Disobedient Children: 5 Strategies

Does your child refuse to do what you ask them to? Does it seem like they're doing it on purpose? Are you at a loss for how to get them to listen? If so, keep reading for some insight and helpful tips on how to deal with a disobedient or rebellious child.
Disobedient Children: 5 Strategies
María Vélez

Written and verified by the psychologist María Vélez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Raising children is challenging for parents on so many levels. Starting with pregnancy, having children is an exciting and beautiful experience, but also once filled with uncertainty. It’s impossible to predict everything that’ll come up because each child is unique. If you’re new to parenting (or you’ve been doing it for a while), you know that a lot of it is manageable with the right resources. If you’re dealing with particularly disobedient children, however, the challenges can often seem insurmountable.

Rebellious and disobedient children will become more set in their ways if you don’t address the issues early on. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula that’ll make your child start obeying rules and behaving perfectly from one day to the next. Nevertheless, psychologists have some advice for re-framing the situation and re-directing difficult behavior. In today’s article, we’ll share some of the most important ones.

A little boy yelling.

Disobedience in children

Before trying to fix the problem, it’s important to identify if your child is struggling with disobedience or if it’s just a phase. During their development, children go through many different stages, and some of those involve rebelliousness and pushback against the parents.

From about 15 months to three years, children are in the “No” stage. In this period, kids almost systematically challenge whatever their parents say.

This is certainly frustrating, but it’s an important part of their social development. They’re learning that their responses affect their surroundings, which helps them develop their independence and strengthen their character. The best way to manage this stage is to be patient and understanding. Offering them several choices when it comes to making decisions can help them feel more in control and mitigate negative reactions.

If this early stage isn’t managed properly, real disobedience starts to rear its head at age two or three. Disobedient children are those who consistently refuse to follow rules and exhibit some hostility towards parents or other authority figures.

Some parents think that this behavior will go away as the child grows, but the opposite is often true. If you don’t address it, children can grow into teens with dissocial behavioral problems.

How to manage disobedient children

Disobedience is best addressed as early as possible. If you can intervene during the “No” stage, everything will be easier later. In that stage, experts believe that a calm attitude is best. Try to find a balance somewhere between being permissive and strict.

If the problem persists past the age of two or three, try implementing the following strategies:

1. Motivate your child

Disobedient children don’t get any enjoyment out of being disobedient. The problem is that they might not know any other way to behave or understand the benefits of acting differently. You’ll have to find a way to motivate them to behave properly. Help them understand that everyone will benefit if they do and that there are other ways to express themselves.

Years of research have found that the best way to raise children is with a balance of discipline and affection. Gently explain the problems that arise when they behave that way and come up with an action plan that involves everyone. That approach helps children better understand why obedience and good communication can be so positive.

2. Act immediately, don’t lose your nerve

We know it’s complicated, but patience is key to dealing with this behavior. Try to address it as soon as you can, don’t brush it off or think you can “deal with it later”. Getting into a battle of wills with your child isn’t productive or healthy either. If your child is disobeying, a good technique is to get down to your child’s height and explain to them, in a calm but firm voice, that you won’t tolerate that reaction.

It’s important to react immediately, not hours or days later. Once the moment is over, it’ll be much more complicated for the child to understand the consequences of their actions. That, in turn, makes it harder to relate rules or instructions to a concrete situation.

3. Establish routines

One key to avoiding unexpected and disobedient behavior is to establish a clear routine. Sticking to a clear and coherent schedule every day helps your child emotionally prepare for the day’s activities. When they know what’s coming next, they feel more secure. They’ll understand what’s going on around them, which encourages collaboration and balance in their behavior.

A disorganized routine, on the other hand, sends the message that there’s no structure, boundaries, or rules. It leads them to believe that no one expects anything of them, so they can do whatever they want at any time. In fact, it’s possible that children behave in a disobedient or rebellious way because they don’t understand what their responsibilities are.

4. Setting boundaries

Within this routine, you need to establish clear rules and boundaries. These should be clear guidelines that are relevant to the child’s developmental stage and viable given the resources available. Your child should be able to understand them. If they don’t, they won’t be able to follow them. That’s why it’s so important to establish the rules when everyone is present. Clearly explain and discuss why the rule exists, the expected behavior, and what the benefits are.

The messages need to be clear. It’s useless to tell a child “don’t do that” if you don’t also teach them what the appropriate behavior is. For example, if you want them to stop playing and sit down for lunch, try something like: “It’s time to stop playing. Put your toy away and come sit at the table”.

5. Avoid punishment and reinforce good behavior

For years now, social scientists have been questioning the utility of punishment. They’ve found that punishment often leads to more defiant and undesirable behavior because the child realizes their disobedience gets the adults’ attention. Using positive reinforcement and rewarding good behavior turns out to be much more powerful.

When your child behaves appropriately, it’s important to notice and explain to them why what they’re doing is good. You don’t have to give them material gifts or prizes. Communicating to them that you’re pleased with their behavior is more than enough. A hug and some kind words are all a child needs to want to repeat the situation.

A mom demonstrating how to deal with disobedient children.

Disobedience doesn’t appear out of thin air

If you have a disobedient child on your hands, remember that there’s a reason they’re behaving that way. They aren’t doing it because it’s fun or they enjoy making your life difficult. The root cause of their behavior might be that they’re looking for ways to participate in their surroundings. Maybe they just need to know what you expect of them and how to act.

That’s why it’s so important for the whole family to get involved in the process and for the lines of communication to stay open. If you follow these strategies and things don’t get better, you might want to consider getting a professional to help you navigate the process.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • García, E., Villar, P., Luengo, M. A. y Gómez, J. A. (2009). EmPeCemos: un programa multicomponente para la prevención indicada de los problemas de conducta y el abuso de drogas. Revista Española de Drogodependencias, 34(4), 420-447.

  • Larroy, C. (2011). Mi hijo no me obedece. Soluciones realistas para padres desorientados. Madrid: Pirámide

  • Powell, N. (2009). Manejo de conductas inadecuadas en niños mayores de 5 años. Supernanny. Disponible en http://youtu.be/q7DhdxaEuKw.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.