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How to Discipline a Defiant 2-Year-Old

by Chelsea Fitzgerald, studioD

Attempts to tame a 2-year-old rebel can wear you out. Toddlers crave autonomy, and defiance is often just a contrary way for them to gain control of their lives. They learn by trying out new things, but their methods aren't always appropriate -- such as sitting on the cat to see what happens. Rather than control your child, however, aim to guide him toward more proper behavior. Effective disciplinary measures show your toddler you have his best interests at heart -- and your cat will thank you, too.

Talk to your 2-year-old about what the schedule is for the next couple of hours. Do this in simple language without using too many details. Say something like, “We are going to Sheila’s house where you can play with Tommy for a little while. Then after that we must leave to go to Grandma’s house to have lunch with her.” This gives your toddler a sense of control because he knows what is going to happen.

Warn your toddler when a transition is about to happen in his day. For instance, kneel down beside him and say, “I know you are having fun, but in 10 minutes we have to leave for Grandma’s.” After about seven or eight minutes, instruct your toddler to start telling his toys or friends "goodbye." Many children this age have difficulty switching gears, especially when it involves playtime. This type of warning helps teach children to control themselves since you manipulated the transition to avoid a tantrum.

Praise your child if he leaves without wailing or throwing a fit. Tell him that you know he did not want to leave, but he acted like a big boy anyway and you are proud of him. This gives him positive reinforcement. He is more likely to desire praise the next time a transition arises, rather than collapsing on the floor in a wailing fit. .

Hug your 2-year-old calmly if he pitches a tantrum when you start to leave for Grandma’s house. Tell him you understand he does not want to leave his toys or friends, but you did tell him the plan for the visit and remind him when the departure was imminent. Acceptance of his angry feelings shows the child that you love him unconditionally, no matter how badly he misbehaves.

Show your child that you find transitions difficult at times as well. After breakfast, say “Oh my, I don’t want to get out of my comfy pajama’s and get dressed, but Sheila is expecting us and then we get to go to Grandma’s for lunch. We are going to have a great day!” This shows the child that sometimes we have to do things we don’t want to for the greater good or because we made a commitment.

Distract your toddler from the willful behavior if you feel he is doing it just to prove he can. The key is to acknowledge his desire to do the behavior, but to entice him to cooperate with you. For instance, explain that he can look at his new book during the drive to Grandma’s.

Develop the child’s sense of control and autonomy when possible. For instance, ask him to choose his clothing for the day or give him a choice of vegetables to eat with his lunch. This teaches him that there are many decisions he can make on his own. He is less likely to struggle when you control his behavior if you give him a bit of leeway at other times.


  • Never use harsh, angry words or rough treatment of your toddler as a disciplinary measure. At this age, it is difficult for him to understand the difference in right and wrong. Kneel right next to him and lovingly explain why his behavior is dangerous, inappropriate or disrespectful. During the toddler stage, instilling fear in your child is not an effective way to discipline. It causes him to "shut down," and he'll focus on protecting himself, not on why the behavior is wrong.

About the Author

Chelsea Fitzgerald covers topics related to family, health, green living and travel. Before her writing career, she worked in the medical field for 21 years. Fitzgerald studied education at the University of Arkansas and University of Memphis.

Photo Credits

  • Jack Hollingsworth/Digital Vision/Getty Images