Before you pull your hair out over your toddler’s newfound love for misbehaving, know this: Your child disobeying you does not mean you’re a bad parent—or that you’ve got a chronic troublemaker on your hands! All little kids defy their parents from time to time. Toddlers sometimes defy their parents simply for the thrill of doing something “forbidden.” Other times tots misbehave as payback. Perhaps they’re miffed you stopped them from doing something they wanted to do earlier in the day. Or maybe your toddler just forgot the rules!

Regardless of the reason for your toddler’s actions, misbehaving can push our buttons like nothing else! We get mad, then our emotional elevator drops down, down, down to a primitive state of anger. Too often, we get sucked into this emotional plummet so fast that we just react…and then overreact, leaving everyone upset.  

Here’s the thing: You can’t squash your child’s defiance with a display of anger! Doing so often causes a boomerang effect. That means, your toddler likely will not meekly give in. Instead, your riled-up tot may actually yell right back at you, refusing to back down! To avoid these types of harrowing stand-offs, follow some of my best advice on not only handling toddler defiance, but side-stepping it in the first place.

Tools to Prevent Toddler Defiance

You’re not going to be able to skirt every single act of toddler defiance. After all, your tot is just beginning to understand their own independence—and they’re raring to test some limits! But there are some simple steps you can take to help prevent a lot of defiance before it happens. Try these tips.

Feed your child’s meter.

Throughout a normal, happy day, offer your child dozens of opportunities to experience, what I call time-ins. Essentially, time-ins are tiny bits of play and encouragement. Time-in take many forms, but here are some of my favorites:

  • Offer bite-size bits of attention. Showing your child that you’re interested in what they’re doing makes them feel great. You don’t have to stay glued to your toddler’s side 24/7, but you can feed their meter throughout the day with just a loving look, a warm touch, a wink, a smile, or a few encouraging words. Say, your bub is playing with blocks while you’re finishing up a work email. Glance up from your screen and say, “I love how you’re building that tower. It’s got a nice, sturdy base!”

  • Give praise this way. I like to think of praise as a yummy casserole you feed to your child. It’s filled with lots of plain noodles (calm attention) and a big cup of tasty sauce (mild praise and encouragement) topped with a sprinkle of tangy cheese (cheers and celebration).

  • Start gossiping! You know how accidentally overhearing a compliment makes it much more believable? Use that to your advantage! Next time your toddler does something praise-worthy, when they’re in earshot, whisper about it to your partner, or even one of your toddler’s teddy bears! (Learn more about the power of gossip.)

  • Give out hand checks. Reward your toddler’s behavior with a checkmark on the back of the hand each time they do something good. Hand checks are great because kids notice them all day and are reminded of what a good job they did. (At bedtime, count the checks and recall what your tyke did to earn each one.)

  • Create a “special time” routine. Set aside one or two short periods every day to give your child a bit of regularly scheduled fun. For instance, perhaps every day after breakfast and after dinner, you offer your toddler 10-minutes of undivided attention, free of phones and other distractions, where they get to teach you a new fact or fun trick.

  • Play the boob. Pretend you’re startled when your kiddo roars like a tiger. Have a race and let your little one win. Or start a pillow fight where your tot topples you with each swipe. All these things make your kiddo laugh, feel clever, strong—and makes them want to be more cooperative! 

Teach your tot some self-control lessons.

When you teach your child self-control, you make it easier for them to avoid conflict—with you or anyone else.

  • Practice patience-stretching. First, you need something your child wants, like a snack or a toy. Once you have it, almost give your child what they want…but stop just shy of doing so. For example, say your toddler interrupts you for a glass of milk. Start to hand it over, but then suddenly hold up one finger and exclaim, “Wait! Wait! Just one second!” as if you just remembered something important. Turn away and pretend to look for something. Then, after just a few seconds, turn back and immediately give your bub the milk, praising them for waiting. Little by little, stretch the wait time more and more to build your tot’s self-control. (Learn more patience-stretching tips.)

  • Try magic breathing. Introduce your child to what I like to call magic breathing, which is a powerful de-stressor that helps kids feel more in control of their feelings. Sit in a comfy chair and ask your child to do the same, telling them that you’re going to do some magic breathing, “This helps me feel better when I’m anxious.” Next, uncross your legs, put your hands in your lap, drop your shoulders, and relax the muscles around your mouth and eyes. Slowly inhale through your nose (silently count to five) while raising one hand, then exhale through your nose (for another five), letting your hand slowly drop. Have your child mimic you, then lead them through the motions. Practice together regularly and encourage them to tap this new calming technique whenever big feelings arise.

Plant seeds of kindness.

One of the best ways to teach your child about kindness is to side-door your lessons. What that means is, trade the long-winded explanations and sermons for everyday actions that your child can see or hear your doing.

  • Practice role-playing. Have you ever overheard your toddler pretending to be a superhero or making their toy action figure talk? Get in on the role-playing and use it to impart some be-kind lessons. For instance, if your toy car crashed into a plastic dinosaur, say “Oh, I’m so sorry Ms. Dinosaur! Can I help you up?” The more you role-play important life lessons with your child, the faster they’ll learn what is right and wrong.

  • Tell homespun fairy tales. Figure out what you want to teach your child (maybe a lesson about sharing or saying thank you), then cook up a simple three-step fairy tale. First, capture your child’s imagination with lots of description. (What is the hero of your story doing, seeing, and feeling?) Within a minute, your tot will get super-interested and their mind’s trusty side-door will swing open. Now, weave in a little lesson about a specific behavior or value that you want your child to learn. Then, introduce the problem! Finally, finish your story with the problem being solved, the characters being safe, and everyone living happily ever after!

