How do I handle a kid whose behavior ranges from telling me to “shut up” to slamming a door on her younger sister to trying to steal money from my wallet? My daughter is the classic “defiant child.” She hates school, has trouble getting along with friends, and frequently disobeys her teacher. I’m worried about her future. What should I do?

Without more detailed information on your family situation and your child’s background it’s difficult to make definitive recommendations. But we can tell you this much: this kind of defiance and bad behavior doesn’t simply come out of nowhere. Our guess is that the scenario you’ve described actually represents the culmination of some patterns that have been developing over an extended period of time. Now that you’ve reached the end of your rope you’re ready to break those patterns and get some serious help.

If we were in a position to do so, we’d ask you for a detailed family history. Here are some of the questions we’d ask. Are you married? If so, what is your relationship like with your spouse? Is he or she an active, involved parent? Do the two of you provide your daughter with all the love and time she needs from you (Asset #1: Family Support)? Do you encourage and affirm her at every opportunity (Asset #2: Positive Family Communication)? Does she know that you are her biggest cheerleader (Asset #16: High Expectations)? How do you handle discipline in your household (Asset # 11: Family Boundaries)? Are you harsh and authoritarian, or do you discipline with patience and consistency? Do you know how to use consequences effectively?

If your family relationships are healthy, if you’re balancing love and limits, and if you’re giving your child all the quality and quantity time she needs, then we might begin to suspect that some type of developmental or impulse control disorder is responsible for her violent and erratic behavior. It’s also possible that her problems might have a physiological cause.

Based on what you’ve told us, the possibility that first comes to mind is Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. ADHD is characterized by impulsiveness, hyperactivity, and distractibility. It’s estimated that in every classroom in America, there may be one or two children who have this disorder. Sadly, many of them are never diagnosed, leading to much greater problems. A significant proportion of kids with ADHD develop something called Oppositional-Defiant Disorder, or ODD. Your daughter seems to be displaying many of the signs of ODD.

Our recommendation is that you have her evaluated by a licensed child psychologist or psychiatrist. If you live in a rural area this may involve traveling to a larger city. For referrals, contact the Children’s Hospital in the city nearest you.

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