What defiance really means
Don’t take defiance personally.
Your strong-willed toddler really isn’t aggravating you on purpose. A short time ago, she was carried around and given objects to play with. Now she can get and control them herself. Your child is developing skills and greater awareness, and she wants to explore her newfound power. Try to view this as a means of experimenting and learning. A toddler tends to act out with the person she trusts the most (you!). That doesn’t make her rebelliousness any less frustrating, but it should help you be more patient rather than view her actions as a personal affront.
Make him the boss sometimes.
Kids this age push boundaries because they’re trying to assert authority. That’s why your child’s new favorite phrase may be “Me do it!” or “No! Mine!” Give him some say when you can safely do so, which will help him feel respected and less resistant at other moments. Let him have two acceptable choices. When you’re leaving the playground, ask if he wants to carry the chalk or the sand toys on the way home. That way, the only option is to leave, but he gets to decide how you do it.
It’s challenging for a toddler to cooperate even under ideal circumstances, so do what you can to induce good behavior. Dragging your child to the store when she’s hungry, tired, or restless is setting her up for failure. Likewise, it’s better to just redirect her rather than explain why she isn’t allowed to do something. If she won’t stop pulling up the flowers in your yard, take her for a walk or bring her inside. Also encourage alternatives, like bringing a play slide indoors to stop her from climbing on the furniture.
Focus on positive behavior.
When you tell your child, “Don’t bang the door!” all he hears is the action: “Bang door.” Instead, tell him what you’d like him to do. If he’s resting his feet on the dinner table, say, “Please put your feet down. Can you wiggle your toes under the table?” Any attention you give to negative behavior is still attention. Stay calm—the louder and more energetic your response, the more likely he is to act out. Look for times to make him feel valued. Simply giving him a cuddle may dampen his defiance.
Pick your battles.
If you constantly say “no” or reprimand or bargain with your toddler, consider reevaluating your responses. Does it really matter if she wears her princess dress for a nap? Let the little things go. It’ll reduce your stress level and make your child more inclined to cooperate when it truly matters.
Sources: Carrie Contey, PH.D., a human-development specialist and parenting coach in Austin; Dana Entin, a pediatric nurse-practitioner and parent educator in Los Angeles; Tovah Klein, PH.D., author of How Toddlers Thrive; Heather Wittenberg, Psy.d., a child psychologist on Maui, Hawaii.