When children defy

Mag.Dr. Manfred Hofferer

Do you know that? Until recently, everything was fine between you and your child, but suddenly – without much notice – everything seems to get out of hand. The child’s behavior changes and becomes increasingly difficult, and it is really stressful to get along with and deal with. If the relationship with the child is no longer as smooth, there is usually a very special reason for this: development of autonomy!

I hope that this article will help parents better understand what changes are happening in their children in spite of old age, and that this understanding will help them cope with more patience, serenity and inner distance in difficult everyday situations. You may even succeed in having a sense of humor if you look at your child, a bundle of anger and self-will, with a few minutes of distance and empathize with him. Much would be gained if you no longer thought: "Hopefully this time will soon be over", but an enthusiasm grows in you for this stage of development. In defiance, the child has fundamental experiences that will help him throughout life.

Most parents enjoy the first year and a half with their child because it is completely connected to them, it shines on them and they still obey light falls. But at the age of 10 to 12 months, the child begins to express anger and anger very clearly when it doesn’t get something it wants. At this age, it is still relatively easy to calm down and to distract, because from his development it is a need to live in accordance with the wishes and will of the parents. And that is exactly what is changing in the so-called “defiance”. From around the age of two, the child begins to recognize that it is an independent being and that there is a difference between itself and the other.

“… It is unbearable, my daughter (two years and six months) throws herself on the floor for no apparent reason, screams, rages and beats like crazy. Any attempt to calm her down will further anger her. Sometimes I would like to run away and just leave them there! ”

We hear such descriptions again and again in our practice as educational advisers. It is not uncommon for the child’s defiant behavior to become a problem in the parent relationship and the question of guilt is repeatedly asked: Who did what (what I / we / we) did or did not do so that the child behaves in this way. tightened is the already tense situation through blame and accusations from "dear relatives and friends". The peak is reached when well-intentioned advice in the form of: "You just have to …", "I’ve always told you …" "It’s easy, try it …".

Experience shows that the only really helpful way to deal with this development phase is to know what is going on in the defiance phase. Let’s find out: The so-called “defiance phases” are part of the development of a healthy person (a second and much more difficult defiance phase is experienced during puberty). In fact, these phases have to be called “autonomy phases”, because it is not resistance and defiance that are the essence of this development phase, but the detachment and independence of the child. These are very important milestones in the child’s development.

The defiance phase begins around the end of the 2nd year of life – lasts until the 4th year of life – and is characterized by the fact that the child strives more and more for autonomy and tries to get out of the merger with the parents (especially the mother) to solve. (Defiance reactions also appear in much younger children and the period of occurrence is subject to relatively large fluctuations. In children who do not seem to show any defiance phase around the age of 3, this occurs at the start of school.) What was the “We make it with each other ”is now a“ I want to do it myself! ”. The child’s own will awakens and manifests itself more and more in the form of reactions of defiance and refusal to obey. However, this does not mean that the child primarily turns against his parents, but rather that the child suffers from its own inadequacy to be able to fulfill its wishes in its own way. The easiest way to understand the child’s behavior in defiance situations is as a “panic reaction”. This means that in this phase it is no longer able to survey or control the situation and therefore gets completely out of joint.

A child in this phase of life wants to conquer and take possession of the world and go “his own way” – completely and without limits. It inevitably and permanently hits “natural” limits. At the same time, it also learns that even the beloved and so far sensitive parents do not “function” as they would imagine and wish. They forbid, say no and constantly prevent the urge to try everything; in short, they set limits, turn away, and far from being “good parents”.

These limitations and limitations of one’s own path lead the child into deep despair, because his or her will does not match that of the parents or with their own ideas and abilities. The world seems to be drifting apart for the child, and all the usual arrangements are breaking up. There is an inner chaos of feelings that the child cannot master or evade. Accordingly, in such exceptional situations, the reactions or behavior of the (but be careful, the "symptoms" can be very different. For some children, the defiance phase is completely unspectacular. But there is also a kind of silent defiance – if a child is For example, withdraws and hardly likes to speak or eat anymore. However, the most common expression is the outbursts of anger typical of this phase.). The problems in the defiance phase are exacerbated when additional “stressors” (birth of a sibling, relationship problems of the parents, change of residence etc.) are present.

These first experiences with one’s own will and the associated aggressive feelings and conflict situations, or how to deal with them, become basic experiences that will shape or discourage the child’s further life. Ideally, the children learn that:

  • … it is good to develop your own will. This enables them to make and test their own decisions and to recognize the consequences of these decisions.
  • … conflict situations are not really threatening and are part of life and solutions can be found.
  • … Conflict situations create internal and external tensions. However, these tensions can be endured and do not have to be reacted to or even suppressed by other activities (e.g. eating).
  • … it can express and express its feelings and its parents can stand it, do not evaluate it, but help it to put it into words and to express it more and more. "Even when I struggle, scream and rage, my parents like me."
  • … Resolved conflicts are events that can be looked back on together and that deepen the relationship.
  • … It is fun to gain your own experience, even if sometimes there is pain and disappointment. The child does not despair because his parents support him to try again and again.

