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
8-minute read
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.


  It’s important to keep in mind that some toddlers are simply, by nature, more likely to be oppositional than others. Three of my 8 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 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. 

See also: 5 Tips to Stay Inspired as a Parent


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.

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.


About the Author

Cheryl Butler

Cheryl L. Butler is the mother of eight children. Her experiences with infertility, adoption, seven pregnancies, and raising children with developmental delays have helped her become a resource on the joys and challenges of parenting. Call the Mighty Mommy listener line at 401-284-7575 to ask a parenting question. Your call could be featured on the show!

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