Defiant 8-year-old

mad-boyAt some point, all parents are faced with concerns related to defiant or disrespectful children. These broad terms often refer to and can be applied to a variety of specific behaviors. If you have a defiant, disobedient, disrespectful, sassy, or rude child with impulse control or self control issues, you may relate to these parents and their situation.

Question: Our 8 year old has become so defiant lately, to the point of swearing and telling us to shut up. He gets a wide range of vocabulary from the school bus.

We have tried to be patient and ignore his outbursts. This has only made the swearing seem more impulsive and it comes so easily now. We have taken items away from him, and he has to earn them back with good behavior. He doesn’t care.

We have tried to send him to his room and he runs away from us. We are an older couple- reaching 50, and we just don’t know what other kind of discipline to use on him anymore. We are at our wits end.

Signed: Heeelllp ….


Dear Heeelllp!!

Mark Twain wrote “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty one, I was astonished by how much he had learned in seven years.”

Right now it seems your son thinks he knows best and so do the other kids. The good news is that this sort of attitude is usually outgrown.

The part that worries me is his impulsiveness and seeming lack of self control. There could be a number of different explanations for this sort of behavior. I think you need to talk with the school counselor, and the child’s pediatrician in order to find an appropriate child mental health professional. There are a number of different childhood issues or disorders that involve these behaviors, and I strongly advise you get it checked out.

I can hear the desperation in your letter, and I have to point out that this is a glimpse into the inner life of your child. Kids who act this way feel out of control. This sounds like a call for help.

I want you to understand that this is probably not just intended to drive you nuts. There may be something in this kid wiring that causes him to implode. Fortunately there are sound interventions for these sorts of issues.

I would also advise you not to punish him by taking things away. This can exacerbate an already out of control situation. You may want to try some behavior modification techniques. For instance you can set up a chart with different parts of the day. Every time he behaves for a set amount of time he gets a star. If he has an outburst, he does not, but can try again during the next time frame. It’s best that the time frames not be longer than an hour or two at most. Then make up a reward system, so if he gets three stars a day he gets a small treat. The idea is that you want to positively reinforce his good behavior. Studies show that this is far more effective than punishment.

If you think he would be embarrassed, or laugh at the star chart, keep a private hourly log on a notepad for yourself. Make sure to treat him and encourage him for an outburst free hour.

I know this seems counter-intuitive. You may even feel angry, or that this goes against the grain. You may be thinking “Reward him-no way!!” Trust me I have worked with many kids from all different backgrounds, and all sort of issues. I have observed far more success with this technique, and others like it, than with punishments.
Have him evaluated and remember-positive encouragement!!

Odelia Schlisser is a life coach with a Masters Degree in Sociology and a Masters Degree in Education, and is trained in Family Therapy. She currently lectures Psychology and Behavioral Science in Mercy College and has spent the past several years counseling children, teens, and their parents and teachers.

Parenting Resources:

You may also find this book by Jeffrey Bernstein Ph.D. helpful: 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child: The Breakthrough Program for Overcoming Your Child’s Difficult Behavior


  1. This sounds just like my stepson, who is 9 years old.

    Unfortunately, we only have him here every other weekend, and the rest of the time his mother allows him to get away with murder, so all of our efforts to teach him to behave properly are thwarted by all the time that he spends away from us.

    Thank you for these suggestions.


  2. My suggestion would be to sit down with him every time he speaks back to you and ask him questions for him to look at his own behavior? ex. Would you like your own child to speak to you the way you have spoken to me? What would you do about it if he did? I disagree entirely with the idea of ignoring bad behavior– that only emboldens him to be more rude. I’ve been a teacher for twelve years and it would be chaos if I ignored bad behavoir. Yelling is not the answer, but having very civil conversations go a long way. Also, try to drag out the conversations. If it seems as if you’re only talking for less than a minute it transfers to the child that it’s not worth your time. Keep a serious kind but firm tone.

  3. Bobi C. DeLoach says:

    I am a special education teacher and I can tell you no matter how much you laugh and think I am not rewarding my child for doing something he/she is suppose to be doing… this techinque really does work. I use this technique with my own son (well some of the time) and have found it to be much more rewarding for both of us than when I punish him. When I resort to punishment we both get hurt. He resents me and then I get angry with him for making me have to punish him. But when I use positive reinforcement we both see the positive in each other. I find my life and his life is much more enjoyable when I look for the positive in anything. Good Luch to Heeelllp …. remember to love him inspite of himself!

