How To Tame Defensiveness in Kids

Strong emotions can be a lot for young brains to handle, so it's natural for them to act out defensively when corrected. Here's how to help your child maintain their cool when you correct their behavior.

Mom With Screaming Kid

My 4-year-old son cries and screams whenever we reprimand him about something. Most of the time, he knows he has done something wrong but continues to cry and scream. He always says he's sorry and he promises he won't do it again. But it's just an ongoing cycle and it's becoming a huge issue. What can we do?

—Mom With Screaming Kid

Dear Mom With Screaming Kid,

Some children are more sensitive to their behaviors being corrected, and the younger they are, the more this can look like defiance or defensiveness. But, their sensitivity to feeling like the people they love most might see them as "bad" sets off strong emotions.

Small kids don't have the tools to manage this intensity, so it comes out in unpleasant ways. Understanding how your son's brain and emotions are developing can help give you the tools to respond in a way that helps stop this painful cycle. Read on for some explanations about this behavior and tips to reduce the chances your child will be defensive.

Impulse Control

Let's start with their young brains: It takes a lot of brain power to manage emotions and behaviors, while impulse control barely exists. In your son's case, he needs to plan ahead, remember from the last time not to make the same mistake, and then stop behavior that feels good at the moment! That's a lot for his little brain.

The part of the brain that controls impulses, the frontal lobe, is still in the early stages of developing during the preschool years. In fact, according to a 2014 Scientific Reports study on developmental self-control in children, the frontal lobe grows significantly between 5 and 7 years. So, it makes sense that young children can't help themselves even when they "know better."

I'm sure your son does feel sorry afterward. The problem is that he doesn't have the brain power yet to follow through with these intentions when the next time rolls around.

An illustration of a boy crying.
Illustration: Caitlin-Marie Miner Ong.

Emotional Development

Age 4 can be an incredibly confusing phase for parents because your child can suddenly do so much more than they could at 3, but they also still have their toddler meltdown moments. As a mother, I sometimes forget that the developmental line is quite curvy and not the straight line of progress we might hope it is.

Despite all that 4-year-olds have mastered, emotional development is especially bumpy and complex. It's even bumpier with strong and unpleasant emotions.

Although your son cannot yet fully understand his feelings, let alone express them to you calmly, I am guessing he feels embarrassed or ashamed when you reprimand him. He communicates this through screaming and crying because he doesn't know what else to do with these big and hard feelings.

Experiencing these negative emotions can make it more difficult to change behavior, which may be why you are stuck in a cycle that feels like it's worsening. Negative emotion can also interfere with learning because the emotional part of the brain becomes activated, taking over everything else. It's like when you feel anxious about failing a test; it's even harder to focus on studying.

Break the Cycle

Here's the best part: You can make some changes to help stop the cycle of outbursts. The change has to start with you since you have the most skills. You have a fully formed, sophisticated brain; your son has a jumble of potential.

Since the crying and screaming start with the reprimand, try these tips to correct behavior in a way that is less likely to set him off.

Get down to his level

Look him in the eye so you have his attention. Holding his hands or putting an arm around him uses your touch to help his nervous system feel calmer (known as emotional regulation).

Set the emotional tone

Stay calm with an even voice as you react in two steps: empathize with his emotions and then explain the problem. ("It looks like you felt very frustrated with your sister, and then you broke her toy. Now, the problem is she has a broken toy, and this makes her really sad.")

This approach sets him up to feel understood. That simple act can make it easier for him to respond to the problem instead of to your emotion.

Give him a chance to correct the behavior

Allowing your son to rectify the problem can go a long way in helping him feel more in control. For example, if he knocked down a chair or threw some toys, he could pick them up.

After some practice, he may even be able to identify how to correct his own behavior. You can prompt him with a question, like, "What could you do now to help solve this problem?"

End with affection

After you've resolved the problem, praise what he did well. For example, you might say, "I liked how you listened to the problem even though you felt upset. You did great at picking up those toys, so we can do something fun now."

This affection and praise are natural rewards that will help him want to do these behaviors again, often replacing the screaming and crying reactions over time.

The Child Is Not Their Behavior

It's important to be specific with your child that you feel frustrated or upset with his behavior and not him as a person. Be clear that you love him always, not just when he listens and does what you want.

This reminder may seem obvious, but children can interpret parents' upset reactions in all kinds of ways that aren't true, especially children with sensitive temperaments. For example, try something like, "I love you even when I'm frustrated with what you sometimes do."

I knew I had gotten somewhere when my 4-year-old daughter told me, "I love you even when you yell at me!" Children are more likely to respond positively to changing behaviors when they know how very loved they are.

The Bottom Line

Young children are people-pleasers at heart, especially regarding their parents. I have felt like my child revels in making my life difficult, but I know it's not true.

At the end of every exhausting day, our children want to know we still love them, even if they don't have the skills yet to tell or show us. If we can remember they want to do well, but their brains aren't caught up to their intentions, it can help us stay calm to do our part to keep those little brains learning and growing.

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