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Seeing More Defiance? Play Can Help

2020-06-10 by Dr. Jenny
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Raise your hand if your kids have been defiant or digging in their heels more lately! (Ahem, my hand shoots up). I know it’s incredibly frustrating, but I hope to reassure parents that becoming a control freak is a completely normal response to uncertainty and change. In kids AND parents! So let’s think of some ways that play can make us feel more flexible and grounded.

First: why does change make kids more rigid and defiant? Children — especially those with attention deficits, sensory integration challenges, or autism — have more difficulty 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 following 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.

Now enter COVID-19. A lot of my patients are struggling with the sudden change in routine — no more structure of school, no more sports or outings — and have been putting up quite a fight about anything they can control: what they want to wear that day, what they will eat, whether they will join the class video chat or complete an online assignment! It is exhausting.


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” (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”) rather than peppering them with demands or questions (do this/do that). Turn off the tech so you can focus on what they are doing and see it in a new light. It may feel goofy, but children appreciate when we meet them at their level.
  2. Play back-and-forth games
    If your child is really competitive, they can really melt down when losing at board games or other competitions. So play a game where there’s no winner, just back-and-forth. 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 him.
  3. Have a dance party
    Dancing is one of the coolest ways that parents and children synchronize their body movements. See what works for your family — everyone making up their own moves, teaching each other, or joining in a circle. Let them 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.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is partnering with Melissa & Doug on the Power of Play to raise awareness about the health benefits of open-ended play and how important play is for both parents and kids.

Learn more about the Power of Play >

This web site is not an attempt to practice medicine or provide specific medical advice, nor does use of the site establish a physician-patient relationship. The use of this web site does not replace medical consultation with a qualified health or medical professional to meet the health and medical needs of you or others.


Dr. Jenny

Jenny Radesky, M.D., is a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician whose research focuses on family digital media use, child social-emotional development, and parent-child interaction. She graduated from Harvard Medical School cum laude in 2007 and is an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Michigan Medical School in Ann Arbor. Her clinical work focuses on autism, traumatic stress, ADHD, and self-regulation. Dr. Jenny’s ultimate goal is to help parents understand the individual ways their child thinks, learns, and feels; to help parents provide the best therapy and play experiences for their children; but to also allow parents to sit back and let their child’s mind take the lead sometimes. She authored the 2016 American Academy of Pediatrics digital media guidelines for young children.

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