  4. What kind of treat do you use as a reward?

    • As a stay at home mom of five I’ve used many things as rewards depending on the child’s age and what they want. My children currently go from 2 to 16.

      Stickers when they are young, even if they do eat them,
      “special” Coloring Pages
      Computer time (or extra depending on age)
      TV Time (sometimes even the ability to pick the show)
      15 extra private minutes with mom (and yes this is a rewards with 5 kids)
      Extra Story
      15-30 minutes late for bedtime
      Picking the Movie we watch with popcorn
      Picking a game we ALL sit down and play

      points for bigger rewards like…

      a new book/song/dvd
      Picking the outing for the week (park, swimming, zoo etc…)
      Dinner out with mom
      Movie/Play out with mom
      Weekend adventure (this tends to take 9 months to a year to earn)

  5. One thing to add that when you put a new behavior modification plan into effect with a child most of the time the behavior actually get worse for a short period of time. Hang in there. It does get better.

  6. Hi! When my grandaughter misbehaved(SHE NEVER BAD-MOUTHED)She would just not listen when it was time for bed or when we were at the park and it was time to leave( I had to physically carry her kicking and screaming to the car because the park was closing)Same thing at the grocery store or in the parking lot of her Dr’s office.
    I started a treasure box full of paper play money pr play coins. Every time she broke an important rule like bedtime,running away,etc. she would have to give me a coin or paper bill depending on if it was a “misdemeanor” or a “serious offense ” like unstrapping her carseat belt.At the end of the week we would see if she had any money left in her treasure box. ( I used a cigar box and let her decorate it before we started the whole thing.)Then she could trade in the fake money for real money ands we would buy a treat or save it for the next week. This worked very well because we always started out with a full box!Try this …it really does work. I am a special ed. Teaching Assistant and this system also worked in a former 3rd grade class.

  7. I highly recommend you check out a book called “Redirecting Children’s Behavior” and see if there is a class near you of the same title… We took this class and it is a very positive way to focus on what makes kids act out this way and work with the underlying needs they are trying to express… it helped our family! You can order the book here. Best of luck and I love the above suggestion to remember to love him in spite of himself… he is hurting inside I’m sure!

  8. Sarah Cousineau says:

    We have this problem with our 15 year old. She has no respect for anyone in our family, is constantly negative and always defiant. I don’t want to live with this situation anymore. It is so bad that I don’t like to be home. It is affecting us as parents as well as our positive and well-behaved 11 year old. Our 15 year old throws major fits with swearing, etc., never takes reponsibility for her actions, and always blames others for her mistakes. We will try to take your advice. We will get her evaluated and try the positive encouragement.

  9. I have offered this advice before – buy the Total Transformation CDS -They have really helpful tips on how to get back the control that you have lost with your 8 year old. I bought them a couple of months ago because of exactly the same scenarios that you describe. Kids need to be accountable for their behavior. You need to be clear and concise about what is acceptable and non-acceptable behavior. No more lectures – No more asking the child why he is behaving this way. While it is helpful to know why – the behavior is still unacceptable and they need to be accountable.
    Good Luck!

  10. Sometimes something as simple as learning how to breathe out the stress works. Try Tailored for all ages so if you are living in stress check it out. Give to yourself as you give back. Even the instructors are donating their time. Saved my marriage and made me a better parent. 25 million testify to it. As I learned, “It is easier done than said”

  11. Dear Sarah C. with the 15 year old,

    I, too, live with a 15 year old female. I heard your pain through your words. While your situation sounds somewhat different than mine, (mine is ADD related along with “inherited” depressive moods) we are in different territory than these parents of 8 year olds. We are already in the trenches, they are about to tumble in. I hope someone posts some good advice for us. In the meanwhile, and these are not necessarily my daughter’s issues, I am learning the following from talking to neighborhood parents: Watch out for drinking (it’s rampant – more than you know), drugs (there’s a way to smoke pot without an odor AT ALL), they almost ALL are having sex (big in the movie theatres), and falling grades (HA – this is the only one that we can actually see!!).

