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Behavior Modification for the Strong-Willed or Defiant Child

By Kenneth D. Hartline ; Updated June 13, 2017

Raising a strong-willed or defiant child can be one of the most difficult jobs you face as a parent. You might struggle with problems at home, have difficulties handling your child in public and may even be dealing with disruptions your child is causing in school. Several behavior-modification programs can help your family, with changes that can be made at home and at school.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Extremely defiant children can be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder, depending on their age and symptoms. Children with ODD display a persistent pattern of uncooperative, defiant and hostile behavior that interrupts daily activities. Other symptoms might include poor academic performance, impulsiveness and antisocial behavior. When a child displays characteristics of ODD or conduct disorder, first check for other disorders that may be causing the defiant behaviors: these include attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, mood disorders or learning disabilities.

Parent Training for ODD

If a child’s oppositional behavior is not due to another disorder, the first step to treatment is providing parents with a parent-training program. If possible, both parents visit therapy sessions together so the therapist and parents can collaborate on a behavioral plan to help the child in all settings where oppositional behavior occurs. This involves teaching parenting techniques that focus on a child's positive qualities instead of feeding attention to kids' negative aspects.

Positive Parenting

Many children with ODD respond to parents who provide positive feedback for the child and model proper behavior. Parents should always build on the child's positive behaviors and praise her for cooperation and good behavior. In addition, parents should set age-appropriate limits and consequences -- and stick to those rules, no matter how much of a tantrum the child throws. If the child continues to act out of line, the parent should remain firm with the consequences without getting into a battle with the child.

A Multidimensional Approach

Early oppositional behavior may be a precursor to future criminal behaviors, delinquency and substance abuse in adolescence and adulthood, according to a 1993 study published in "Clinical Psychology Review" that child-behavior experts still cite. The meta-analytic study -- which joined 44 similar studies -- concluded that children's antisocial behavior causes disruptions in families, schools and communities, and eventually involves law enforcement officials. Early on, parents should tackle the disorder with a multidimensional approach in which they receive training along with other elements that address the child's needs in therapy and school. In individual therapy, the therapist and child address the child's problem-solving skills and work on anger management. In addition, parents and the child's teacher should devise a plan to ensure the child’s school sets limits and consequences and rewards the child's positive behavior.

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