How to Handle Defiant Behavior in Preschoolers: 7 Steps
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Lagging development of cognitive skills can result in defiant behaviors.

If the job of a toddler is to be defiant, then you may feel that your preschooler has received a promotion and pay raise! Oppositional behavior, such as defiance, is recognized by The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry as being normal development for 2- to 3-year-olds. However, dealing with defiant behavior that persists throughout the preschool years leaves many parents feeling frustrated and exhausted -- not to mention annoyed with unsolicited advice from random strangers at the grocery store. Fresh ideas to handle your preschooler's continued defiant behavior may give you renewed hope and a positive direction.


  1. 1
    Refocus your thinking. Your little one has reached many developmental milestones, some early and some late. According to Massachusetts General Hospital, the same can be true of skills that help your preschooler behave well, such as frustration tolerance, problem solving and flexibility. When these cognitive skills are lagging in development, your preschooler may continue to react with defiant types of behavior no matter how many colorful sticker charts you've tried. Recognizing the need to help your child develop such cognitive skills to reduce defiant behavior gives you a new focus.
  2. 2
    Identify triggers, paying close attention to the situations that set off defiance in your preschooler. Your son may become defiant when you ask him to turn off the television and come to the dinner table or when he finds out he can’t go to grandma’s house because she is sick.
  3. 3
    Recognize lagging cognitive skills. For each trigger, look for the underlying skill sets that need to be strengthened. You may see that your preschooler is having difficulty with transitioning from one task to another or with deviating from an original plan. A thinking skills inventory such as the one found at may help you identify more lagging skills.
  4. 4
    Adjust expectations. If your preschooler is lagging in organization and memory skills, don't expect him to respond positively to a broad command to clean his room. Feeling overwhelmed and unable to organize the bigger task can lead to a defiant response.
  5. 5
    Support lagging cognitive skills. For organizational and memory difficulties, help your preschooler break down a large task such as cleaning his room into manageable pieces. Say: “Johnny, please put all your dirty clothes in the hamper.” Once he has completed that task say, “What a great job! Now it’s time to put your shoes in the closet.” Continue giving praise and short tasks. If transitioning is an issue, be sure to give advance warning prior to a request by saying, “Johnny, dinner is in 15 minutes. You can finish watching this cartoon but then the television has to go off while we eat.” Continue to give reminders at five-minute intervals until it is time to transition. Use a timer so that he can watch the countdown and be more prepared for the transition to follow.
  6. 6
    Be empathetic and use problem solving to engage your preschooler and diffuse further defiance as part of managing difficult behaviors. No matter how good you are at helping your preschooler break down tasks or smooth transitions, there will be unanticipated situations that elicit a defiant response. When this happens, say: “Jenny, I’m sorry you’re disappointed and I know this is hard for you. The trouble is, I need to be at the store in 10 minutes but you are in the middle of a game. How do you think we can solve this problem?” If she can’t come up with a solution, give her a choice of two that will both work. “Would you like to take the dolls with you in the car or would you like extra time when we get back?” This collaborative approach helps strengthen her thinking skills and leads her to alternate choices while minimizing defiant behavior.
  7. 7
    Seek outside help from your child's doctor. If you are concerned about the level of defiant behavior that your preschooler is exhibiting, talk to her pediatrician about it. The doctor can reassure you if your preschooler’s defiant behavior is within normal bounds. On the other hand, if he finds that the defiance is more extreme, he can refer you to additional help.

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Categories: Education and Communications

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