The Fussy Baby Site

Dealing with Defiance in Your Spirited Toddler or Preschooler

Toddler being defiant, young child in dress

Defiance in toddlers and preschoolers may be normal, but that doesn’t it make it fun or easy!

And when you have a spirited or strong-willed child, the defiance may be more frequent and more intense than you thought possible!

Do any of the following scenarios sound familiar?

  1. Your 2 year old throws a toy truck which ends up hitting the wall. You get down on his level, tell him, “No, we don’t throw toys. They can break things!”. He nods his head and you go back to what you were doing. 10 seconds later, you hear a “bang” and see he’s done it again…all the while watching you while he does it.

  2. It’s time to get ready for preschool, and you ask your 4-year-old daughter to go get her coat on. She’s busy playing in the iPad, and doesn’t even respond to your question. You go up really close and say it again: “Please go get your coat on, it’s time to leave for school”. She looks up at you and without skipping a beat says, “No, I’m not going to school. I’m staying home to play on the iPad”. Besides dragging her kicking and screaming to the car, you’re not sure what else to do.

  3. Finally, this is a real life example from when my daughter was around 3. She was already in a toddler bed at this time. One night I went to tuck her in as usual, and after reading her a story, said good night. She followed me out of the room right on my tail. I put her back in her bed, telling her, “You cannot come out again. It’s bedtime, and you need to stay in your bed”. Not only did she follow me out of the room again, but she did it with what we’ve come to call her “evil cackle”. Seriously, out of all the things my kids did over the years that cackle was the thing that got to me the most. Because it was like her saying, “I know what you want me to do, but I could care less and think it’s funny that you’re getting mad”.

When I mentioned these three scenarios in a recent Facebook Live in our Facebook group, the vast majority of parents said they could relate to all three.

What’s the definition of defiance?

I would define it as:

Your child refusing to do what you explicitly ask him to do, or doing the exact opposite of what you’ve asked. 

And the worst part?

Often they do this while laughing, giggling, smirking, or while watching you the ENTIRE TIME.

I think this is what makes it so incredibly frustrating! It’s pretty hard to have empathy for your child when you feel like they have a personal vendetta against you 🙂

It can definitely FEEL like your child is trying to get his or her way, or is being manipulative, or even like he’s doing this specifically to make you mad.

But in order to really understand what defiance is at this age, it’s important to look briefly at what’s actually happening for our kids at this age, developmentally, temperamentally, and from a relationship standpoint (meaning, his or her relationship with you). 

Defiance: Why it happens, developmentally

From a developmental standpoint, we know that defiance is perfectly normal in young kids, and tends to start anywhere from about age 1 to age 2. 

To delve into developmental theories a bit, you may have heard of Piaget and the idea of “pre-operational thought”. It’s also sometimes called the pre-logical stage, which makes a bit more sense to me – because clearly, our toddlers and preschoolers do notappear to be logical much of the time!

Kids at this stage tend to have quite rigid or black and white thinking, and aren’t able to see things from someone else’s point of view (least of all, ours).

In other words, our kids at this stage are inherently egocentric – meaning, in their mind, they are the center of everything.

There’s nothing wrong with this, and in fact, it would be strange for a kids NOT to go through this stage.

In fact, Piaget did an experiment that showed JUST how egocentric young kids – ages 2-7 – can actually be.

Piaget’s mountain task

Piaget mountain task

Young children, ages 4 to 7, were seated at a table with models of three mountains. Each mountain was a little bit different.

A doll was then placed at the base of one of the mountains. The children were then asked to think about what the doll might be seeing/looking at. 

They were shown 10 pictures of mountains, and the kids were asked to choose which one would most closely represent what the doll was seeing.

The 4-year olds chose their own vantage point, even though the doll was sitting somewhere else. In other words, they couldn’t yet understand that the doll might be seeing something else.

However, as children got closer to 7, they began to be able to identify the correct picture…because they could actually put themselves in the shoes of the doll.

This indicated to Piaget that very young children were inherently egocentric – meaning, they could not yet see beyond their own needs, wants and impulses. 

We also know that toddlers and preschoolers don’t develop impulse control until around 4…and for some kids, this can happen even later. 

This means that if they REALLY want to do something, they’ll do it; because their desire to please you or to do the “right thing” is outweighed by their own desire to do it!

And this is what’s so extremely frustrating and confusing as a parent! Because you know that your child KNOWS what we want her to do, and often can even TELL us what she’s supposed to do…but then does the exact opposite. 

And this isn’t because she’s “bad” or trying to make you mad…rather, she’s simply driven primarily by her impulses and trying to get her wants and needs met – in whatever way she can. 

This is also the prime age for kids to want to become more independentand to assert their control. And one way they do this is by doing the opposite of what you’ve asked/told her to do. 

So, does this mean you can’t set limits? Or that you can’t expect your child to meet your limits, simply because of where they’re at developmentally?

Not at all. 