    Best of luck,

  12. I am still wondering what kind of treat you use as a reward. What kind of treat motivates them to behave better?

    • The best treat you can give a child is to spend time with him/her. Give them an hour of your time to do whatever they want to do. Play a game, go to the park or go to a movie! As a teacher, I have talked with many kids and most of them say the best reward ever would be to spend more time with their mom/dad. Kids prefer that over toys, food treats or even money!
      Good luck!

  13. Susan,

    I have taught Pre-K and Kindergarten for the last 13 years. I have used this technique successfully for many years. I counsel parents to choose a reward that will help to benefit their child. It doesn’t have to cost any money. Sometimes a coupon for 15 or 20 minutes of play time with Mom or Dad at the park, watching a favorite children’s show together or visiting the library/reading a book are all inexpensive ways to reward a child and spend quality time together. Children crave this.

    Also, remember that there is a difference between choices and chances. I pride myself on giving children in my classroom many choices. I counsel them on making good choices. “Are you making a good choice or a bad choice? What would be a better choice?” Give them some examples. My limits have to be clearly defined. “You may not scream or talk to me like that. You are making a bad choice.”

    Finally, I focus on stopping one or two bad behaviors at a time. I draw their attention to bad behavior by giving a verbal warning. I redirect them and then give another verbal warning. The third time lands them at the “Thinking Tree” for 5 minutes on a digital timer, which they can watch. When they are composed for 5 minutes,(I’ll start the timer again if they are not sitting quietly) then they may join the group. In your case, it would be dinner, family time after dinner, etc.

    Remember, their behavior always gets worse before it gets better. The key is consistancy and expectations. Even state, I expect this certain behavior. “You may not yell at Mommy.”

    I hope this helps.


  14. The only treat that works for my 13 year old is my time with her. If I will take her out for ‘coffee’ or hot chocolate, or ice cream or a pizza or just walk through the mall with only her, no phone calls and no sister…that is her biggest treat. It is a rare and special time and may be only a half hour or hour but she really loves it.

  15. Mary Claire says:

    I would strongly recommend the book “Raising the Difficult Child the Nurtured Heart Approach” They also have a website They totally changed my life!! It is all about positive energy for good and not giving energy when your child is bad. It is similar to the first answer you received but it gives more details and explains why this technique works. Good luck!!!

  16. It is not necessarily the treat that motivates them to do better. More so the thought that wait, I had a good block of time, I can do this, I can get a reward. Most reward systems in schools etc are focused on an entire day. This is a nearly impossible feat for a child with inner turmoil of some description. They set themselves and the child up to fail since once the child has an outburst, there is no reward and the kid has nothing to lose. The rest of the day will be shot. Setting up the reward system in smaller sections means the kid knows s/he has a new start. There is reason to try again. Gives the day a little optimism. We have incorporated this into our preschool classroom with great results. The treats are very small. Sometimes a gummi bear, sometimes a sucker. Sometimes a sticker. Every once in awhile something a little better. By throwing these surprises in every so often, they will always try because who knows if that section of the day will be rewarded with the bigger better treat.

  17. Hi! I am a school nurse with several elementary schools in my assignment. I tell you honestly that this kind of behavior in an 8 year old sounds like it definitely needs assessment by a professional. I would start with your pediatrician and then get a referral from your doctor to get a more indepth assessment done by either a psychologist or have neuropsych testing done. You MAY be dealing with a type of condition that needs professional help, counseling, or even medication. I would check into it thoroughly before making any decisions. Help is out there, you just have to seek it out, and hopefully your pediatrician will steer you in the right direction. Good Luck!

  18. Talk to the child away from the offense – when everything is pleasant. Review the “house rules” and expected behavior – this is a great time to talk while no one is inflamed. (Doorposts make an “If – Then” chart, outlining misbehavior & consequences with supporting scripture. There are suggestions for consequences but the parent decides. Of course, they also have charts to consistantly reward good behavior, too.) Consistancy is key.

