Defiance Why it happens and what to do about it
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 his cereal. Then he flat out refuses to put away any of the toys he's taken out.
Later, when you've had about all you can take, your child has a full-fledged tantrum because he happens to be playing with his friends when you arrive to pick him 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 himself on the ground, kicking and screaming, it's no fun for you, but it is a normal reaction for a child this age. (And for kids a little younger or older, too.)
Think about it: Your child is caught up in the excitement – and frustration – that come with his budding autonomy. He wants to explore his world and test his limits. At the same time he's struggling to learn how to control his actions, impulses, and feelings.
Maybe his baby brother gets more attention than he does, or maybe he doesn't like it when he's supposed to drop everything at your request. His 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 his 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 it's time.
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 child has problems abiding by the rules (as every 2-year-old does), work on solutions together. For instance, if she hits her baby brother because she's feeling left out, 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, put a nightlight in her room.
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 your instinct may be to reprimand your child when her behavior is unacceptable, choose your words carefully so it's clear that you disapprove of the behavior, not the child. "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?"
Shouting and shaming may only produce more negative behavior. She just may follow your example and yell back at you, and you'll find yourself teaching the very behavior you want her to change.
Your best tool as a parent is to teach by example. Speak calmly, clearly, and firmly – not with anger, blame, or threats. Sure, that's tough to do when you've lost your temper or your nerves are frazzled, but remind yourself that your child is unlikely to adopt a behavior you can't exhibit yourself.
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. A time-out can be used with kids this age if nothing else works. Use it more as a chance for your child to calm down and get herself under control, not to punish her for lacking the emotional control she's too young to have. When your child is ready to explode because she isn't getting her way, a time-out can help her cool off.
If you feel yourself getting too worked up, take your own time-out – just to calm down and gather your thoughts. 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 fashionable 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. 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 child to behave in a clothing store or sit quietly during an hour-long community meeting?
If you find yourself in a tricky situation, do your best to avoid a confrontation with your child. At this age, says Nelsen, constant supervision and redirection are the most effective parenting tools. Remove your child kindly but firmly from what she can't do and give her an activity she can do.
Finally, respect the unique world your 2-year-old lives in, especially the way she perceives time (or doesn't). Rather than expecting her to jump up from a game at daycare to rush home with you, give her a few minutes and help her switch gears. ("Kate, we're leaving in five minutes, so please finish up.")
There's no guarantee that your child will break away from her fun without complaint. But as long as you're patient and consistent, your child will eventually learn that defiance isn't the way to get what she wants.
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