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Defiant Behavior: How Play Can Help Children Cope With Change

Do you notice that your kids act defiant or dig in their heels more after a big change in routine? Maybe this happened during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, when schools closed and everyone had to stay home. In times of uncertainty and change, kids sometimes start putting up a fight about anything they can control. What they want to wear that day, what they will eat and what time they will go to bed may all become a struggle.

Why does change make kids more rigid and defiant?

Children—especially if they have attention deficits, sensory integration challenges or autism—have a harder time making coherent sense of the world. It feels less organized and predictable to them at baseline. They may try to make the world more predictable by sticking to routines, trying to control what goes on around them and pushing back when people try to change things up.

This can make day-to-day parenting tough. Getting kids' trains of thought on your "track" can feel like a constant battle. It helps to think of some ways that play can make us feel more flexible and grounded.

4 playful ways to deal with defiance

Instead of taking on this battle for control, here are a few playful things you can do to help reduce defiance and improve "co-regulation." (This is a psychology term for the idea that kids adjust their actions off of what you do, and vice versa . . . kind of like you are following each other's dance moves.)

  • 1. At least once a day, follow your child’s lead


    ​​Strong-willed children are very sensitive to feeling like others are controlling them. They want to be in charge. Try to give them a chance to do this every day through special time with you. Play whatever they want to play, and don’t try to control it. Just comment on what they are doing ("Oh, that’s a cool sword!" or "Hmm, I like that"). Resist the urge to pepper them with questions or demands ("do this," "do that.") Turn off the tech so you can focus on what they are doing and see it in a new light. Children appreciate when we meet them at their level.

  • 2. Play back-and-forth games


    ​If your child has an especially competitive spirit, they may melt down when they lose at board games or similar activities. So, play a game where there’s no winner, just back-and-forth fun. Try throwing or kicking a ball back-and-forth, checking in with each other to make sure the other is ready. Take a bike ride where you try to stay in line with each other. Take turns making up silly chalk drawings that build off of each other. This helps build "co-regulation," where your child follows you, and you follow them.

  • 3. Have a dance party


    ​Dancing is one of the coolest ways that parents and children synch up their body movements. See what works for your family. You can try having everyone make up their own moves, teach each other or join in a circle. Let your child choose their favorite songs, and discover which ones are your favorites.

  • 4. Give opportunities for solo play


    ​Children with strong minds can create amazing imaginary worlds. It's OK to let them go there. And the more you can give them open-ended materials (art pencils/crayons, building materials) the more their minds get to take the lead. You can learn a lot about their brain's strengths by seeing how and what they create.


    When we give strong-willed kids the space to explore, master new things, and come up with their own ideas, they can discover amazing things about the world and themselves.

    More information

Last Updated
Adapted from Melissa & Doug: Our Blog
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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