Defiant Toddler: Causes And 11 Tips To Deal With Them

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Watching a toddler refuse to follow orders and argue with adults can make parents self-doubt. But having a defiant toddler doesn’t always mean you are raising your toddler wrong. Instead, it is these changes in toddlerhood that you need to understand.

Toddlerhood is when a child experiences the charm of autonomy for the first time. Simultaneously, they undergo many physical and socioemotional changes that they can’t even comprehend. It is due to a mix of these that often sparks defiance, which is mostly temporary. However, if your child shows signs of chronic defiance, the problem may be something else.

Read on to learn why a toddler turns defiant, tips to manage it, and when defiance in toddlers is a concern.

Is Toddler Defiance A Phase?

Yes, defiance in toddlers is often momentary and occurs during a phase in early childhood. According to experts, defiance, resistance, and stubbornness in toddlers may mostly become prominent from the age of two years (1). Most toddlers start showing temper tantrums from the age of 18 months, but defiant behavior usually begins from 24 months or two years (2). A toddler is likely to grow out of the behavior by the time they are ready for school at the age of four years when they show better cooperation.

What Causes Defiance In Toddlers?

The display of defiance does not mean that there is something wrong with the toddler or your parenting skills. It is the little one’s way to exercise their newfound independence and test the world with cause and effect. Below are a few reasons why toddlers show defiant behavior (1).

1. Better self-understanding

The toddler understands that they are an individual, who may exert influence independently. However, they do not understand that they still have immature cognitive and physical skills. Therefore, any objection raised by a parent for any action is greeted with defiance or stubbornness.

2. Natural curiosity

A toddler is brimming with curiosity, and the world is their experiment subject. It is natural for them to test the limits of rules and the possible reactions it may elicit from immediate caregivers, such as parents.

Defiance is their way of determining how far they may spread their wings before being grounded. Do note that a toddler does it naturally without any maleficent intentions.

3. Better physical and cognitive skills

A two-year-old attains freedom on all fronts, including physical movement. Your toddler can almost perform any physical movement, from tiptoeing to running on the field. Communication skills are also improved with the toddler now able to understand simple instructions and their purpose.

Fewer restraints and better abilities increase the natural propensity to defy all limits and go on a path of their own, even if it is inappropriate. It is natural for the toddler to display defiance when parents intervene to correct the child’s choices.

When To Be Concerned About Toddlers’ Defiance?

Most cases of defiance in toddlers are not something to be concerned about. However, there could be instances when the defiant behavior could be concerning. Consult a pediatrician or pediatric psychologist if a defiant toddler displays the following red flags (3).

  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Chronic disobedience often accompanied by aggression
  • Constant refusal to follow instructions of an adult
  • Always questioning rules, especially with aggression
  • Performing deliberate acts to annoy an adult
  • Breaking the rules or defying authority at daycare or other places
  • Speaking rudely or harshly to adults or an authority holder
  • Speaking of revenge or being vindictive

A chronic display of red flags may indicate underlying behavioral issues, such as oppositional defiant disorder (ODD). There is no single reason why a child might develop ODD. It may take several assessments by a pediatric behavioral specialist to accurately determine the presence of ODD in a toddler. Therefore, do not panic if your child shows any of the signs. In most cases, it is likely to be a temporary behavior and could be resolved through appropriate interventions.

How To Deal With A Defiant Toddler?

Parents can easily deal with most cases of defiant behavior at home. Below are some suggested measures that you may consider to reduce defiance in toddlers and make them more cooperative (4).

