How to Get Your Kids to Listen: Tips for Managing Defiance in Young Children - Happy as a Mother

How to Get Your Kids to Listen: Tips for Managing Defiance in Young Children

with Authors Joanna Faber and Julie King


  • What Reactions Lead to More Gridlock and Less Cooperation
  • Alternative Strategies For Generating the Spirit of Cooperation
  • Tools for the Time-Crunch Situations
  • The Importance of Respecting the Feelings Behind the Behaviour

Little kids can be masters of defiance. We ask them to put on their shoes or brush their teeth and chaos erupts. The more we try to force them to listen, the more they defy and rebel. So how do we get our kids to listen, especially in moments of defiance?

I sat down with Julie King and Joanna Faber, authors of How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen, to find out more about their simple, but effective strategies for getting kids to comply.

(For the second part of our conversation, how to navigate whining, catch our blog post for part two!)

Engaging in A Battle of Wills

I’ve always had a stubborn streak in me. If somebody tells me to do something, I have to resist the urge to dig in my heels and refuse. 

So I understand all too well the rebellious tendencies of toddlers. But that rebellion can be very overwhelming in the moment. There have been plenty of times when I tried to push back, only to find myself locked into a battle of wills with a sticky-brained child. 

It rarely pays off. Instead, I’ve had to learn to step back and be more playful, engaging in cleanup dance parties or suggesting races to get dressed. 

Julie King and Joanna Faber are experts at those types of tools—ways to break out of the behaviour gridlock and actually get your little kids to want to cooperate. I read all three of their books in preparation for the interview, and I have seen their tips in action with my own boys. 

It isn’t always easy to regulate ourselves and remember how to approach situations rationally when we see defiant children. But Julie and Joanna’s suggestions are intuitive and easy to apply. 

What Reactions Lead to More Gridlock and Less Cooperation

When we want or need our kids to do something, we tend to rely on the strategies that have been modelled for us. We give commands (clean up your room, stop hitting your brother, wash your hands). But those commands create resistance instead of cooperation. 

Then, when our kids push back instead of doing what we asked, we feel powerless. In an effort to gain control, we respond in ways that escalate the situation. 

One of the primary ways we do this is with threats. (If you throw one more rock, you’re going straight to time out.) While we may come by it honestly, this approach only makes them more inclined to repeat the behaviour. Lectures are another common ineffective response—little kids tune them out quickly. 

We fall back on these reactions because we have limited tools in our toolbelt. But we can learn alternative responses that make kids actually want to cooperate. 

Alternative Strategies For Generating the Spirit of Cooperation

One of the simplest ways to bypass a defiant reaction is to offer a choice instead of a command. (It’s time to get dressed—Would you like to wear a red shirt or a blue shirt?) Presenting choices puts them in charge, giving them a sense of autonomy that they crave. The two choices should be choices that are both acceptable, for the parents and the child.

Some strong-willed kids still feel boxed in by two choices. For those kids, another strategy is to let them come up with a solution. (You’re in a throwing mood—what can you find that won’t break anything or hurt anyone?) This puts them to the task of finding a solution, and can often change their entire attitude. 

Playfulness is another great strategy for diffusing the situation. Turning a task into a game or a race can remove the resistance. One of Julie and Joanna’s go-to playful strategies is making an inanimate object talk. Having the toys speak and say they want to be put away inspires more cooperation than saying, “Clean up this mess!” 

Another tool Julie and Joanna suggested is to describe the problem instead of focusing on the solution. If your child spills milk, you might say, “Oh, there’s milk on the floor.” This gives kids an opportunity to find the solution for themselves, and avoids the auto-rebellion reflex. 

I have put Julie and Joanna’s strategies to the test with my own kids and seen their success. But one area that I noticed I struggle in is when we have to be somewhere—we need to get dressed and get out the door. So I wanted to know what specific strategies work well for time-crunch situations. 

They suggested turning the situation into a “kids vs adults” race. Who can get in the car fastest? Let’s race! (Julie pointed out that we want to avoid making the race between kids—that creates a loser and a winner, which could lead to a bigger meltdown!) 

A similar tactic is to play “beat the clock.” Try asking how long your child thinks they will take for a task, then set a timer and see if they can beat it. Races can inspire even a stubborn child to want to move faster! 

The Importance of Respecting the Feelings Behind the Behaviour

When working to get your kids to listen or cooperate, it’s helpful to remember that there is a feeling under the action. One child might throw rocks because he wants to experiment with how hard he can throw. Another might throw rocks out of frustration with big feelings. 

Paying attention to the root of the behaviour can help us navigate situations and avoid conflict. It’s one of the reasons why Julie and Joanna always suggest naming the feeling. 

Sometimes we think that if we put words to a feeling it will validate the behaviour or escalate the situation. We try to take the emotion away without naming it or giving it attention.

But it can be very soothing for a child to hear us acknowledge their feelings and show that we understand. It also models for them the process of using words, not violence, to express our emotions. 

The goal isn’t to stop a behavior. It’s to help children navigate their feelings. Little kids will struggle sometimes to manage their emotions—they simply don’t have the impulse control to regulate themselves. It takes a lot of emotional energy to stay under control. (We as adults even struggle with this sometimes!)

Remember That We’re All Human

Whenever you try to implement new parenting strategies or tips, it’s helpful to remember that you’re not going to get it right every time. We have to regulate ourselves to stay calm and remember how to apply these strategies. 

There will be times when we struggle, snap, or give in to mommy rage, and that’s okay. We can come back in and repair, modelling apologies and ownership for our behaviour. 

For more communication tips from Julie and Joanna, make sure to read the second part of the blog post on dealing with whining.

If you find yourself struggling to keep mom rage in check, join me for All The Rage: Raising kids with less anger and more connection—a course to give you everything you needto know about how to keep calm as a parent in the most difficult situations. 

Joanna Faber and Julie King are the authors of the new book, How To Talk When Kids Won’t Listen: Whining, Fighting, Meltdowns, Defiance, & Other Challenges of Childhood, as well as the best-selling book, How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7, which has been translated into 22 languages world-wide. They created the app HOW TO TALK: Parenting Tips in Your Pocket, a companion to their book, as well as the app Parenting Hero. Together they speak to schools, businesses and parent groups nationally and internationally, they lead “How To Talk” workshops and support groups online, and provide private consultations.     





leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


want to be a
happy as a mother VIP?

back to top

BASED IN ontario, 
serving ON, BC, AB, SK, MB, NS