Defiant toddlers are often mislabeled as having a behavior problem. In most cases, toddler defiance is actually just a sign of healthy development. Toddlers that like to say NO and “put their foot down” are not only developing well, they are actively exploring their emotional intelligence. Positive guidance can help toddlers grow well and thrive.
Mauren Healy, author and expert on highly sensitive children says “The act of defiance is displaying an inordinately high level of emotional intelligence — your children are actually listening to their inner wisdom.”
Toddler defiance is usually age appropriate and at the same time very challenging.
“Gena is constantly climbing on our garden rocks. No matter how much I say no, put her in time out or explain she is going to get hurt, the next day, I find her doing it all over again. It’s like my words have no meaning at all and time out has zero effect.”
“Jacob tries to reach into his brother’s crib every single day. No matter how often I tell him not to, he does it. Then he hits his brother’s head, giggles and runs off! Meanwhile I scold him and run after him. Every day the same!”
What’s Behind Toddler Defiance
Gena’s and Jacob’s behavior really is developmentally expected. All toddlers (children between the ages of 1 and 3) are working each day on:
- exploring surroundings
- experimenting with social interactions
- repeating actions to confirm learning
- developing their sense of self
Toddlers also excel at resisting parental control! Toddlers love to touch exactly what you just said not to. This kind of defiance is a child’s developing sense of self combined with an impulsive brain.
Defiance is also a clue that your calm and confident guidance is needed.
Young children often engage and repeat behaviors that elicit new, continuous or unusual responses from a caring parent.
Your toddler climbs, bites, kicks and you respond with yelling, screeching, prohibiting and bribing? Well, your reaction is really interesting.
Andrea Nair, Parenting educator says “I view defiance as communication gone sideways. When we can listen, understand what is wrong in the child’s world, and problem solve, behavior often improves.”
What’s the secret to turning toddler defiance into cooperation?
The real secret to ending defiance in toddlers is to reframe it.
Forget defiance and misbehaving, bad children. Kids are not bad. Kids are not manipulative (as in evil with a plan to stress you out) They are however very creative about getting their needs met.
Stop toddler defiance by changing how you approach it:
- Reframe Strive to see your toddler and preschooler as an inquisitive, learning, capable, curious child.
The change in mindset brings so much more space in which to offer guidance instead of constant correction.
- Child Proof Tired of saying “don’t touch that”? House proof so reachable items are safe. While it may seem annoying, it’s more annoying and counter productive to your relationship to be constantly saying NO.
- Supervise and set limits with the intent to guide and keep safety in check. Hovering and warning too often chips at self esteem and the child’s sense of capability. Instead be sure to give access to age appropriate experiences.
- Permit experimentation as much as possible, fancy set ups and glittery activities are not necessary if they aren’t your thing. Simply allowing children a chance to be fully involved in self care is a great start. So is a simple walk in the park to touch leaves, jump in puddles and roll in the grass.
- Skip Punishments and Practice setting limits in a calm manner and expect that tears, validating and listening will have to follow.
At playgroup last year, Ricky was very interested in the heating dial in our kitchen. If he climbed on a stool he could just barely reach it. It wasn’t safe to allow him to touch this dial. He could spend a good half hour fighting with anyone that would try to stop him. This dynamic was not helpful to the group or to Ricky. One morning, I asked him if I could show him the dial. I lifted him up to it and said “this is a heating dial, you are very interested in touching it. I see that. This is not safe for you. You can look at it with me and I will not let you touch it.” He looked, reached for it and I said again “you like this heating dial and I will not let you touch it.” He started to cry, lowering his head onto my shoulder. I waited about a minute if that, he lifted his head and said “play blocks?” So we walked to the blocks and he played happily. The following week, he entered the kitchen area, glanced at the dial. This time his mother lifted him up, showed him the dial and said “I will not let you touch the knob.” Signaling to get down, Ricky ran off to play. The dial and climbing on everything to get to it wasn’t an issue any longer.
Setting this kind of kind limit worked because limits were set with kindness and in a clear way. It wasn’t a back and forth with “get down, stop that, i already said, go play…” but a definitive limit that incorporated listening, validation, acknowledgement and acceptance of his disappointment.
Here is a quick check list that may help with turning toddler defiance into cooperation
- are limits truly clear, set with calm and kindness
- are surroundings set up well and with safety in mind
- are you providing enough and age appropriate information
- does your child have access to interesting play/discovery opportunities
- are you connecting one on one before making a request
- are you respectful of your child’s needs
- are you willing to listen and accept the feelings that come with your limit or request
The next time your toddler is being defiant, try to reframe and respond with positive guidance. It’s a small change that can truly make a big difference. You can find more ideas for setting limits and encouraging cooperation in the Terrific Toddlers: Positive Discipline for the First Five Years course.
Peace and Be well,