Defiance is a way of your child testing testing the limits you’ve set, not in a manipulative way, but just testing the boundaries. He wants to see how far he can go and still get his wants or needs met.

He may seem like he want to be in control, but really, spirited kids do best when they have a gentle, confident leader. So, we’re going to keep that in mind when we talk about how to handle the defiance later in this post!

Defiance: How temperament factors in

While all young children will have moments of defiance, we’re dealing with with spirited kids, who are just naturally more intense and more persistent.

This means they tend to react more strongly to their plans being thwarted, to being told “no” or “stop”, or to us enforcing a limit that’s in direct opposition to what they want to do. And as a spirted child, he will REALLY want to do it; meaning some basic distraction often won’t be enough to move his focus off that thing he reallywants. 

This can mean far more defiance than we might see in a more easygoing child, and more intense, dig-their-heels-in defiance when it does happen!

Defiance: From a relationship perspective

So, that’s why defiance happens, both from a developmental and temperament standpoint. But then we also have the relationshipbetween us and our child.

When figuring out why your child is being defiant – especially if he or she is defiant a lot – I find it’s important to FIRST look at the limits you’ve setand how you’ve set them. 

Here’s why: If we had no limits or rules, our child wouldn’t be defiant, because there would be nothing to be defiant about!

By this logic, if we have too MANY limits or rules, we’ll likely experience more limit-testing and defiance. So, ask yourself:

  1. Do I have too many limits? Am I choosing my battles or am I setting limits around every little thing?
  2. How am I setting limits? Am I doing it in an angry or frustrated way? Or in a positive upbeat way? If we do the latter, there will be less defiance and less limit testing. 

3 ways to deal with defiance in spirited toddlers and preschoolers

So, what can you do when your child is being defiant? How do we set a limit in way that respect our child’s developmental stage and temperament?

Following are 3 hands-on ways to deal with defiance, and also many other challenging behaviors!

#1: Confidentally help him meet the limit you’ve set.

Remember before how we talked about how our kids do best when they have a gentle, confident leader?

Here’s what this would look like in this situation: If there’s something you need your child to do (or not do), and he’s refusing or is being defiant, simply help him do it.

I’m not talking about negotiating with him over it, or asking him to do it, or even giving him options, but rather actually physically helping him meet your expectation

The first time I saw this in action was when an older friend was helping out a young mom in our church care group. This young mom was struggling with an 18 month old who was refusing to get her pj’s on.

The kid was crying and flailing all around, and you could tell the mom was getting stressed and impatient. This older friend of mine who had already raised 3 kids swooped in and took over. “Aww, Sweetie, I know you don’t want to put these on right now, so I’m going to help you!”. She quickly and efficiently put the pj’s on the kid before the kid even knew what she was doing…and that was that.

She was calm, cool and energetic as she did it, which was key.

Parenting expert Janet Lansbury calls this confident momentum. I like to also think of this as having an attitude of, “Start as you mean to go”.

Move in, being confident and upbeat, and acknowledge your child’s feelings as help him meet the limit. 

Don’t acknowledge the defiance and don’t let yourself get sucked up into it!

Simply help them meet the limit in a calm, upbeat way. 

#2: Suggest a do-over.

I firmly believe kids learn MUCH more by doing something rather than simply having us tell them how to do it. This is why lecturing and nagging tends not to work.

Here’s an example. Your 3 year old is pulling on the dog’s ears. Fortunately, your dog actually lets your child get away with it.

You warn your child not to do that again, and yet he does it again all the while looking at you for your response.

Instead of simply sending him to time-out (where he’s unlikely to learn anything), try this: Go to him and say, “It seems like maybe you’re bored, but you can’t play with the dog’s ears like that. Let’s try being really gentle with him”, then show him what you’d like him to do. 

Or let’s say your preschooler screams at you and tries to hit you when you take the phone away from her. Say something like, “Hey buddy, I know you want the phone, but you can’t hit me. Try again but be gentle this time.”

While you won’t always see this strategy work in the short term, over time, it will definitely help your child practice and learn better responses to their frustration. 

#3: Role play ways to do it differently next time.

“In play, a child always behaves beyond his age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a ‘head taller’ than  himself” – Lev Vygotsky

Once you’re out of the heat of the moment, help your child practice solving problems. 

Role playing is one of my favourite ways to do this, and research tells us that it’s also a great way to help our kids learn to self-regulate, emotionally. 

You might briefly mention what happened earlier, saying something like: “Remember earlier when you really didn’t want to get dressed? Let’s pretend your doll doesn’t want to get dressed, and see what she does!”. 

This is a great, non-threatening way to get them to practice managing their emotions in a more adaptive way, and also of helping them learn the important skills of problem-solving…a skill many spirited kids struggle with. 

Final thoughts

The single most important thing to remember when your spirited toddler or preschooler is being defiant is that they’re not doing this TO you. 

It can certainly feel like it, but try not to take it personally!

Remind yourself that your child is still figuring things out, is testing how far he can go, and needs you to be his calm, confident leader!