    A Child Psycologist once told me, A child will do what he thinks he should, what he believes he should or what the parent thinks he should – who decides? “Back in Controll” by Gregory Bodenhamer takes this approach – especially good book for parents with strong willed teens. “You Can’t Make Me” by Cynthia Ulrich Tobias is great for all ages. She really emphisizes removing the power struggle & creating a relationship that the child values. Find the tools that work for you and be consistant,

  19. John Smith says:

    @Valerie -MEDICATION?!! You must be kidding, the only people who benefit from such prejudice and zeal are the pharmaceutical companies. Speaking of which, as a school nurse you must be regularly courted with donations or samples which essentially is ethically questionable in of itself… not an accusation but merely a common observation for thought…

    What obviously is missing, is structure, and mutual respect. I can imagine that the advanced age of the parents 50+ vs. the child 8, may have stirred up some unkind comments by bullies, leaving the child with deep resentment. My stepfather was a good father but was 55 when I was 10. I can’t begin to tell you how humiliating it was to be continually jibed about my Grand-dad step-father… and I let him know my frustration by giving him both barrels when he was doing his best to bring me up with my mother.

    While I agree that positive parenting and rewarding good behaviour is important and often overlooked, equally important is helping our children understand that their actions have consequences. Parents have to take their responsibilities to educate, coach and lead their children much more seriously and be prepared to follow-though. Disruptions here usually indicate some issue with the parents, and their ability to communicate and lead the family together. Out of control kids can sometimes be a reliable barometer for the parental relationship.

    Talking-back, slamming doors, ignoring parents, and swearing are clearly disrespectful, anti-social and unacceptable behaviours, which require appropriate consequences. This means the parents need to be agreed and committed to take necessary action so that the child is in no doubt that the situation is serious, and something will happen that affects them. No electronic games/TV/Internet for a week, month or longer are old favourites, but I can understand that this may not have the intended effect.

    Medication should be the absolute LAST resort after THOROUGH PROFESSIONAL EVALUATION, AS WELL AS A SECOND OPINION! We can’t go through life perscribing our children prozac or whatever with reckless abandon for the longer-term medical effects!

    • @ John Smith – Slow down on your assumptions. There truly are conditions that may require medication. My grandson is an example. He is by nature a sweet, kindhearted, bright boy who suffers from ADHD. And I do mean to say suffers. These children WANT to succeed and listen and follow directions. They WANT to be able to control their actions and not be disruptive. He is on medication which is given during school only. During this time he is able to focus and any misbehavior is no more than the usual “boy” antics which fall in line with other peers his age, and there are normal consequences for these. It has also helped him in that learning to accept and deal with consequences for negative behavior making it more understandable for him when it happens on weekends, etc. Not on the medication, he cannot sit still long enough to complete an assigned task in class – which leads to constant criticism or disciplinary actions, or deal with the homework after school – which again leads to frustration on the part of the child and the parent, which just causes a vicious circle. Anger comes from his lack of ability to maintain self-control, and this anger can show itself by quiet “defiance”, the slamming of a door, running away from the situation, verbal outbursts (not unacceptable “language”), etc. He is angry with himself for failing to do what is expected. He does have consequences for all of this whether on meds or not. He does get positive reinforcement and rewarding when he stays in line. I agree medication has been misused in cases, but you should not assume the problem is all due to parenting. The older couple’s child definitely needs to be evaluated. Frankly, it seems to me, this behavior could well be stemming from the child’s feeling of inadequacy and failure on his part, which could well be from a medical/physical/mental disorder.

      By no means am I suggesting any of the behavior described be tolerated without consequence to the child. But sometimes it is not caused by simply by a defiant nature. It definitely should be looked into. The parents of course also need to understand they would need training also.

