5 Essential Tips for Handling a Defiant Toddler

Defiance is the first essential skill listed in every toddler's job description. Here are five simple tips to help you respond calmly and positively to this important stage in your child's development.


Cheryl Butler
7-minute read
Episode #588
The Quick And Dirty

If you're feeling at wit's end from dealing with a feisty toddler, here are five straightforward tips that you can use to soothe and redirect.

  1. Don't lose your cool
  2. Frame requests in a positive light
  3. Practice positive reinforcement
  4. Turn “no” into another option
  5. Respond with empathy and set clear limits

Your morning has been a near success. You manage to get your older child to preschool on time despite her last-minute decision to take a black Sharpie and draw a smiley face on the front of her white blouse. The dog came in from the rain the first time you called him, and only one kid balked when you served oatmeal for breakfast. You'll take it!

Goodbye, near-perfect morning—hello, meltdown!

Then, just as you sit down to relax with your second cup of coffee, your two-year-old decides he wants to wash his toy trucks in the toilet and refuses to budge when you sternly tell him the toilet is not a carwash. He hurls his wet vehicles at the dog and runs away from you. Goodbye, near-perfect morning—hello, meltdown!

If you have a toddler in your life, scenarios like this are sooo relatable. But the good news is, your toddler's just doing what comes naturally—it's his job to be oppositional. Toddlerhood is the period in your child's development when he begins to understand that he can exert some control over his world.

In her article Toddler Misbehavior and Defiance Improves with Positive Discipline, Maureen 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.

Maureen Healy

In other words, when your spirited toddler throws a fit and says no when you ask him to take his trucks out of the toilet, fear not! He's exploring and trying to exert his independence.

First, keep in mind that some toddlers are by nature, more likely to be oppositional than others. Three of my eight kids were more stubborn and challenging early on than their siblings. They had intense personalities and were more high-maintenance than the rest of my brood. As they got older, they were better able to manage their tempers, but until that happened, I learned how to navigate their rebellious nature.

The key is to find ways to show your child how he can be in control and make his own choices in positive ways—and without driving you to your breaking point. Try my six strategies that will divert challenging behavior and help you keep calm.

If you suspect your child may have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), seek guidance from your child's doctor or a mental health professional.

1. Don’t lose your cool

The most crucial first step to dealing with a defiant child is not to lose your cool. Defiant toddlers lack resources for knowing what to do next—they're looking to you for guidance. This teachable moment can show your child how to respond when she's experiencing a full-blown emotional crisis.

This teachable moment show your child how to respond when she's experiencing a full-blown emotional crisis.

Although it might be your first reaction when your child's having an explosive outburst, don't let yourself get riled up and yell back. Kids feed off of the emotional atmosphere around them, so if your angry child sees you reacting in anger, you'll just keep that heated momentum going.

The best thing you can do is to remain calm. Don't snap when your little guy is testing the waters (or trying to drown you in them!)

When one of my kids would rattle my cage, I immediately reached for a soothing mantra to help me stay in control. Say something to yourself every time you feel your emotions rising. It can be something like "Stop," "Breathe," or "Slow down." My favorite is "This too shall pass."

Whatever words will help you, take that moment and go through a list of priorities. I even have a mental picture handy—my happy place—so I can calm myself down. I think of a beautiful beach—complete with a comfy chair, a refreshing drink, and my favorite book—just waiting for me to come relax.

Visualizing a happy outcome helps calm me down quickly. Best of all, when you keep your cool, you not only defuse the tense situation with your tot but you also set an excellent example for managing anger.

RELATED: How to Stop Yelling at Your Kids

2. Frame requests in a positive light

Most parents can sense when their child is going into tantrum mode. Before they can even engage, they tense up and become rigid. This tension can cause them to say things that aren't helpful and may even make the tantrum worse.

When you're about to ask your child to comply with your request, and you know she's going to have strong feelings about it, try to frame the request positively. Instead of demanding something, try offering a fun incentive instead.