  1. Speak to the toddler: Communication is the key when raising a child. It helps them understand ground rules and predefined limits. For instance, if the toddler always performs an action detrimental to others, make them understand that it hurts and causes a lot of pain to another person.
  1. Identify the trigger: Some toddlers may display defiant behavior only in certain situations or while interacting with a specific person. Determine the possible underlying cause and address it. For instance, if the toddler shows defiance when told to stop playing with a specific toy, you may provide alternatives or communicate time limits prior to providing the toy.
  1. Set a routine: Dedicate a fixed duration for an activity and perform it at the same time each day. It will let the toddler know the precise time limit for an activity, reducing the chances of defiance and tantrum when asked to stop.
  1. Explain the reasons behind the rules: Tell your toddler why routine and discipline are important and how they keep us out of harm’s way. For instance, explain that running on stairs can make one trip, leading to a bad fall, which will make it difficult to play.
  1. Offer milder choices: Offer choices that let the toddler transition from an activity gradually. For instance, instead of asking the toddler to stop playing immediately and go to bed, ask them to pick a bedtime story or their night pajama as a choice. It can come across as a less authoritarian option and will make it easier for the toddler to accept that it is time for bed.
  1. Don’t scold too soon: Premature reactions and forbiddance will make the toddler more inclined towards certain behaviors out of curiosity. It will reinforce the curiosity to know why they are being stopped from doing something. In other words, do not always say “No.” If the toddler’s actions do not cause any harm, there may be no need to always stop them.
  1. Set rules with consistent consequences: Certain behaviors could be too risky to permit despite your toddler’s vehement defiance. In such cases, set rules and consequences for defying the rules. Set simple consequences that are more functional than harsh. A few examples are helping you for a day with household chores, a compulsory evening walk with parents, or cleaning all toys. You may also offer immediate resolutions, such as apologizing to someone or hugging a sibling or a friend if the toddler hurt them.
  1. Model good behavior: Children learn by mirroring other’s behavior. Therefore, participate in their games or activities to model good behavior. Teach them ways to respect rules by emulating them in games and activities.
  1. Praise positive behavior: Praising a child for the positive behavior is an excellent way to reinforce good behavior. Each time you notice the toddler respecting rules or doing the right thing without defiance, praise them with words such as, “Well done,” “I am proud of you,” or “You are the best.” You may also provide simple rewards, such as stickers.
  1. Provide a safe environment for experimentation: Allow the child to explore and experiment with the world around them under supervision. It will satiate the toddler’s curiosity and autonomy while also not pushing them to defy the limits and do dangerous things. Exploration can be simple chores around the house. A few examples are mixing cake mix in the kitchen with parents, arranging the books and folding clothes in the nursery, or helping a family member in gardening. Activities in a supervised setup make the child feel involved while letting you be in control.
  1. Validate your toddler’s feelings: Children feel secure when they are heard and understood. When your toddler is dealing with strong emotions, sit and listen to them. Instead of asking them to stop crying, tell them it is okay to cry, and they can share their problems with you. Instead of brushing aside the issue, empathize with the little one and provide them solutions. It will help them know that they can reach out to you when stressed instead of defying you.

Having a defiant toddler is usually a phase and will go away on its own with the help of the right guidance and some tips. Defiance in toddlers usually occurs as they begin to explore their newfound independence and go through certain socioemotional changes that even they cannot comprehend properly. However, speaking to them about such behavior and modeling and praising good behavior can help manage these symptoms. On the other hand, if your toddler shows signs of frequent temper tantrums or defies your words deliberately, you might consider consulting a pediatric psychologist.

Key Pointers

  • Toddlerhood is a transition phase in a child’s life where a child might display changes in behavior such as defiance.
  • Trying to self-comprehend, an extreme curiosity of the world around them, and a sense of physical and verbal freedom could drive them towards such behavior.
  • Explain to them politely and encourage them to follow a set routine. In most cases, a child outgrows defiance once they begin schooling.
  • However, talk to their pediatrician if your child constantly refuses to follow instructions, shows tantrums, speaks rudely, and behaves in unpleasant manner.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. How to Cope with a Stubborn Toddler; Riley Children’s Health
2. Milestone Moments; CDC
3. Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) in Children; University of Rochester
4. The Disobedient Child; American Academy of Pediatrics
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Dr. Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri

(MD)
Dr. Maymunah Yusuf Kadiri, popularly referred to as ‘The Celebrity Shrink,’ is an award-winning neuro-psychiatrist and mental health advocate with over 15 years experience. She is the medical director and psychiatrist-in-chief at Pinnacle Medical Services. She has created the innovative mental health app in Africa, HOW BODI. Dr. Kadiri is a Goldman Sachs Scholar on Entrepreneurial Management of Pan Atlantic... more

Pallavi Lakhotia

Pallavi freelances for MomJunction, covering topics on child psychology, their mental health and development. She also writes on couples relationships. Being a graduate in Psychology helps her understand and analyze relationships and children. Her research-skills coupled with her field expertise help her bring forth a holistic view of the situation and provide the right guidance to readers. Before getting associated... more

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