Defiant Toddler: Causes And Ways To Deal With Him

Defiant Toddler: Causes And Ways To Deal With Him

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Toddlerhood is a phase when the child experiences several changes. They develop newfound independence and autonomy, which they love testing at any moment possible. The need to exercise more control combined with cognitive and emotional changes could spark some defiance in the toddler.

Defiance in toddlers is often momentary and usually occurs in response to trivial matters. In most cases, parents can figure out triggers and possible resolutions. However, chronic defiance with other signs, such as excessive aggression, could be alarming for parents. Read on to learn the reasons behind a toddler’s defiance, how to manage it, and when to be concerned about a defiant toddler.

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 may 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 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 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.

Defiance is common behavior during toddlerhood that can be managed through appropriate measures. Remember to not blame yourself or your child for it. It is usually a natural behavior, and the toddler may not have any control over it. As your little one grows older, they learn to cooperate with others, and it becomes easier to reason with them. Nevertheless, if you notice any alarming signs, such as aggression with defiance, do not hesitate to speak to a doctor or a psychologist.


MomJunction’s health articles are written after analyzing various scientific reports and assertions from expert authors and institutions. Our references (citations) 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.

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