How to Help a Defiant Child

He wanted nothing to do with the class. He wouldn't sing the songs.  He wouldn't sit in his chair.  He wouldn't listen to the leaders. He wouldn't participate in the activities.  He was only there because his mom made him stay.

Sound familiar?  You've probably experienced a defiant child in your ministry.  If you haven't, don't worry...they will show up sooner or later.  And when it happens, you want to be prepared to help the child.  Here are some tips.

Remember the goal is to help, not punish.  Our heart should be to mirror the unconditional love of Christ.  Our goal should be to help the child grow spiritually.  Discipline comes from the same root word as disciple.  Through our guidance, we want to see the child become a better disciple of Christ.

Talk with the child individually.  Take the child aside and talk with him or her privately.  Confronting the child in front of the other children will only escalate the situation.

Stay calm.  Don't mix anger with anger.  This will only heighten the child’s stress and invite more defiance.  Slow down.  Talk in a normal tone of voice or even lower your voice some.  Keep your body language neutral.

Don't lecture.  Lecturing will cause the child to shut-down and tune you out.

Don't argue.  Don't get pulled into an argument.  This again will only escalate the situation.

Find out why the child is defiant.  When a child is defiant, you are simply seeing the symptoms of a deeper issue.  There are a number of reasons that can be the root cause of defiance.  Finding out the root cause, can help you minister to the child.  Ask the child why they are upset.  Use open-ended questions with the goal of getting the child to open up and share what is bothering them.

  • Anxiety - Is the child anxious about something?  Being separated from a parent?  In a new environment?  Feeling alone?  Parents not getting along?  Family financial problems? 
  • Sadness - Feeling personal loss?  Disappointed in something? 
  • Frustration - Frustrated about something?  Didn't get picked for a game?  Couldn't figure out how to do an activity?  Expectations not met? 
  • Hurt - Called a name by another child?  Embarrassed in front of other kids?  Feeling rejected by another child?  Feel like being picked on?  Mistreated by someone?
  • Conflict - Got into an argument with another child?  Not getting along with another child?
Use "I" instead of "You."  This one little tweak can make a big difference when dealing with a defiant child.  Here's an example.

"Joseph, you are disrupting the entire service.  You keep talking out of turn and you're being disrespectful."  

"Joseph, I'm having a difficult time sharing the lesson.  Can you help me by listening and participating?"

When the primary focus is the word "You" the focus is on accusation.  When the primary focus is on "I' the focus is on collaboration."

Offer the child a choice.  Often a child who is defiant is seeking power.  Rather than giving the child a "do this" order, offer him or her a choice.  This allows the child to feel a sense of significance and dignity while still holding him or her accountable.  Here's an example.

"Anna you can either participate in the activity with your group or you can sit at the table over there and work on it with another leader.  Which do you choose?"

Use praise.  As you ask the child to make a good behavioral choice, tell them you have faith in them to do the right thing.  Here's an example.

"Alexa, I'm going to ask if you will go back and say positive words to the other girls in your group.  I know you are a great girl and I believe in you.  I know God can use you to build up the other girls."

Give the child time and space as needed.  Often a child who is struggling with defiance will need a minute or two to make a decision.  If you insist on an immediate decision, he or she may automatically resist.  Step back and give him or her some space.  Doing this also lessens the sense that you're trying to control him or her.

Partner with the child's parents.  Talk with the parents privately and explain the child's behavior.  Just as with the child, the approach should not be one of accusation or condemnation, but rather of care, love and a sincere desire to help the child grow as a follower of Christ.  Work with the parents to find answers and solutions.

Think back when you were a child.  There were probably times when you were that defiant child.  I know I was at times.  How were you treated when you were defiant?  With care, love and guided discipline?  With anger, condemnation and retaliation?  Whichever it was, you still remember it to this day.

What a great opportunity we have to model Jesus' love when we interact with a defiant child.  Let's respond with wisdom and care.  When we do this, we will make a positive lifelong impact on the person.