Toddler defiance – how this happened and how we’re dealing with it

One of Emily’s first words that she learned was “no”. We should have known then already that we needed to prepare ourselves for the upcoming defiant stage. But I think being a first-time parent you don’t really know just how that stage will unfold or how quickly it comes about.

Now we’re at the stage where if I say we need to do a nappy change, I get a “NO!”. Or “Emily, please get into your car seat now.” “NO!”. Or my favourite, after taking her out her car seat and her managing to slip away and then playing in the car – “Emily, can we please get out the car now?” “NO! NO! NO!”

Toddler defiance is NOT a bad thing and I was so happy to learn this! We make an effort in every situation to practice Gentle Parenting, and when Emily started becoming defiant, I did question my decision for a split second. I wondered if maybe she wouldn’t have been a bit more “obedient” if we’d made different choices. What I’ve since discovered is that toddlers become defiant when they start fully realizing they are separate to you (this occurs around 18-19 months and upwards) which is a huge milestone!

Maureen Healy, an author and expert in children’s emotional health, words it perfectly:

The act of defiance is displaying an inordinately high level of emotional intelligence – your children are actually listening to their inner wisdom.

So, tough as these moments of defiance may be, they are completely normal and are good. That being said, there are some ways you can work with your toddler and not against them in order to make the situation easier for all.

How we’re dealing with defiance

So what is happening when your toddler is responding in a defiant manner (shouting “no”, or possibly kicking or screaming) is that they are responding emotionally, and not so much mentally. Understanding this has been a great help in helping reaffirm my natural tendencies to not shout and to be as patient as possible. Patience is definitely not one of my strong points, so having knowledge to backup why I should be patient is an amazing tool for me.

The main goal in dealing with defiance is to help aid your toddler in connecting their emotional and mental response in order for them to respond “better”, for lack of a better word. Some of the strategies we have implemented are:

  • Always be patient

Or as patient as possible. As soon as you start getting anxious and worked up, your toddler will pick up on it and feed off of it. This is just going to result in the ultimate never-ending circle, as you’re both going to land up being worked up even more. I always ask myself if I do have an extra 5 minutes to spare, or why I am wanting Emily to get to the task at hand immediately. 99% of the time, I don’t actually need her to be getting into her car seat, for example, any faster and this helps me in the patience department.

  • Listen to your toddler

Obviously at this stage Emily isn’t able to string together perfect sentences, but I am able to understand what she’s getting at. Even with a limited vocabulary, toddler’s still can express themselves and it’s important to listen to them. To put this into practice is very simple: if Emily is saying no to having shoes put on, I ask her why she doesn’t want the shoes put on, for example. A lot of the times she wants a different pair on, which is an easy fix. It’s also important to acknowledge and validate their feelings and wants, and not only listen and dismiss them. Let your toddler know that you’re hearing what they’re saying and appreciate the information you have given them.

  • Allow them to explore/decide what is non-negotiable

A big example for us here is the car seat. Obviously driving and the car seat is a non-negotiable for us – Emily is in her car seat at all times while being driven. Most times when we get her out the car seat, however, she wants to jump out into the car and play in the car. This initially frustrated me to no end because I would want to get the shopping in the house or get something to eat etc. If I tried to pick Emily up, I would get shouted at and she would get frustrated. So one day I decided to sit with her, and all it took was about 5 minutes of playing in the car and she was over it. So now I let her, and about half the time she gets straight out her seat and comes in with me and the other half she wants to play.

  • Set limits and stick to them

If I’m needing to do a nappy change before I leave to be somewhere at a specific time, it sometimes can be tricky as I can’t let Emily run around indefinitely until she wants to come have her nappy changed. So here I usually use some form of limit setting or negotiation. I will tell Emily that in order for us to leave she has to have a nappy change and if I’m lucky this works. If this doesn’t work then I tell her I’ll be counting to X number and then will have to change the nappy in order for us to leave. When I reach X number (usually after her having counted with me), it’s a definite nappy change even if I still get the “no” shouted at me. I then usually explain that I’ve provided choices and options, and now I’ve had to do the task.

Being a stay-at-home Mom, I do have the precious commodity of time that not so many others do. I have the time to let Emily explore over getting in the car 5 minutes earlier, which I know is not possible for a Mom or Dad rushing to get to work. It is possible however, to start implementing some of these strategies so that your toddler can get used to them. The more they’re practiced, the more accustomed to them she/he will become.

If you have any strategies that you’ve implemented successfully, please let us know! Parenting can be extremely tricky and challenging at times, and experiences and knowledge from others can be invaluable in helping to navigate it all.



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