  20. I have 4 children: 18 years old to 5 , all boys. I have been married for 24 years and things have not been smooth and easy! I had many specialists putting beautiful and sophisticated names to the behaviors of my children ” ADD” ” Aggressive behavior” bla ,bla, bla….”very impressive” Finally life brought me to a marvelous family therapist and guess what? The true essence of the problem was not the child but the family environment ( the father, the mother and the couple) We had to work in many aspects. It was a true demanding and committing work. After 2 years we have now achieved peace at home although I think we are still working in many details. Children react to our behavior, every body has their own story that are never the same because we are all different. Our past history has also influenced us greatly for the good and for the bad. When you reach this chaotic experience be happy it means you need to work out! Review your life touch with your inner self to see were it hurts, were are you scarred.. little by little you will be able to understand, to forgive and start to be able to make choice that are going to be much more efficient…..We have to learn how to love correctly and it is the most difficult task in our lives….and as life is never static this a permanent new way of living….It takes time but it is sure worth the effort, you will all gain from the process! Be patient….and learn from this wonderful experience that life is giving you! Cheers

  21. Sarah Nelson says:


    I am an older parent of a seven yr. old and I have used discipline bringing him up, and he is very respectful. Think about how children behaved twenty years ago when the majority of parents used discipline to teach their children how to make right decisions, the whole society in general was far more self controlled and respectful. Also look at different cultures, who also still use discipline and their children (Chinese, Muslim, and Korean for ex._) and well behaved and motivated to respect and love their parents.

    Don’t throw away the wisdom that has worked for thousands of years,or even wisdom from a generation ago- think about how you were raised, what worked with you?

    Your son will love you so much more when you guide him into self control, through the use of consequences….

  22. Boy, there are a lot of really great suggestions here. Good job guys!

    Most of the time these kinds of acting out are for attention. Is he only getting attention when he acts out?

    Also, check diet. Real foods, lots of fruits and vegetables, cut the chemicals.

    • oops, forgot exercise. That’s important too. They have to be able to burn off excess energy, or else it comes out like what you’ve described.

      Since you seem to feel old – which you’re not – try getting out and doing more physical things with him.

  23. My parents are raising my nephews, now 8 and 9. The boys have impulse and self-control issues. They have recently begun a behavior modification program for Oppositional Defiance Disorder. It seems to be working well. And I agree with what Carole says too about the diet. Hang in there!

  24. Christine M says:

    One thing I’ve not heard mentioned here is nutrition. What your child is eating can make a HUGE difference in behavior. Sugar can cause some children ( and adults too ) to be emotional, angry etc. I know for me, if I eat too much sugar I have outbursts of anger. Do some research, sugar can be really bad! There are a lot of foods that people are intolerant to, such as wheat, gluten, dairy.

    What I would suggest is put your child on a high quality fish oil supplement – in fact everyone should be taking this. Fish oil is an omega 3 essential fatty acid that our body cannot produce so we need to get it from fish oil (there are other sources too, but fish oil is by far the best). There’s been a lot of studies done on fish oil and ADHD, ADD, depression…. and it’s had remarkable results.

    My son is ADD, he’s been on fish oil for about a year now and I believe it has helped him with the hyperactivity tremendously. We all take it, it’s helped me a lot with mood swings and anxiety.

    There’s a lot of good advice here. I’m going to try for the 1 hour rewards, that’s a great idea. 🙂 Also, 123 Magic (check your local library) is a great way to discipline and bring back the sanity in the household!

    • I agree that fish oil is so healthy, however HOW do you get young kids to take it!???! My kids used to eat salmon salad sandwiches if they had a slice of melted cheese on them, but they have now sworn it off entirely. Suggestions, anyone!!??

      • Easy — Just buy the gummi vitamins with Omega 3 and DHA & EPA. They can be bought at any “Big Box” pharmacy section.

    • Hello, my son seems to be the same,defient and impulsive. He also doesn’t care if I take things away or if I use time out. As soon as the disciplining is finished(time out),he misbehaves again. I feel as if I’m constantly yelling at him. We also have 4 other children and he tries to aggravated the other children to get “a charge” out of them. I am soo lost, I’ve seen a behavioral specialist a few times and she stated to me it’s the way I parent him. I used her advise and created a star chart After a few weeks, my son would say,” I don’t care about the stars, I don’t want anything”. I am so frustrated with my son that it seems to hard to be patient with him! This has been going on for at least 3 yrs. and I just am so frustrated. I currently have an appt. with his ped. for an evaluation. I read about the fish oil, how much is he supposed to take? I’m desperate to try any suggestions!!

  25. Momma Pam says:

    This may really be old fashioned, but have you tried corporal correction? One small swat on his butt may stop the problem. I have talked to children’s services and it is permissionable to do so. I am raising a special needs grandson, so I know about older parents raising young children.