Defiance And The Toddler

toddler sleep

Separate Individual

Your toddler is now aware she is a separate individual and she loves to test the boundaries. She’s learning about cause and effect e.g. if I do this what will mum do? It is a toddlers job to be oppositional and they are certainly an expert at this job description!

Assert Free Will

She begins to understand she is separate from you and can exert some control over her world. One powerful way she can do this is by defying you. You say, “Please do this,” and she replies, “No!” Being able to assert free will is helpful as it motivates your child to want to make things happen. Being independant 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.


Temperament and Defiant Behaviour

Some children will always be more defiant than others. Those with a strong temperament have got a head start in this skill. 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. The reason being their lack of flexibility to change. For example getting strapped into the car seat, delay tactics at bedtime and trying new foods.

When it comes to your child I’d like you to think about the following:

  • What activities or events set off defiance and trouble for your child?
  • Why do you think these activities cause oppositional behaviour?
  • How do you respond to these episodes of defiance? How do you manage it? What does this do to change things? What doesn’t help? What have your learned from these situations?

What to expect at different ages and stages

Birth to 12 Months

Babies are not defiant because they purely act on impulse so do not possess these skills and lack self-control. The best way of managing their behaviour is to redirect and divert if things are challenging e.g. trying to climb the stairs or play with an object which is not safe.

toddler behaviour

18 to 36 Months

This is a typical scenario I get sent about 2-3 year olds.

Hello Karen, We need some behaviour management strategies for Hugo (2y 8m). Recently, he seems to have reached a new level of defiance and independence which we love and encourage but sometimes some things aren’t a choice.

How do you apply the “time in” technique during the day as we often use consequence more so or is this better?

Also how to go about it when he refuses to brush his teeth etc. His bedtime routine is a struggle at the moment – dinner/dessert, upstairs for a bath/shower, pjs, teeth, book /song and bed is the current routine. We are finding he’s recently starting digging his feet in with all of the night time routine and its becoming a negative experience, when it used to be one we loved together. Hubby and I both usually do it together, so he tries to play off each of us so to speak. So, we’d love that relaxing routine back with some positive strategies! 😀 Thank you!

This is my A to the above scenario

Children who have difficulty accepting change are usually more oppositional. These are the ones with a strong personality and also the very timid, quiet children.

Anticipate the kinds of situations that lead to defiance from your child and help him problem solve and cope in advance e.g. using the 5 minute rule and transition statements (see below).

How to reduce toddler tantrums – the 5 minute rule

Time in or as I call it Quiet Time

Quiet Time can be very useful in teaching your child to calm without needing to use Time Out. It helps your child learn to manage their often overwhelming emotions without needing to discipline or use consequences.

Quiet time is sitting your child next to you on the sofa or on your knee in a firm embrace facing away from you if they cannot keep still. Set the timer and allow 1 minute for each year of their age. For a 2 year old the timer is set at 2 minutes etc. Once they are calm and in control of their emotions they can get down and go about their day.

Another method of dealing with tantrums in younger children looks at holding your child in a firm embrace. You will know if this is the way you want to go or whether you prefer the ignoring concept. The Australian Psychologist, Dr Louise Porter uses this concept and calls it ‘Bringing the child in close’.

Alternative To Time Out

Once Hugo complies with your instructions use labelled praise to get this behaviour on repeat.

Empty praise vs. labelled praise and effects on resilience in kids

Respond with Empathy and Set Clear Limits

Validate your child’s feelings. Parents often skip this step and go right to setting the limit. But acknowledging a child’s feelings first is very important as it lets her know you understand where she’s coming from, and her feelings matter. (Keep in mind it’s not the child’s feelings that are the problem, it’s what the child does with her feelings that is the challenge.)

It’s this first step—empathy and validation—helping start to calm them down. Labelling your toddler’s feelings helps her learn to be aware of her emotions and to manage them. Keep your language simple and direct: “I know you don’t want to put your PJ’s on. It’s difficult to go from playtime to bedtime.” When you skip this step, children will “pump up the volume” or escalate their behaviour to show you—louder, harder, and stronger—just how upset they are.

This is often when tantrums start.

After validating your child’s feelings:

The key is to pay as little attention as possible to your toddler’s protests. Ignoring the behaviors you want to eliminate is the fastest way to be rid of them. (The only exception to this rule is if your child is being physically hurtful—hitting, slapping, punching, and so on—in which case you calmly but firmly stop the behavior and explain that he can feel mad but he cannot hit.)

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Nurture Parenting's Karen Faulkner is a baby sleep and toddler expert who brings calm and sleep into families and gives parents their confidence back. Cerris Pty Ltd trading as Nurture Parenting - ABN 42 623 216 384 - Sydney, Australia

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