Clinical Psychologist

Aggressive and Defiant Behavior

All children have bad days, go through tricky developmental stages, and melt down when they are hungry, tired, or sick.  However, rule-breaking, tantrums, defiance, and aggressive behavior become a concern when problems are part of a longstanding pattern or are clearly more severe than expected for the child’s age and developmental stage.

Children may be diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder if they show longstanding problems such as arguing with adults, refusing to follow adult requests, blaming others, provoking others, and being angry, resentful, short-tempered, easily annoyed, spiteful, or vindictive.  Children may be diagnosed with Conduct Disorder, if they show more serious symptoms, such as significant aggression toward people or animals, property damage, deceitfulness or theft, or serious rule violation.

Disruptive behavior often goes along with other problems, such impulsivity, attention problems, depression, substance use, risk-taking behavior, poor school performance, and social rejection.

Parents of children with aggressive or defiant behavior often feel blamed by teachers and relatives and exhausted by ongoing arguments and power-struggles.  Many parents experience a real sense of loss for the warm, joyful relationship they hoped to have with their child. Often, parents come to therapy feeling that they have already tried every recommended parenting strategy without success.

Although children struggling with these problems may not always recognize how disruptive their behavior is, like the adults around them, they wish they could find a smoother path through life.  No matter how defiant they sometimes seem, they would prefer to have good friends, a loving relationship with their parents, and the respect of their teachers.

Although not every approach works for all children, there is strong evidence that behavior therapy can help disruptive children succeed at home, at school, and with friends.  You can learn more about treatment options from the Society for Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.


Children and adolescents with disruptive behavior problems often fail to recognize how serious the problems are, or blame others for the problems.  Even when children do understand that their behavior needs to change, they may lack the ability to control their behavior on their own, and require support from their parents to make changes.

Not surprisingly, research strongly suggests that parental involvement in therapy is crucial to decreasing disruptive behavior.  Although my approach depends a great deal on the age of the child and their specific concerns, therapy often involves helping parents to:

  • Understand causes of disruptive behavior
  • Understand the science behind rewarding good behavior, ignoring annoying behavior, and punishing problem behavior so parents can use each technique in the way that will be most effective for their child
  • Give directions children are likely to follow
  • Spend more time enjoying their child
  • Improve communication with their child
  • Find solutions to tantrums and disruptive behavior outside the home
  • Coach children through new anger management, problem-solving, and social skills
  • Resolve conflicts between parents or caregivers about how to respond to problem behavior
  • Work with teachers to set up workable behavior management plans at school

When children are school-aged and older, I may also work with them directly, helping them to:

  • Manage anger effectively
  • Strengthen coping and problem-solving skills so they have real alternatives to angry responses
  • Recognize negative emotions and express them in appropriate ways
  • Understand and have empathy for others
  • Build social skills and make friends

This page provides only a brief overview of my usual approach to helping children with disruptive behavior.  It is not intended to be a complete review of all possible approaches.  If I begin working with your child or family, we will discuss treatment alternatives, and the likely risks and benefits associated with each option.  Please contact me if you have questions about how treatment may help.