There's no way I'm taking you to the park until you pick up your toys!

Request with incentive

As soon as you finish cleaning up your toys, we can go have fun at the park!

When you keep your requests positive, your child will be more likely to agree.

RELATED: 5 Ways Positive Discipline Makes Parenting Easier

3. Practice positive reinforcement

Most parents are familiar with time-outs. When a child misbehaves, you remove him from the environment where the inappropriate behavior occurred. The forced break from the activity, and all things fun, can be an effective way to stop some problem behaviors.

Here's an example. If your 2-year-old decides he doesn't want to help you clean up his blocks and would rather throw them at you, you would calmly tell him "No, we build with blocks; we don't throw them" and then gently, without anger or emotion, move him to another location and redirect him.

RELATED: 5 Tips to Stay Inspired as a Parent

Time-outs redirect bad behavior. It's important to have a plan for reinforcing good behavior!

When things are going well, practice communicating that loving emotions and praise. If you observe your child calmly playing with blocks, you might say "Wow, you made a huge tower! I like how you're playing quietly and building so many nice things."

As a result, the child gets used to feeling good when he's well-behaved. He'll also quickly catch on that it doesn't feel nice when he's acting out and doing something wrong. By making the connection between good behavior and good feelings, the child becomes motivated to keep his act together.

4. Turn “no” into another option

A toddler's day is filled with no's.

“No, you can’t have cookies.”

“No, you’ll hurt yourself.”

“No, you’re too loud. Be quiet.”

When your child does something wrong, your first instinct might be to yell "No" or "Stop," especially if she's in danger of getting hurt. But unfortunately, because we parents say no so often, eventually, our toddlers tune us out. The word "no" doesn’t hold its power.

While “no” is appropriate at times (“No, you can’t play by the street because you could get hurt by a car!”) young tykes need the opportunity to hear “yes” or at least have the ability to make positive choices.

Try to be conscious of ways to shift a “no” to an enlightened opportunity that allows for “yes.”

No statement

No, you can’t play by the street!

Yes statement

The front yard is too close to cars that go fast. Let's blow bubbles on the porch instead.

When we get into the habit of redirecting with a positive alternative, we create win-win scenarios for all.

RELATED: 5 Ways to Say "Yes" to Your Kids

5. Respond with empathy and set clear limits

When you make a request you know your child isn't going to like, be sure to validate her feelings. As parents, we often skip this step and go right to setting limits. For many children, it's these first steps—empathy and validation—that help them respond calmly. Follow these steps:

Start with empathy

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.

Keep your language simple and direct:

I know you don’t want to stop playing in this great fort we built today. We’ve been having so much fun! But it’s time to have a bath and get ready for our nighttime story.

Set the limit

If she doesn't respond, repeat yourself to show that you've set a limit and you won't back away from it.

It's 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, sweet, and non-threatening. Don't bargain.

Enforce the limit

If none of the strategies above work, and your child is still giving you a hard time, now you must calmly but firmly enforce the limit you just set. But give your child some sense of control by giving them an option whenever possible. The option you give should still lead to the outcome you're looking for—a cooperative child who takes a bath.

You can start getting undressed for your bath or I can help. You decide.

If your child resists, then (without anger) gently pick her up and start preparing her for her bath. In a soothing tone, you might say something like:

I know bathtime isn’t your favorite. I understand. Let's get you clean and ready for your bedtime story.

Or, you can just try talking about something totally unrelated to the tantrum to steer the exchange in a positive direction.

Hey, did you know Daddy bought some new bubble bath this week? Let's go see how big the bubbles get!

No matter the challenge, calm, cool, compassionate, and consistent responses will take the edge off most tantrums and redirect the defiant behavior that's a hallmark of toddlerhood.

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Cheryl Butler Project Parenthood

Cheryl L. Butler was the host of the Mighty Mommy podcast for nine years from 2012 to 2021. She 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. You can reach her by email.