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How to Discipline a Stubborn Child

Any parent will tell you that stubbornness and children go together like peanut butter and jelly. Children tend to be especially stubborn during the toddler and teenage years, but stubbornness can happen at any age. Sometimes it’s part of their personalities that you as the parent must teach them to manage; in other cases it is simply a way to test boundaries and assert their freedom; and sometimes the child is struggling to express something that is going on with him. Teaching stubborn children to express themselves and deal with their stress in healthy ways is key to effective discipline. Discipline a stubborn child by remaining calm, listening to and understanding the child and setting a good example of acceptable behavior.

Disciplining Babies and Pre-Verbal Toddlers

  1. Understand babies and toddlers. The first three years of life are known as a “critical period” in child development, since a baby’s brain is constantly growing and learning, storing information that he will use for the rest of his life.[1] Baby behaviors that might seem like stubbornness or even naughtiness are actually their natural processes of learning about cause and effect.

    • For example, if you are in the habit of just saying “no” or making an angry face every time your baby does an unwanted behavior, it is possible that the baby is simply repeating the behavior to see if your reaction stays the same. By varying your response to the behavior, your child will see that he cannot always get the response he wants and he will try different behaviors.

  3. Change the environment. If your baby is stubbornly touching the same breakable item every day or refuses to stay out of the kitchen cabinets, instead of punishing or disciplining the child, rearrange the home to make it safe and accessible for her. After all, it is her home too, and she learns best when she can explore it.

    • Babies learn by exploring, and are not trying to be naughty by getting into things. Move your breakables and “babyproof” your home rather than trying to squelch normal learning behaviors. Check out this helpful wikiHow article for advice on babyproofing your home.
    • As your baby grows, you will discover new areas that need to be made safe for her. This is all part of structuring her environment so that she is safe and has the most potential to learn and play without risk. You should begin babyproofing your home before your child is mobile (usually around nine or 10 months old).[2]

  5. Say “yes.” Most babies and toddlers spend their days hearing “no” after “no,” and rarely engaging in the behaviors they choose. After you have changed your home environment to make it safe, make it your goal to say “yes” as often as it is safe and possible to do so. Saying “yes” will let your child take charge of his learning experiences and explore things that are interesting to him.[3]

    • Let your child spend time outside, doing arts and crafts, or splashing in the tub as much as possible. Creative and physically-expressive activities will help to use up some of that toddler energy, helping him sleep better which in turn results in a more compliant and less stubborn child.

  7. Redirect your baby’s attention. If your baby is headed for a behavior that is off limits, say his name and then redirect his attention to a toy or distraction that he enjoys. Keep an arsenal of strategies ready to redirect your baby’s attention at a moment’s notice.[4]

    • For example, bring his favorite small board book, snack, or small toy in your purse when you leave the house. Keep the object hidden in your purse until you need it. If you and your child are at a friend’s house and the child is headed toward an electric cord, say his name and then ask if he wants his ball. The distraction is likely to catch his attention and divert his behavior.

  9. Teach “gentle hands.” One of the most common bad behaviors that babies and toddlers repeat is hitting, biting, or kicking. They do it to see what type of reaction they will get, not to hurt you or others. It is important that you teach your child how to interact with others in a safe way.

    • When the baby hits you, take hold of the hand she used, look her in the eye, and say, “We don’t hit. We use gentle hands.” Then, still holding her hand, use it to softly touch your arm or face (wherever she hit you), saying, “Gentle hands. See? Gentle hands.” You can also use your hand to touch her gently, to show her the difference between hitting and a soft touch.[5] Use this same technique to teach a baby or toddler how to safely interact with pets and younger babies.
    • You can also try reading simple board books to her, such as “Hands are Not For Hitting” by Martine Agassi and Marieka Heinlen, to model appropriate behavior.

Disciplining Children and Tweens

  1. Think of discipline as teaching. Rather than simply providing negative consequences for behavior (punishments), discipline is a way of turning misbehavior into teaching moments.[6] When your child refuses to cooperate or repeats the same bad behavior, your end-goal should be to teach your child to cooperate and not repeat the bad behavior.

    • Consequences for bad behavior should not be arbitrary or punishing. Consequences should be connected to the behavior. This is why time-outs are often very ineffective with children who are stubborn; the time-out itself is unrelated to the negative behavior and feels more like a punishment than a consequence or disciplinary measure. If there is no way to make a consequence, you can take away a privilege, but try to teach a lesson that connects the choice the child made to their loss of privileges.[7] For example, if your child plays video games longer than he is supposed to, the consequence can be that he loses his privilege of playing with friends that evening. This makes sense, since he won’t have time to play with friends.

  3. Follow through with consequences. If you say that a certain behavior will result in a particular consequence, you have to follow through. Do not make idle threats, as your child will learn that you are inconsistent at best and a liar at worst.[8]

    • If you tell your child that she has to pick up her room before she can go to a friend’s house, don’t give in if she hasn’t done the requisite cleaning when it’s time to leave. Consistency is key!
    • Because consistency is so important, it is vital that you never set a consequence that you can’t keep. Often it is best to not do this in the moment, as you might be frustrated. For example, if you have to say, “If you do that one more time, I’m going to…” the odds are good that you are already frustrated and likely to overreact. Instead, try to set boundaries pre-emptively. If you know your child is likely to continually get out of his chair at dinnertime because he often behaves that way, before dinner you should tell him that you want him to stay in his chair, and let him know what the consequence will be if he doesn’t (for instance, dinner will be over, or he won’t get dessert).

