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How to Break a Toddler's Defiant Behavior

by Tiffany Raiford

Toddlers are a perfect marriage of sweet and wonderful and just defiant enough to make you feel a little crazy. Your toddler is going to offer sweet kisses in one breath and in the next start jumping off the back of the couch despite your sharp commands to stop. It’s her job to explore, learn and figure things out, but sometimes her defiance crosses a line. When your toddler’s defiance is out of hand, or you simply want to prevent it from getting out of hand, you have to learn how to discipline and deal with her in a way that promotes positive growth and learning.

Redirect your toddler’s behavior so that what you consider defiant behavior becomes acceptable behavior, advises Zero to Three, the national center for families of small children. For example, if your artistic toddler decides he wants to create his newest masterpiece on his bedroom walls and you tell him to stop to no avail, gently remove him from the setting and place him at the table with a piece of paper. Explain to him that you love that he enjoys drawing and coloring but that the only place he can draw and color is on paper at the table. This type of redirection doesn’t make him feel that he’s in trouble or that he’s bad, and he gets to continue doing what he wanted without upsetting anyone or breaking any rules.

Keep it simple, advises Laura Markham, a mother and clinical psychologist, writing at Ahaparenting.com. When your toddler is behaving defiantly, she is more likely to respond to simple instructions or reasons than she is something more complicated. Don't explain the problem to her in a way she will not understand, such as the same way you’d explain it to her 10-year-old sibling. For example, if she’s pulling the dog’s tail, remove her hand from the dog and tell her no. She might not pick it up right away, but if you are consistent in keeping your explanations simple, she is more likely to understand.

Let him take control of his own life just a little. According to Zero to Three, even toddlers want to experience the feeling of being in control of their own lives. Their defiance is often a way of taking control of their own lives and doing activities their own way. You can reduce your toddler’s defiance by giving him choices, which give him an element of control. For example, if his favorite form of defiance is to fight you to the death when it comes to getting dressed in the morning, let him take control to a degree. Give him two or three different outfits and ask him to choose the one he wants to wear and dress himself as much as he can without your help.

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