home for misbehaviour at school. Ask the supervisor to provide you with daily reports by way of written notes or phone calls. This will have the effect of keeping your child accountable. He needs to learn that if he's defiant, aggressive or destructive at preschool, there will be unpleasant consequences awaiting him at home.

This article was written by Focus on the Family Malaysia ( and the Questions and Answers are extracted from “Complete Family and Marriage Home Reference Guide” by Dr James Dobson with permission.

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