Defiant toddlers playing on bed

How To Deal With A Defiant Toddler

Every toddler’s job description includes defiance. Let us help you respond calmly and positively to this critical moment in your child’s growth. Your defiant toddler may give you a headache, but rest assured that toddler defiance is common.

The cheeky smile separates 2-year-old defiance from 3-year-old defiance. That glint in their eye, knowing better but still doing it. They can’t resist the need to flex their newfound assertiveness, the awareness that their actions might provoke big reactions in you.

You know what we’re talking about, don’t you? So, how do you deal with a defiant toddler?


Why are toddlers defiant?

A 2-year-old’s rebellious streak is natural. By three, your toddler has realised they are distinct from you and have their own identity. This may cause children to act out to see how their actions affect the world around them. What if your defiant toddler wants to push their toys down the stairs despite your warnings?

Your child is blossoming quickly but still lacks impulse control. So, children may ignore your orders to stop playing and eat.

Thankfully, defiance is only temporary, though dealing with it is exhausting. As your toddler grows in self-control, empathy, and cooperation, they will grow out of it.


It can happen later in life too

Oppositional behaviour is common in children around the ages of two and in early adolescence. Divorce, for example, can trigger a phase of defiance. This defiance may be tough for parents to handle, but it does not always indicate an underlying condition.


Is it Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)?

Rarely, defiant toddler behaviour issues are linked to Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). 

ODD symptoms usually appear in early life. They include defying authority, being easily annoyed, blaming others for faults, speaking hatefully, and more. We can diagnose ODD in children as young as two when the behaviours are persistent and interfere with daily life.

ODD is an externalising disorder characterised by maladaptive behaviours.


How to deal with a defiant toddler

Parent dealing with a defiant toddler

  • Be a calm role model

The best response to defiant behaviour is to remain calm. Losing control — shouting harsh things or acting physically — will not help the problem. In dealing with the situation, be calm and take a long-term approach to addressing defiance. When you reward good behaviour and ignore defiant behaviour, a more obedient child emerges.


  • Reinforce good behaviours, not problematic ones

Even well-meaning parents often overlook positive behaviours in favour of negative ones. It’s only natural that parents expect their toddlers to obey. Constantly correcting a bad behaviour just draws attention to it. As a result, we encourage bad behaviour more than good. Praise twice as frequently as you correct and reinforce good behaviour whenever you notice it.

Positive reinforcement or praise should be instant. The aim is to help children associate good behaviour with praise, which they may not do if too much time passes between the two. Parents teach their toddlers which behaviours lead to beneficial outcomes by ignoring negative behaviours like whining (which is not dangerous). Intervene immediately if a child’s or others’ safety is at risk.


  • Make use of labelled praise

Specifying our praise eliminates any doubt on a toddler’s behalf as to what behaviour inspired it. Labelling the praise-worthy behaviour encourages your toddler to repeat it. Don’t just remark the youngster is good or did well. “Good job taking a moment to calm down before talking to your brother about him taking your skateboard without asking,” for example. Be sure to include tactile rewards like a hug or a high five to further promote good behaviour.


  • Behave well yourself

Consider times when you may have modelled negative habits. What do you do when a driver cuts you off? What if a stranger is unkind to you? Impersonation is natural in toddlers who learn by watching their parents. When a child is playing, emulate their positive actions. If a small child is playing with a toy, join in so they can see appropriate behaviour and frustration management. If your toddler suffers from poor sportsmanship, play with them and model it.

Just be careful not to interrupt the toddler’s fun or improve on it. Don’t perform activities better or faster than the youngster is capable of accomplishing.


  • Don’t misuse timeouts

Timeouts are a hot topic in parenting books and magazines these days. However, evidence shows that they work, regardless of whether the toddler ceases the behaviour during a timeout or not. A timeout should be initiated without restraint or force and should last no less than one minute and no more than five minutes. Removing a predetermined privilege rather than physical restriction if the defiant toddler resists a timeout is the best way to go about it.

Alan Kazdin, Director of the Yale Parenting Centre, advises using timeout exclusively to diminish reinforcements. But they’re not punishments. Kazdin adds that using timeouts effectively depends on the parent’s behaviour both before and after the timeout. In a heated scenario, start the timeout quietly and praise the toddler’s obedient behaviour.


  • Plan for success

This has two aspects. First, parents should anticipate potential triggers for their children’s behaviour. Holidays, birthdays, and first days of school are typical triggers. Kids behave better when their parents warn them of an upcoming situation and offer them coping methods.

Second, arrange fun activities ahead of time and make participation conditional on good behaviour. If bad behaviour persists, explain that the activity will be lost. When the activity is over, convey how much you love doing things with a well-behaved child.


  • Lessen your own stress

The stresses of career, relationship, money, and other pressures might be overwhelming. Stress causes subconscious changes in your voice and habits, which generate worry, fear, and stress in children.

When outside stress remains unchecked, it can worsen the hectic nature of parenting. Add exercise and healthy food into your daily routine to help manage stress. Take some “me time” to re-energize. When disobedient behaviour overwhelms you, take a self-directed break to compose yourself.


  • Make healthy choices

Studies demonstrate a unique link between “Western” diets high in processed ingredients, refined sugar, grains, etc. and ODD occurrence. Micronutrient deficiency and food instability are linked to mental health issues. Making healthy choices increases your child’s chances of success.

Sustain yourself by eating well and feeding your family well. Encourage your kids to play for 60 minutes every day, preferably active play.


  • Ensure a safe and secure life at home

Situations at home that disrupt a child’s sense of normalcy often lead to defiance. Divorce, remarriage, relocation, or a new baby are all disruptive events for children. Initiating and maintaining open communication with your toddler might help them feel secure.

These life events might disrupt a child’s sleep cycles, aggravating behavioural disorders. Children sleep more than adults. Small challenges can become overwhelming when they aren’t rested enough.


How to get a defiant toddler to listen

Mother talking to a defiant toddler

Learn how to respond to your toddler’s defiant behaviour below so they learn about limits and self-control.


  • Embrace your child’s emotions. “I know you don’t want to get your PJs on. Playtime to bed-time is difficult.”


  • Set the bar. “But you need to sleep to grow big and strong.”


  • Offer some choices (without compromising your position). “Do you want to put your PJs on before or after we read a story?” Give your toddler a choice of two jammies. Choices provide children with positive control and can lessen defiance.


  • Use humour. An excellent approach to brighten the mood. Try putting your child’s PJ bottoms on your head ‘by mistake’ or on their favourite stuffed animal. Humour helps everyone relax.


  • Nurture your toddler’s imagination. For a toddler who refuses to go to bed – “Teddy is soooo tired. He wants you to cuddle with him to help him fall asleep.”


  • Enforce the limit calmly. If none of these tactics work and your toddler persists, set a strong limit. “You can get in the car seat, or I can put you in. Your call.”  If they refuse, pick them up and strap them in calmly but firmly (not angrily – we can’t stress this enough). Tell them gently that you know they hate it, but it keeps them secure, and that is your number one job.


  • Help your child calm. Ignore the tantrum. “Wow, look at that big doggie coming down the street.”


  • Don’t give in. You teach your toddler that they can get what they want by pushing hard enough. This will make enforcing a limit more difficult in the future.


Defiant behaviours can rapidly leave you doubting your parenting style—and the internet is full of contradictory advice. If you suspect your defiant toddler is showing signs of an externalising disorder, chat with your paediatrician about your concerns.


Summary: How to deal with a defiant toddler


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