Tantrums, back-talk, throwing toys, hitting. It can be an occasional episode, or it can be a daily slog through toddlerhood. If a chronically defiant toddler isn’t having a major life change (new school, new caregiver, illness, new family stressor), then it’s possible that she has just developed a habit of relating to adults in this manner. It can happen quite quickly and begin without much initial notice. A few situations where she isn’t going to win a battle of wills, like buckling her into the carseat, combined with bad timing: the restaurant was very loud,her favorite snack was unavailable on vacation, or even extended cabin fever in the winter can snowball into entrenched defiance. Now you have someone who seems to be looking for a fight over nothing, and maybe even enjoying your frustration. New parents can’t believe that their angelic baby is actually enjoying making their blood boil. The good news: she isn’t going to become a psychopath, it is just a developmental phase combined with a bad habit.
Every child needs to test the rules to know that they are firm and that their caregivers reliably will help them when their toddler moods get the better of them. Parents, teachers, nannies; everybody will be tested by a toddler over time. If your child seems to be in a time-out multiple times a day, then you should consider a new approach. For defiance and aggression that have become entrenched, my favorite and most successful strategy is Dr. Harvey Karp’s “feed the meter” plan. Shaming, threatening, and physical means to get rid of defiance are not going to give good long-lasting results, and can risk establishing caregivers as fearful people to distrust. Ignoring the behavior and hoping she grows out of it is not going to work either. A smart toddler will double-down and it will get worse as she is able to stand her ground longer, louder, and in public places. If this sounds familiar to you, please read on!
“Feeding the meter” is about what it sounds like. You create or take advantage of naturally occurring pleasant experiences to share with your child, sprinkled throughout the day like putting quarters in a parking meter to avoid a ticket. A really defiant toddler will turn down those first invitations to share their favorite snack with you, watch a favorite movie, etc. Just set it out, start snacking or watching, and eventually make another offer for her to join you. Laugh at a silly toddler joke, kiss her favorite doll, whatever you know is a positive experience. This doesn’t mean you should go buy her the toy she has been screaming for all week. You can go low-cost, low-effort, and create many short positive interactions.
Be prepared emotionally to be turned down repeatedly or even shouted at, as your toddler resists breaking her habitual defiance. Don’t take it personally. As the adult, you are going to have to be the one who stays cool and collected when a toddler is nasty right to your face. That takes some strength, and it takes more out of you than you might think. Take a breath, complain to another adult when your child cannot hear you, and treat yourself with kindness. So many parents are so depleted by lack of sleep and ignoring their own needs that it is hard to use these mindful techniques successfully. You have to remember your long-term goal is to steer this ship away from the rocks and get back to calm shores.