Inside: Defiance and misbehavior in the toddler years is very normal. Positive discipline makes it easier for you to stop unwanted behaviors and guide your toddler to behave in better ways.
Your misbehaving toddler might be giving you a headache or a hard time, but rest assured that toddler defiance is very normal.
Toddler defiance can actually be a sign of healthy development.
That’s right, if your toddler is misbehaving and doing exactly the opposite of what you just said, you haven’t failed at parenting. What you have is a growing child.
Toddlers absolutely love to say NO and put their foot down.
This is a good sign that your toddler is not only developing well, they are actively exploring their emotional intelligence.
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.”
How Much Toddler Defiance is Normal?
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!”
Understand Why Your Toddler is Misbehaving
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 an opportunity to teach your toddler to do better.
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.”
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.
Toddlers are not bad.
Toddlers are not manipulative (as in evil with a plan to stress you out) Toddlers are however very creative about getting their needs met.
How To Stop Toddler Defiance and Misbehavior
- 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.
When you don’t hesitate, your toddler senses your confidence and calm leadership.
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.
Turn Defiance into Cooperation with this Checklist
- Set limits in a calm and clear way.
- Stay calm and use a kind tone of voice.
- Make sure your house is set up with safety in mind.
- Provide just enough age appropriate information (talking less is often helpful!)
- Make sure your child has access to interesting play/discovery opportunities
- Make eye contact before asking your toddler to do something
- Be mindful and respectful of your child’s needs (hungry, tired, cranky, overstimulated toddlers can’t cooperate)
- Practice accepting the feelings that your toddler shows you when you set limits (tears are normal and part of growing up)
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.
After working with parents of toddlers for many years I have put together for you specific tools that help your toddler feel ready and able to cooperate with you. You can get started here.
Peace and Be well,