What do you do when your toddler disobeys on purpose? Learn how to discipline a defiant child who doesn’t listen using positive parenting.
One of my two-year-old twins has been disobeying and ignoring me. I ask him to do something and he walks away. Sometimes he’ll stay put, almost taunting me to make the first move. And even other times he’ll keep doing what I asked him not to, all while smiling like it’s a big joke.
There’s something so challenging about dealing with a child who outright defies what you tell him to do. The defiance triggers a raw anger you never knew you had. You wonder what other consequences will actually convince him. And no matter how angry, or how many threats you make, nothing seems to get them to listen.
Then you feel terrible when you realize how petty the initial “argument” had been: talking when they should’ve been napping, refusing to clean up their mess.
So, how can we discipline when they just won’t listen?
Most people think of discipline as punishment or time outs. But discipline is teaching children how to behave. Helping them understand and express their emotions. It doesn’t happen at a certain age like potty training or introducing solids. (Read more about how we’ve got discipline all wrong.)
What to do when your toddler disobeys on purpose
It’s never too early to discipline a toddler if your goal is to help him behave and manage his emotions. Here’s how:
Acknowledge your child’s intentions.
Before laying out consequences, acknowledge and empathize with how your child feels. Maybe he felt tired from a long day or needs company. Or he wants the same toy his brother is playing with. Get into his mindset and look for the reason behind his actions.
Recently, I asked my toddler to move a little so he’s not bothering his brother by sitting too close to him. He stays put, so I try again, “Can you move a little so your brother has some space?” Still no response, as if he didn’t even hear me.
So I asked myself if there’s another reason other than defiance he refused to move. And I realized he wanted to stay close to his brother.
So I rephrased the request to “You want to play near your brother, don’t you? It looks like he’s having fun and you want to do the same thing.” Only then did he move after I had acknowledged his underlying intentions.
Not all kids behave to disrupt our days or because they don’t want to listen. A child might refuse to come to the table to eat because he feels too sad about the toy he can’t seem to fix. Or he was too excited and started jumping on the bed even if, in your mind, he should’ve known better.
Pause before reacting to your child’s behavior. Be curious about why he’s behaving the way he is, then cater to that reason and show empathy to let him know you’re on the same side.
Get down to his level and make eye contact.
A typical scene in many homes? You’re trying to be serious with your child except he thinks the whole thing is funny or lighthearted. When this happens, get down to his level so you’re looking at him and making eye contact. Your demeanor should be calm but firm so he knows you “mean business.”
Although it’s easy to lose your temper, a calm voice is more effective than an angry one. It’s tough, for sure. Sometimes I feel like I’m just acting, putting on a neutral face when inside I’m boiling.
But remaining calm is quicker and more effective than yelling. Model the behavior you want to see and your child will learn how to behave.
Give and follow through with consequences.
The other day, my toddler dumped his favorite set of blocks on the floor (affiliate link), then decided not to play with it. Rather than putting the blocks away like I asked him to, he scampers off.
So I found a natural consequence to his actions if he doesn’t clean up his mess: “It doesn’t look like you’re ready to play with those blocks just yet. I’ll have to put them away in the closet until tomorrow if you don’t put them away.”
Following through establishes limits for both of you. You know when enough is enough. It reinforces the trust your child places on you. While you may not win short-term favor, in the long run, you’re gaining her trust when you continually stick to your word. The less fickle and the more consistent you implement your rules, the more she’ll trust you.
You also teach your child the natural and logical consequences of her behavior. Misbehaving and not taking care of a toy means she’s not ready to play with it right now. Talking back isn’t the way to express frustration—it needs to be better communicated.
If you don’t enforce consequences, your child learns that her behaviors have no limits. She’ll grow up with the false assumption that the world bends to her whims.
Your child won’t thrive in total freedom. She also hasn’t reached an age to make mature decisions on her own. She needs someone to teach her right from wrong and have her best intentions in mind.
The most important part? If your child ignores you, follow through with what you said. In my case, I put the blocks away until the next day, despite my toddler’s protests.
