Throwing toys. Screaming “NO!!!!!” Dumping a plate of food on the floor while they look right at you in defiance. Kids can go from cute to aggressive in the blink of an eye.
Is it annoying? Sure. Is it dangerous? Not all the time. Should you completely ignore it? Not unless you’d like to see what real defiance looks like at 10.
But what should you do when your child is really testing your limits and the limits of your rules?
- You are allowed (and encouraged) to use a firm “no”. Not the weak kind, and not a hair-raising screech either. Lower your voice and look directly at your child. “No” clearly tells them they have crossed a line. Avoid too many words, or weakening the message with explanations of why pulling the cat’s tail is a “no”, or why throwing their car at the flat screen TV is a “no”. Young kids really have no idea about warranties or parsing cause-and-effect. “No” is simply “no”.
- If they continue the behavior, you don’t have to do that whole “count to three” stuff. The author of “1-2-3 Magic” states clearly in the book that this technique is intended for children over 2 that can comprehend it. Under 2, and definitely if they have any language delays, you are making a fool of yourself if you think they can follow the idea. Set limits and use consequences they can appreciate.
- Should you ignore some things? Absolutely. If there is no risk of danger, and if you are going to have them scoop their mac and cheese from the floor back onto a plate and into the trash in a few minutes, you can ignore it and try to turn things around. You never want to teach anyone that bad behavior is the best way to get your attention.
- Never ignore physical aggression. Unless people in your home routinely are allowed to hit each other, why would you accept that from your child? You don’t hit them back, but you certainly don’t hug them warmly after they have smacked you in the face. Think I am making this up? I watch this now on telehealth in therapy sessions, but I used to witness it in person! With parents that should know better. After your child has smacked you while holding them, put your child down on the floor and tell them “No hitting” and walk a few feet away for a moment. That is enough to message to a younger child that violence never is OK. With an older one, that is an immediate time-out without any discussion. They know they crossed an immovable line.
- Always praise good or good-enough behavior when you see it. I tell parents that praising breathing out and then in again is OK. So is sitting for three seconds without screaming, and so it giving me your plate instead of tossing it to the floor. Very young children don’t see that as overkill. They are little. They see any praise as simply praise. And you have to be positive if you are going to be firm about the defiance.
- Offer a better game than defiance. You may have to buy some new toys. You may have to be more fun with them than you were before. You may have to be silly, and sit and play with them for a while. But you were spending a lot of time with them anyway, dealing with defiance. So this is a better deal. When it is more fun to be “good”, most children, most of the time, will choose that.
If you find spending time with young children boring, if you expect them to never be defiant, if you aren’t willing to set limits, if you don’t want to deal with their anger when you stop their actions….you need to think carefully about your own issues.
Kids aren’t houseplants. Raising them is work, hard work, and it never ends. But in the end, teaching them to manage their aggressive impulses without crushing their spirit helps them be the decent humans you want them to be.