Now it may become easier to understand that in such a development phase it makes no sense to set any additional “limits” or to punish the child with further restrictions. The pain and the associated reaction would only increase. It is much more important to understand that the child in this situation, which is so unsafe for him, absolutely needs a lot of attention and care; just because it has problems adapting to the world. Rather, it is worth actively going through this difficult period.

Another important point must be noted here. Around the age of three there are changes in the internal secretory area (glandular secretions). These development-related changes mean that the children get tired more easily, their concentration decreases and their stamina may radically changed. They start games, do not end them, clear everything out and not back in, roam the apartment and take this and then this again … etc. and are extremely unbalanced and restless. Rapid changes in mood are an important part of this change. Different emotions suddenly break over the child, take possession of it and it feels helpless and confused. The cheeky and idiosyncratic child in the previous moment suddenly needs to be leaned on and wants to be hugged, demands tenderness and closeness.

This is a very difficult area! Since the parents themselves are often very upset and angry about their child’s behavior, it is particularly difficult to accept and accept this child’s sudden need for closeness. We know from experience that in these moments it helps to imagine what your child would say to them at such moments if they could put their situation into words. It might say: “Everything is mixed up and nothing fits. I can’t grasp ME, YOU and the WORLD and that’s why I get lost in outbursts of anger that help me cope with my despair ”. Think of yourself what you need if you are like this or something similar!

What help is there for the often arduous everyday life with the defying child?

Most importantly, I think that you yourself (perhaps together with your partner) should consider what experiences you had as a child with authority and how you manage it today. Because if we reject authority ourselves, we will not be able to set any limits for our children, despite the fact that growth without limits and rules is not possible.

Think about how you can manage your own desires. Do you know what you want? Can you refrain from enforcing your will out of insight or out of love for another person? If we ourselves have little access to our own wishes and wishes, it will also be difficult for us to promote the development of our children’s will or to accept their expressions of will positively.

If you can now reduce your family control system to a minimum and clearly formulate and enforce the limits, you have everything in hand to deal with your child’s defiance phase or to promote healthy autonomy development for your child.


  • Help your child by avoiding confusion and conflict situations in the “confusion phase”. That means, check your “rule and prohibition list”: “Less is more!” Tell your child clearly what they want from him and don’t get lost in endlessly long explanations and lectures.
  • Give your child the opportunity to adapt to changes. That means, you simply plan more time for your activities. Everything that can be adjusted can also be accepted more easily.
  • Help your child stay predictable in their behavior. Nothing leads to deeper confusion more easily than different behaviors to the same triggers; … Sometimes yes, then again no, then with a lot of discussion etc. Just hold your child more often and tell them in “quiet phases” that they like it.
  • In this phase of development, act according to the principle: "Now is important for the day after tomorrow!" What your child learns in this phase bears the rest of his life.
  • Support your child as often as possible in his efforts for independence. Offer situations in which your child can be self-employed. Take the time to do things together where your child sets the pace.
  • If you no longer feel up to the situation, get advice and help in good time.

In counseling interviews, parents keep asking me where they should get the strength from, not only to react in the difficult phases, but to act actively while remaining friendly? It is important to know that it is also beneficial for the child to be relieved if the child experiences angry or “bad” feelings, for example if about enforcing borders. This is much easier for the child to endure and endure than averting, threatening or hidden devaluations. Anger and disappointment reactions are allowed. In other words, by expressing your feelings yourself, just like your child, they not only get to know them, but with your help and support they learn to deal with them constructively. As a rule, you can be confident that the relationship with your child will endure these conflicts.

A mother says: “… I’m totally angry and can’t believe what Melanie did again today! (A short pause for thought) … but when I imagine that my child will be able to differentiate itself so clearly later on, I am actually doing quite well! (The mother turns her head to the side and smiles.)

With this in mind, I wish you a lot of strength and endurance for the difficult time with your children!

Further contributions from the author here in our family handbook


Dr. Manfred Hofferer – father of 3 children – is the pedagogical director at the Institute for Communication Pedagogy in Vienna, where he is responsible as a consultant and therapist for the “toddler” area.


Mag.Dr. Manfred Hofferer
Education partner Austria – Vienna
A-1230 Vienna, Schwarzwaldgasse 10-12 / 4/2

Created February 13, 2002, last modified June 22, 2015


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