Guide your child.
Kids need a helping hand or even a way to “save face” after they’ve disobeyed on purpose.
Let’s say your toddler is supposed to head to the bathroom to wash hands after eating, except this time, he refuses to. Rather than exploding in a battle, walk him to the bathroom and say, “Here, let’s walk to the bathroom and get those sticky hands washed off.”
Give your child a choice.
Giving choices can curb a potential meltdown and encourage your child to listen. Once in a while, offer your child a choice between two parent-approved options.
When given a choice, kids own the task. Putting on a jacket won’t seem like Mom’s Terrible Idea I Must Rebel Against. Instead, your child gets to decide between a green or gray jacket. Giving choices reduces conflict. I’ve avoided many tantrums by drawing attention to the choices my kids can make, not the task they’re resisting.
Choices empower children. Under the rule of adult decisions nearly all the time, making choices allows your child to voice her opinions. She embraces her choices and is more likely to follow through with them. Adults make most of the decisions in the house, but we also offer our kids choices because we care and
respect their decisions.
Offering choices also encourages your child to think for herself. Giving her choices allows her to assert herself and develop critical thinking. She holds herself accountable and decides which option
she’d rather do.
If your toddler refuses to put his jacket on, phrase the request as two options that lead to the same goal. You might say, “Let’s put on a jacket. Which one do you want to wear—the gray one or the blue one?” Having a choice makes him feel more empowered and likely to comply.
Explain the reason.
Researchers ran a study where a woman was able to cut in line to make copies simply by saying “because.” We’re more likely to comply when we hear a reason. Rather than hearing what to do or not do, kids are more motivated to comply knowing the reason.
When you ask your toddler to do something, even if he disobeys on purpose, follow it up with the reason: “Don’t jump on the couch—you might fall down and hurt yourself.”
In a world dominated by adults, kids can feel resentful with us telling them what to do all the time. Imagine following rules you don’t always understand, or doing things you don’t feel like doing. And it’s easy for kids to point to their parents and assume we’re abusing our power and role as their mom or dad.
But giving a reason takes the parent out of the equation. It focuses on the task that needs to be done. Suddenly, you’re not the ”mean mom” who bosses her kids around. You’re just letting them know why they need to do what you asked them to do.
With the reason front and center, kids take ownership of the task. We’re not bossing them around just because it seems like we can. Instead, giving a reason inspires them to contribute on their own. They go from being told what to do to being an important family member who pitches in.
Praise your child when he does what he’s told.
Kids thrive on attention, whether good or bad. And unfortunately, arguments, yelling, and scolding are a type of attention they’d rather have than none at all.
The best way to counter misbehavior is to praise your child and give her attention when she is behaving. Maybe you saw her treating her little brother kindly. Point that out and say, “It looks like you made your brother happy when you shared the blocks with him.” Or give her a high-five and observe that she put her
dishes in the sink after dinner, all without you asking.
Kids want to please their parents. They want our approval and are crushed when we seem disappointed or angry with them. Use that to your advantage and praise your child when she behaves well.
It’s one thing when your toddler is throwing a tantrum or hitting his brother, but disciplining a toddler when he flat out ignores you can be difficult.
Encourage your child to obey by acknowledging his emotions and intentions. Get down to his eye level and calmly but firmly explain what he needs to do. Explain why, and even give parent-approved choices of how to do so. Guide him so he has help, and follow through with consequences if he continues to disregard you. And praise him when he does what he’s supposed to.
All those moments of positive reinforcement are much more effective in the long run.
Discipline isn’t about being strict or doling out punishments. Discipline is helping your child learn to behave in appropriate ways and manage emotions. You’re teaching him how to best cope with difficult situations. Discipline with the intention of helping him learn from the experience—even if it seems he’s deliberately disobeying.
Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen? I’d love to share with you one effective word I’ve found to get kids to listen in this FREE printable handout. Learn about the word, why it works and how to use it (comes with a worksheet, too!).
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