  • Catch others being good. Be sure to comment when you see other kids (and grownups!) doing something good. Say, you’re driving. You can comment how nicely the drivers wait at the red light or take turns at the stop sign. At a cafe, you can point out how you spied a big kid eating with a fork or wiping up a small spill they made. Later, let your child overhear you whispering to a pal about what you saw and about how it made you feel: “We saw a lot of people waiting quietly at the bank. I like when people don’t push me when I’m waiting in line.”

Tools to Stop Toddler Defiance

You will be most successful teaching your child respect, fairness, and calmness when you model those behaviors yourself...especially during times of conflict. So, the next time you find yourself caught in a toddler rebellion, remember to use your ambassadorial skills to help turn conflict into cooperation. Here’s how:

Connect with respect.

When your child is upset, it’s important that you make your tot feel heard and understood. The most effective way to do this is by using my Fast-Food Rule, which in a nutshell means: Always let the “hungriest” person speak first. At a burger joint, that’s you giving your order at the drive-thru. In our scenario, however, it’s your upset kiddo who’s hungry for attention and needs to “get it all out.” When the order/venting is complete, it’s time for the person at the drive-thru to repeat the order back—and for you to echo back to your child why they’re upset. This helps your child feel understood…and can gently guide them back to calm,

Speak in Toddler-ese.

When you repeat your child’s feelings back to them, do it in Toddler-ese, which is a style of talking that combines your tot’s native tongue (short phrases and repetition) with you mirroring about one-third of your toddler’s feelings with your tone of voice and gestures. (“You’re mad! Mad! Mad!” “Scared! Scared! Big doggie!” “Candy! Candy! You want it…now!”) When you ditch your long, adult sentences (and even your calm, rational tone) and gently reflect your child’s emotions back at them—eye-to-eye—they, quite simply, feel cared for and understood. 

Let your child “save face.”

To help both you and your toddler inch away from a tantrum sans embarrassment, try offering multiple ways out, such as:.

  • Offer options. For example, if your toddler is refusing to get dressed, offer them a choice between getting dressed themself…or running errands in their PJs. “You can dress yourself or I can take you to the store in your pajamas, even though you might get cold. Which one sounds best: Get dressed or be in your cold pajamas?”

  • Make it a game. See if you can find a way to turn your struggle into a race. Even a countdown from 10 might be motivation enough for your tot! (“Let’s see who can clean this mess up the fastest!”)

  • Suggest a win-win compromise. First, offer your toddler a crummy deal, where your kiddo only gets a tiny bit of what they want. (“Okay, okay. We’ll leave the park after one more minute of play!”) They'll immediately reject the deal. (This makes them feel like a tough negotiator!) Next, give in and seem defeated: “Okay, you win! You say, ‘No leave!’ So, we’ll stay till the moon comes out!” But just as you’re about to settle back into the park bench, whack yourself on the forehead and say, “Uh-oh! I forgot. We are meeting your friend Molly for lunch! She’ll be so sad if we don’t show up!... Let’s stay for 10 more minutes so we can have fun with Molly!” (Learn more about how to use win-win compromises to boost cooperation.)

What if  toddler defiance continues?

If defiance continues, it’s time for some  consequence. For a mild defiance…

  • Try the clap-growl. Here, you clap your hands three to four times, hard and fast. (It’s meant to be a little startling.) As you clap, remain a bit above your child’s eye level. (This emphasizes your authority.) Next, scowl and make a deep, rumbling growl. If your child stops quickly, immediately do a little Fast-Food Rule with a side of Toddler-ese—and then Feed the Meter for good measure to show you appreciate your little one’s cooperation. Head’s up: The first time you growl, your toddler may smile or even growl back! Don’t worry. Maybe your growl was too sweet, and your tyke thinks it’s a game—or they want you to smile…so you won’t be mad. Simply answer their growl with a couple of double takes.

  • Implement some “kind ignoring.” This is when you give your child a teensy cold shoulder to nudge them back to cooperation. You should never be rude or cruel or turn your back on really bad behavior. And this type of ignoring shouldn’t be done when your child is frightened, hurt, or genuinely sad. But when you feel your child is being unreasonable and stubborn, “kind ignoring” can work wonders. Here, you can learn how to ignore your child kindly.

Sometimes a toddler’s misbehaving requires a “take-charge” consequence. For serious disrespect, do a clap-growl (to show your displeasure) and then use a time out or give a fine. Time outs aren’t about barking at your child to go to their room! Instead, I suggest a three-step process to make toddler time outs effective. (You can learn all about my toddler timeout method here.) And when I say “fine,” I mean penalizes your tot by removing a valued privilege or toy. (This works best on kiddos age 3 and up, but is a-okay for 2-year-olds as well.) Make the punishment related to the misconduct. In other words, if your tot defied you by playing basketball in the house, remove the ball for a while. 

For more help navigating your toddler’s independence, check out my bestselling book, The Happiest Toddler on the Block.

About Dr. Harvey Karp

Dr. Harvey Karp, one of America’s most trusted pediatricians, is the founder of Happiest Baby and the inventor of the groundbreaking SNOO Smart Sleeper. After years of treating patients in Los Angeles, Dr. Karp vaulted to global prominence with the release of the bestselling Happiest Baby on the Block and Happiest Toddler on the Block. His celebrated books and videos have since become standard pediatric practice, translated into more than 20 languages and have helped millions of parents. Dr. Karp’s landmark methods, including the 5 S’s for soothing babies, guide parents to understand and nurture their children and relieve stressful issues, like new-parent exhaustion, infant crying, and toddler tantrums.

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