6 Tips for Handling a Defiant Toddler

It’s a toddler’s job to be oppositional.  This is the period in your child’s development when she begins to understand that she is separate from you and can exert some control over her world. Mighty Mommy has 6 tips that you can use to divert your defiant toddler and encourage positive choices.


Cheryl Butler,
January 20, 2014
Episode #264

Defiant toddler tipsThere’s nothing like starting a cold winter’s morning with a toddler who refuses your help when zipping her jacket or assisting her with buckling her safely into her car seat.  It wouldn’t be so bad if you weren’t already running late...but since your precious darling won’t let you near her because she is adamant that she can do it all herself, your patience is now long gone. Let the mutual meltdowns begin. 

This and similar scenarios are probably very familiar if you have any toddlers in your life. But the good news is that she is just doing her job.  It’s a toddler’s job to be oppositional. This is the period in your child’s development when she begins to understand that she is separate from you and can exert some control over her world. One powerful way she can do this is by defying you and what you’re asking of her or letting you know in her own, strong way that she doesn’t need your help. Being able to do some things for herself builds her confidence. The key is to find ways to show your child how she can be in control and make her own choices in positive ways -- and without driving you to your breaking point.

Mighty Mommy has been there. I've been through the defiant toddler stage 8 times. And I've lived to tell about it. So, today, let's focus on my 6 best tips that you can use to divert your defiant toddler.

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  It’s important to keep in mind that some toddlers are simply, by nature, more likely to be oppositional than others. Three of my eight kids were much more stubborn and difficult in their younger years than the rest of their siblings. Children whose emotional reactions are big and intense, as well as children who are more cautious and timid, may be more oppositional than children who are temperamentally more easygoing and flexible. Why? Because these children tend to have a difficult time with change, for example getting into the car seat, going to bed, or visiting a new place. Natural shifts in the day can also be stressful and result in a wide variety of protest strategies from toddlers. Keeping your own child’s personality in mind, here are some strategies to try.

Tip #1:  Show Her the Love

When your child screams and cries because she doesn't want to leave grandma’s house, give her a hug and tell her you know it's hard to go home when she's having so much fun. The idea is to show her that instead of being part of the problem, you're actually on her side.  Try not to get angry, even if you feel embarrassed in front of the other adults — including your mother-in-law!  Be kind but firm throughout the entire transition into the car.  I always had distractions waiting in the car such as a juice box, or a little bag of toys such as stuffed animals, Barbie dolls, or little cars that my kids could only play with in the car. That way the novelty of the “car toys” didn’t wear off as quickly.  See also:  How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids

Tip #2:  Practice “Time Ins”

“Time outs” are a popular choice of discipline for parents who want to temporarily separate a child from an environment where inappropriate behavior has occurred.  The concept behind the “time out” is to give the child a break from positive reinforcement.  So, if your 2-year-old decides he doesn’t want to help you clean up his blocks and would rather throw them at you instead, you calmly tell him “No, we build with blocks, we don’t throw them” and then gently move him to another location and redirect him without anger or emotion.  When things are going well, it’s important to practice loving emotions and praise such as “Wow, you made a really big tower, I like how you’re building so many nice things.” As a result, the child gets used to feeling right when acting right, and feeling wrong when acting wrong. By making the connection between good behavior and good feelings, the child becomes motivated to keep his act together. For time out to work, he first needs a large quantity of quality "time-ins" so take advantage of every opportunity to create fun and loving feelings with your little guy so he’ll learn early on that the good behaviors he practices make others feel happy.  See also:  5 Tips to Stay Inspired as a Parent

Tip #3:  Create a “Calm Down” Corner

When our kids were toddlers straight through early elementary school, we created a “calm down” corner for them, and included them in the process of designing it.  It was simple but had a few comforts for them like a favorite pillow or blanket, a pad of paper and some crayons, and a stuffed animal. Location was important; it was set far enough apart from the rest of the action in our house.  It was not used to reward them for acting out, but if a negative behavior happened because of circumstances that they couldn’t manage, like flushing the new baby’s pacifier down the toilet (true story) because he was jealous he now had competition for mommy’s attention, we would let him spend 5–10 minutes “calming down” in a more loving atmosphere. We found this far more productive than hammering into him what he did wrong.  This approach has since taught our kids to find some space away from the fray where they can reflect and have a more “peaceful” time out when they need to think and regroup.

