What do you do when your toddler disobeys on purpose? Learn how to discipline a defiant child who won’t listen.
One of my two-year-old twins had been disobeying and ignoring me, seemingly on purpose. I’d ask him to do something and he’d walk away. I’d tell him to put his toys away and he’d stay put, taunting me to make the first move. Other times, he’d keep doing what I asked him not to, all while smiling like it’s a big joke.
Dealing with a child who outright defies what you ask him to do is challenging even for the most patient mom. The defiance triggers a raw anger you never knew you had, and you wonder what it’ll finally take to get him to listen. No matter how angry you get or how many threats you make, nothing seems to get him to cooperate.
Then you feel terrible when you realize how petty the initial “argument” had been: talking when he should’ve been napping, refusing to clean up his mess, not coming to the bathroom like you asked him to.
So, what is appropriate defiant toddler discipline when they just won’t listen?
When your toddler disobeys on purpose
Most people think of discipline as punishment or time outs—that it’s what happens when children don’t do as they’re told.
But discipline is quite different. It’s teaching children how to behave and helping them understand and express their emotions.
With this definition, it’s never too early to discipline if your goal is to help your child behave and manage his emotions.
Here’s what to do when your toddler disobeys on purpose:
1. Find your child’s intentions
Kids don’t usually misbehave to make us angry. We might see defiance in a child who refuses to come to the table to eat, or we think he should know better by now not to jump on the bed, especially after we’ve asked him not to many time before.
But go further and you might see his refusal to eat isn’t defiance but sadness about a toy he can’t seem to fix. Jumping on the bed isn’t rebellion but excitement, unaware or unable to contain himself.
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.
I asked my toddler to move a little so he’s not bothering his brother by sitting too close to him. He stayed put, so I tried again, “Can you move a little so your brother has some space?” Still no response, as he pretended not to hear me.
I then asked myself if there could be another reason he didn’t want to move, and I realized he wanted to stay close to his brother.
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.
Before laying out consequences, acknowledge and empathize with how your child feels. Maybe he felt tired from a long day, needs your company, or wants the same toy his brother is playing with. Dive into his mindset and look for the reason behind his actions.
2. Get down to his level and make eye contact
Seeing situations from your child’s point of view can take a literal meaning. One of the simplest ways to better communicate with children is to get down to their eye level when we speak to them. Doing this has three benefits:
- Your child is more likely to take you seriously. A common scene in many homes? You’re trying to be serious with your child except he thinks the whole thing is funny. Get down to his level so you’re making eye contact and phrase your instructions in a calm but firm tone.
- You’re being more respectful. Children can feel “talked down to” when we’re literally talking to them from high above. Kneeling to his level forces you to speak more respectfully and address his needs.
- You avoid power struggles. Your toddler feels heard when he can see talk to you eye-to-eye. By speaking to them at eye level, they get less defensive and are more likely to oblige. Try this and you’ll see his body relax as he becomes more willing to comply.
Kneeling down to your child’s level will help him take you more seriously and feel more respected while you direct your conversation away from power struggles.
3. Give and follow through with consequences
Have you ever told your child he’s better behave or else [fill in the blank]? Not only are false threats ineffective, they’re also rarely implemented.
Consequences, especially natural ones that tie directly to your child’s behavior, are excellent learning experiences, so long as you follow through on what you say. Following through with consequences establishes limits for your child.
And keeping your word reinforces the trust he places on you. While you may not win short-term favor, you’re gaining his trust when you stick to your word. The less fickle and more consistent you implement rules, the more he’ll trust you.
But if you don’t enforce consequences, your child learns he can continue to misbehave because those consequences will never happen.
4. Pick your battles
Spending time with our kids can feel draining, but more so when every interaction leads to a fight. When we’re watching them like a hawk, ready to correct them at the first sign of misbehavior.
Sometimes, we need to pick our battles and decide which behavior is critical to correct, and which ones aren’t as important. Not everything has to be a battle between parent and child. While consistency is key, we also need to allow for flexibility and make room for the nuances of life.
A simple way to let things slide? Help your “save face” after he disobeys.
Let’s say your toddler is supposed to head to the bathroom to wash hands after eating, except this time, he refused to. Rather than exploding in anger, walk him to the bathroom and say, “Here, let’s walk to the bathroom and get those sticky hands washed off.”
Keep your tone lighthearted and calm instead of bossy and “mean.” Your toddler will be less likely to drag his misbehavior and sour mood even further when you’re willing to pick your battles.
5. Give your child a choice
Giving choices can curb a potential meltdown and encourage your child to listen. How? Offering choices:
- Encourages kids to 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.
- Reduces conflict. I’ve avoided many tantrums by drawing attention to the choices my kids can make, not the task they’re resisting.
- Empowers kids. Under the rule of adult decisions nearly all the time, making choices allows your child to voice his opinions. He’ll embrace his choices and will be more likely to follow through with them. Adults make most of the decisions in the house, but we also offer kids choices because we care and respect their decisions.
- Helps kids think for themselves. Giving choices allows your child to assert himself and develop critical thinking skills. He holds himself accountable and decides which option he’d rather do.
The trick is to offer your child a choice between two parent-approved options, either of which you’d be okay with.
If your toddler refuses to put his jacket on, phrase the request as two options that lead to the same goal.
You might say, “We’re going to grandma’s. Which jacket do you want to wear—the green one or the gray one?” Don’t say, “Do you want to go to grandma’s or stay here at home?” especially if you don’t plan to have him stay.
6. 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 why they should.
Even if your child intentionally disobeys, follow your request with the reason: “Don’t jump on the couch—you might fall 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. No wonder kids assume we’re abusing our power and bossing them around.
But giving a reason takes the parent out of the equation. It focuses on the task that needs to be done. You’re not the “mean mom” who bosses her kids just because it seems like you can. You’re letting them know why they need to do what you asked them to.
And with the reason front and center, you’re also less likely to sound bossy. Your words will carry a respectful tone as you explain the reasoning behind your request.
7. Praise your child when he does what he’s asked to
Kids thrive on attention, whether good or bad. Unfortunately, arguments, yelling, and scolding are types of attention they’d rather have than none at all.
The best way to counter misbehavior is to praise your child and give him attention when he is behaving.
Maybe you saw him treating his 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 him a high-five after he put his dishes in the sink, all without you asking.
Deep down, 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 he behaves well.
It’s one thing when your toddler throws a tantrum or hits his brother, and another when he flat out disobeys you.
Encourage your child to listen 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.
Pick your battles to avoid power struggles and help him “save face.” Follow through with consequences, and praise him when he does what you asked him 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 teaching your child learn to behave in appropriate ways, manage emotions and cope with difficult situations.
Discipline with the intention of helping him learn from the experience—even as he sits and smiles waiting for your next move.
I’d also love to share with you one effective word I’ve found to get kids to listen in this FREE printable handout. Learn why it works and how to use it (comes with a worksheet, too!).
Get more tips on how to deal with a toddler who doesn’t listen:
- How to Respond to Your Child’s Anger
- 9 Warning Signs You’re Raising a Spoiled Child
- What to Do when Your Child Plays Instead of Sleeps
- Small Habits to Improve Your Parenting
- The Difference between Rules and Responsibilities
Tell me in the comments: What are your biggest struggles when your toddler disobeys you?
One Effective Word to Get Kids to Listen
Do you struggle with getting your kids to listen? Learn the ONE effective word to get them to listen and follow instructions. Download my FREE handout and worksheet!