  5. Create routines. Structure and predictability are important to children and tweens, helping them know what to expect and avoid unpleasant disruptions to their day.[9] Establish daily and weekly routines so that they know what to expect. Moreover, consistent daily routines improve children’s behavior and school success.[10]

    • Set and stick to a strict bed- and wake-time each day. Be sure that your child is getting enough sleep, as a lack of sleep is linked to behavioral problems. From ages three to 12, most children need between 10 and 12 hours of sleep each day (including any nap-times), but many children resist early bedtimes and nap times even if they actually need the sleep. If your child seems grumpy or tends to have disruptive behaviors toward bedtime, this is a sign that he is not getting enough sleep.[11]
    • Give your child plenty of warning if you need to change the routine, but reassure them that you will get back to the routine as soon as possible.[12]

  7. Watch your responses. Many stubborn children and tweens are highly sensitive and tuned in to your demeanor and tone of voice when you discipline them. They are likely to mirror your responses to them, such as eye-rolling, sighing, yelling, or exasperation.[13]

    • It is normal for parents to become frustrated and even angry when dealing with a stubborn child. The key is to control these emotions and not allow them to influence the way you interact with your child.
    • Pay attention to the types of things that seem to set you off when dealing with your child. Perhaps you are easily angered because your child makes a mess, talks back to you, or is not compliant. The things that frustrate you most often point to areas where you feel a lack of control. Dealing with your own issues (from work, childhood, or other relationships like your marriage) can help you to react more positively to your child.[14]

  9. Learn to negotiate. Past generations of parents were advised to never give in to their children’s demands, for fear that doing so would cause the kids to lose respect and forget who is in charge. But today’s psychologists recognize that children need to feel that they have some control over their lives, and parents shouldn’t try to dominate every decision.[15] When a choice is not a question of your child’s health or safety but rather a question of her opinion or preference, it is ok to let her have her way.

    • For example, you might prefer that your children wear prim and proper clothes when out in public, but your child might have a different sense of what is stylish and comfortable. As long as your child is clothed, choose your battles wisely when it comes to things like this that don’t really matter but might give your child a sense of control that she is lacking.

  11. Understand pre-puberty. Sometime around the age of ten or eleven, children begin to experience hormonal shifts leading to puberty. These shifts often result in emotional outbursts, unexpected stubborn behavior, and sometimes, withdrawal.

    • Children at this age often test the limits of their independence. This is a normal and healthy part of growing up, even though it can be frustrating to parents who are used to being in control.[16] It is important to let them feel that they have some control over decisions that affect them, so let your child help plan the menu for the week or pick out his next hair style.
    • Remember that your child is first and foremost an individual. Stubbornness is just one part of a complex personality, and that stubbornness might actually be a good trait. As you can teach your child to stand up for himself and his friends, to resist bad influences, and to always do what is right, stubbornness will be a key proponent of his development into a healthy human being.


  • Know when to step away. If a stubborn child is refusing to wear a coat and it’s 40°F (4.4 °C) outside, let it go. The child will ultimately feel cold and learn on her own that a coat is necessary in the cold weather. Just make sure you bring the jacket with you when your child learns from her own experiences and wants to put one on.
  • If your child is uncharacteristically stubborn, talk to him and find out if there is some new stress at school or home that is causing his behavior.


  • Seek help for children who seem to go beyond normal stubborn behavior and who exhibit signs of mental illness, such as the inability to control emotional responses or the tendency to become violent. If there is a problem with rage or your child expresses feelings in dangerous or frightening ways, consult a therapist or talk to your pediatrician immediately.

Sources and Citations

  1. http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/brain-development/faqs-on-the-brain.html
  2. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/8-tools-toddler-discipline
  3. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/8-tools-toddler-discipline
  4. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/8-tools-toddler-discipline
  5. http://naturalparentsnetwork.com/helping-toddler-be-gentle-with-babies/
  6. http://www.babycenter.com/404_i-try-to-discipline-my-grade-schooler-but-he-doesnt-seem-to_71571.bc?scid=mbtw_bigkid_post8y_4m&pe=MlV4Y2Nob3wyMDE1MTIwMg..
  7. http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/tips_for_positive_discipline
  8. http://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/tips_for_positive_discipline
  9. http://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/structure/
  10. https://www.keystonebehavioral.com/regular-routines-improve-kids-behavior-success-in-school/
  11. http://www.webmd.com/parenting/guide/sleep-children?page=2
  12. http://www.cdc.gov/parents/essentials/structure/
  13. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-development/201301/the-highly-sensitive-and-stubborn-child
  14. http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/parenting/discipline-behavior/parental-anger
  15. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-development/201301/the-highly-sensitive-and-stubborn-child
  16. http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/medical/checkup_11yrs.html

Excerpt from Article provided by wikiHow, a wiki building the world’s largest, highest quality how-to manual. Please edit this article and find author credits at the original wikiHow article on Discipline a Stubborn Child. Content on wikiHow can be shared under a Creative Commons License.

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