Tip #4:  Be Pro-Active with Prevention

Anticipate the kinds of situations that lead to defiance from your child and help him problem solve and cope in advance. Although most toddler battles are caused by hunger, fatigue, or frustration, it's easier to recognize those things after a tantrum starts. So staying one step ahead of your child’s needs can be a smart preventive measure to avoid certain defiant behaviors.  Try to meet his basic needs like making sure he’s not hungry or overtired  before taking him to a crowded mall so he’ll have fewer reasons to fall apart and act out.

It can also be helpful to give children a warning before a transition needs to be made. One of my favorites was to use a kitchen timer so they could actually see and track the time. Making a poster of pictures that show the steps in your daily routines can be very useful as well for younger kids and toddlers. For example, pictures of teeth brushing, taking a bath, reading, and then bed time show children what they can expect to happen next. For older toddlers, give some concrete cues about transitions, such as, “Three more pushes on the swing before it’s time leave the playground.” Just make sure that you follow through on the limit you set or you'll be sending mixes messages and that will invite him to test the waters because he knows you might not be true to your word.   

Tip #5:  Respond with Empathy and Set Clear Limits

When your child is giving you a hard time and doesn’t want to have a bath because she’ having a lot of fun playing in the new fort you just built together, be sure to validate your child’s feelings. As parents, we often skip this step and go right to setting the limit.  For many children, it's these first steps — empathy and validation —that help them start to calm down.  Keep language simple and direct: “I know you don’t want to stop playing in this great fort we built today because we’ve been having so much fun, but it’s time to have a bath and get ready for our nighttime story.”  When you skip this step, children often “pump up the volume” to show you — louder and stronger — just how upset they are. This is often when tantrums and defiant behaviors start.  

Set the limit.  “It is time for your bath now.  You need to get nice and clean after playing outside all afternoon.”  Use language your child understands.  Keep it short and sweet and non-threatening.  

Enforce the limit:  If none of the strategies above work, and your child is still giving you a hard time about having her bath, now you must calmly but firmly enforce the limit you just set with her. “You can start getting undressed for the bath or I can help. You decide.” If your child resists, then (without anger) gently pick her up and start undressing her for the bath.  In a soothing tone, you might say something like: “I know, bath time isn’t your favorite time of day.  I understand. Or, just start talking about something totally unrelated to the tantrum. “Hey, did you know Mommy bought some new bubble bath this week, wait until you see how big the bubbles will get.”

Tip #5:  Use Humor

One of my favorite ways to diffuse an ornery or defiant child (young or teenaged) is to get silly and use humor to relieve some of the intensity of the situation.  I love to sing a funny song, all off-key of course.  For example, if my 3-year-old wants to call me a stupid head because I wouldn’t let him have 10 candy bars at the check-out line, I would think nothing of grabbing a bar and using it as a microphone to sing something crazy like “Candy is so sweet and yummy, but if you eat it before you have your dinner you’ll have a bad tummy…..”  It might not always work, but I could usually get a chuckle out of my child as well as the other shoppers waiting in line!  See also:  How to be a More Playful Parent

Tip #6:  Reinforce Good Behavior

 Rather than paying attention to your child only when she's misbehaving, try to catch her acting appropriately and comment on it: "Thanks for being so quiet when mommy was on the phone with the babysitter. That really helped me a lot.”  By reinforcing the good things your child is doing, you’ll be teaching her that positive actions will get your attention as well.   See also Teaching Your Kids Good Manners

Please join me next week as Mighty Mommy discusses some strategies to help combat your teenager’s defiant actions. 

Do you have a defiant toddler? What strategies work for you?  Share your thoughts in the comment section at quickanddirtytips.com/mighty-mommy or post your ideas on the Mighty Mommy Facebook page. You can also connect with me on Twitter @MightyMommy or e-mail me at mommy@quickanddirtytips.com.  Visit my family-friendly boards at Pinterest.com/MightyMommyQDT.

And keep at it. By building some positive strategies into your discipline routine while your child is young, it will pave the way for effective strategies when he or she heads into adolescence and the teen years.  I hope you have an easygoing week and as always—Happy Parenting!

Defiant toddler photo courtesy of Shutterstock. 





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