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Defiance: Why it Happens and What to do About it

By — Babycenter
Updated on Feb 15, 2011

Why 2-year-olds defy their parents

What a day: Your 2-year-old starts the morning by screaming, "No, me do it!" when you pour the milk on her cereal. Then she flat-out refuses to put away any of the toys she's taken out. Later, when you've had about all you can take, your child has a full-fledged tantrum because she happens to be playing with her friends when you arrive to pick her up at daycare. Is this kid trying to drive you nuts?

The truth is, dealing with a defiant 2-year-old is a notoriously difficult part of childrearing. (They don't call it the "terrible twos" for nothing.) When your child shouts "No!" or hurls herself on the ground, kicking and screaming, it's no fun for you, but it is a normal reaction for a child this age.

Think about it: Your child is caught up in the excitement — and frustration — that comes with her budding autonomy. Maybe her baby brother gets more attention than she does, or maybe she doesn't like it when she's supposed to drop everything at your whim. Her challenging behavior may not always be appropriate, but it's to be expected at this age.

You may end up with a few gray hairs when it's all over, but you'll survive largely intact by trying to understand where your child is coming from — and by handling her stormy reactions with care.

What you can do about defiance

Be understanding. When your child screams and cries because she doesn't want to leave the playground, give her a hug and tell her you know it's hard to go home when she's having so much fun. The idea is to show her that instead of being part of the problem, you're actually on her side.

Try not to get angry (even if you feel embarrassed in front of the other parents). Be kind but firm about making her leave when she must.

Set limits. Young children need — and even want — limits, so set them and make sure your 2-year-old knows what they are. Spell it out for her: "We don't hit. If you're angry, use your words to tell Adam that you want the toy back" or "Remember, you always have to hold my hand in the parking lot."

If your youngster has problems abiding by the rules (as every 2-year-old will), work on solutions. If she hits her baby brother because she's feeling left out, for instance, let her help you feed or bathe him, then find a way for her to have her own special time with you. If she gets out of bed because she's afraid of the dark, give her a flashlight to keep on her nightstand.

Reinforce good behavior. Rather than paying attention to your child only when she's misbehaving, try to catch her acting appropriately: "Thanks for playing with Charlie while I change his diaper. That's very helpful!"

And though you may be sorely tempted to give your child a verbal lashing when she engages in undesirable antics, hold your tongue. "When a child behaves badly, she already feels terrible," says Jane Nelsen, author of the Positive Discipline series of books. "Where did we ever get the idea that in order to make children do better, we first have to make them feel worse?" In fact, doing so may only produce more negative behavior.

Remember, too, that disciplining your child doesn't mean controlling her — it means teaching her to control herself. Punishment might get her to behave, but only because she's afraid not to. It's best for your 2-year-old to do the right thing because she wants to — because it makes the day more fun for her or makes her feel good.

Use time-outs — positively. When your child is at the end of her rope, ready to bust a gasket because she isn't getting her way, help her cool off. Rather than a punitive time-out ("Go to your room!"), take her to a comfy sofa in the den or to a favorite corner of her bedroom.

Maybe your child would even like to design a "calm-down place" for herself — with a big pillow, a soft blanket, and a few favorite books. If she refuses to go, offer to go along with her and read a story.

If she still refuses, go yourself — just to chill out. You'll not only set a good example, you might get a much-needed break. Once you both feel better, that's the time to talk about appropriate behavior.

Empower your 2-year-old. Providing opportunities for your child to make her own choices allows her to try out some of her newfound autonomy in a controlled environment. Instead of demanding that she put on the jeans you've selected, for instance, let her choose one of the two pairs you've laid out. Ask if she'd like peas or green beans with dinner, and which of two stories at bedtime.

Another way to help your youngster feel more in control is to tell her what she can do instead of what she can't. Rather than saying, "No! Don't throw that ball in the house!" say, "Let's go outside and throw the ball together." If she wants an ice-cream cone before dinner, tell her she can choose between a slice of cheese and a banana.

Choose your battles. If your fashion-savvy 2-year-old wants to wear her striped turtleneck with her pink, polka-dot leggings, what do you care? If she wants waffles for lunch and peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, what's the harm? Sometimes it's easier to look the other way — when she splashes in a mud puddle on the way home, for example, or stuffs her puppet under her bed instead of putting it on the proper shelf.

Respect her age and stage. Try to avoid situations that are sure to send your 2-year-old into a meltdown. Why risk taking her to a fancy restaurant when you could just meet your sister for a picnic in the park? How realistic is it to expect your youngster to behave in a clothing store or sit quietly during an hour-long community meeting?

If you find yourself in a tricky situation, use distraction to avoid a head-on collision with your tot. When your child spots a lovely flower arrangement in the lobby, for instance, quickly show her how the numbers by the elevator shift as the elevator changes floors.

Finally, respect the unique world your 2-year-old lives in, especially the way she perceives time (or doesn't). So rather than expecting her to jump up from a game at daycare to rush home with you, give her a few minutes' notice to help her switch gears ("Amy, we'll leaving in five minutes, so please finish up").

There's no guarantee that your child will break away from her fun without complaint. (In fact, it's a good bet she'll raise the hairs on the back of your neck with her bellowing.) But as long as you're patient and consistent, your youngster will eventually learn that defiance isn't the way to get what she wants.

 

Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board

All contents copyright © BabyCenter LLC. 1997-2008

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