Does your child refuse to listen, or does the opposite of what you say? Learn how to deal with a defiant 2 year old and avoid these 7 huge mistakes.
I try not to call it the Terrible Twos, but sometimes the label can feel so accurate, doesn’t it?
Maybe your child doesn’t listen to a single word you say, no matter how you try to say it. Transitioning into daily activities—dinner, bedtime, clean-up time—is a struggle so intense and exhausting you end up giving in.
She might even resort to sassy hitting or biting, leaving you ragged from trying to discipline and rein her in.
If this sounds familiar, you’re totally not alone.
You see, just when I thought I finally got over the newborn and baby madness, the defiant 2 year old stage came whipping in.
I still remember one particular moment when, in an act of defiance, my son threw all his toys and books on the floor, almost daring me to react.
In my less-than-glorious moment of motherhood, I sure reacted all right. My ego challenged, I screamed my head off, refusing to let it go.
There were many days when I both felt guilty for how I reacted while also resenting him for “making it hard on me.”
7 things not to do with a defiant 2 year old
But… it was during these times when I felt I was losing my mind that I also learned a great deal about 2 year olds.
I learned that common reactions and discipline methods we’ve all heard were simply not effective. In fact, doing the opposite actually worked better.
My son actually wanted me to hold my ground and set limits (I just needed to do so in a better way).
I had to focus on what I can control—and it certainly wasn’t my defiant 2 year old.
Through this stage, I realized a few important things parents should not do, starting with these:
1. Don’t bark orders
Come clean-up time, I’ll admit: I sometimes sound like a drill sergeant.
“Clean up those superhero figures!”
“Put those cups in the sink!”
“Don’t dilly dally—we don’t have a lot of time!”
At times, it seems to work. The kids perk up, knowing there’s still a lot to do.
But then I listened to myself and realized I didn’t like how I sounded. I certainly wouldn’t want someone speaking to me that way, nor would I want anyone else to boss my kids around like that, either.
The cringe-worthy moment happened when I heard my eldest bossing his two younger brothers in the same way.
I knew then that barking orders wasn’t the way to go.
Because there always comes that time when your child will push back. She refuses to do what she’s told or she does the opposite of what you say, launching both of you into a battle. And when you’re already in drill sergeant mode, it’s pretty hard to soften and listen to her point of view.
2. Don’t correct your child’s behavior right away
What’s your first reaction when your defiant 2 year old refuses to do something?
If you’re like me, you’ve likely began the conversation with correcting her behavior:
“Don’t hit your brother!”
“Please stop whining and come and eat breakfast already.”
“What is it, now?”
Often, the intention is right: we want to make sure they know their behavior is wrong or at least, not to repeat it again.
But kids also respond much better when they feel heard. It’s hard listening to corrections and critiques, or being told what to do or not do all day long. It’s enough to make any child less responsive and compliant.
What if, instead of correcting their behavior, we connect with them first?
We can do this by showing empathy and acknowledging their motives first, long before even talking about what they did.
Let’s say your child yelled at her brother in a disrespectful way. Instead of jumping to, “We don’t yell like that,” connect with her first by showing empathy:
“I know you’re upset because he took your toy. I’d be upset, too.”
In those two sentences, you showed your child you understand why she’s mad, and that it’s normal to feel that way.
Starting your conversations by acknowledging the motives that drove your child to misbehave is one of the best ways to break down her defiance and get her to listen.
And check out my video below for more about waiting until your child calms down before disciplining:
3. Don’t withhold affection as punishment
Sometimes it feels like nothing gets through to our kids, so much so that we resort to withholding the one thing we know they need and want: our love and affection.
At times, it seems to work with their behavior problems. They tend to listen when we harden our faces and take us seriously when we walk away.
But love should never be withheld as a form of punishment or as a way to correct behavior. If there’s any one constant kids need in their lives, it’s the reassurance that their parents love them no matter what.
That means even when they misbehave or seem to ruin the entire day with a tantrum. Even when they refuse to budge or when they make an issue out of every little thing. They can expect consequences, but one of them should never be the loss of our affection.
In fact, instead of sending your child to a time-out, draw her closer to you. She needs to know you’re always there and will never abandon her even—perhaps especially—when she’s at her worst.
This is when she needs you most. Not only when she’s happy and pleasant, but during difficult times, too. She needs you to help her cope with difficult feelings, show her other ways to behave, and reassure her that she’s always loved.
4. Don’t expect your child to behave rationally
We forget how little our kids are sometimes, don’t we?
When we butt heads with our kids, we assume they’re thinking along the same lines as we are. That they’re mini adults ready to see reason and understand why we need to leave for school already or not climb on the coffee table.
But that mindset only clouds a truth we sometimes fail to see: that our kids are still… kids.
Their brains are far from fully-formed, making them less likely to control impulsive behavior or plan for the future. They can’t communicate simple emotions, wants, or needs as well as you and I can. And they don’t have the many years of experience that we adults do.
Despite your child’s strides and milestones, he’s still a child who may not understand why he has to stop playing at bedtime, or why he shouldn’t throw a fit just because he can’t drink out of his sippy cup.
And discover one effective word to get kids to listen in this printable handout. Learn about the word, why it works and how to use it. Download it below—at no cost to you. You’ll also get my newsletters, which parents say they LOVE:
“Wonderful timing, I needed to read this today. It brought tears to my eyes—thank you, Nina. It’s been hard to maintain my cool at times, but reading your resources always shifts my perspective and brightens my day. I mention your blog at least weekly to the various parents I meet!” -Cynthia Englert-Rattey
5. Don’t be too lenient
Kids can feel so exhausting that it’s easy to let things go.
Maybe you’re so drained from work that you have no energy to tell your defiant 2 year old to stop watching television. You’re barely able to take care of the new baby, so you let your toddler make a mess of the house. Or maybe you’ve just about had it because nothing seems to work anyway.
Despite his behavior and initial reactions, your child actually wants you to set boundaries. Yep, even on how long he can watch television or cleaning up after himself.
Boundaries give your child the space to explore and grow but within the safe confines you’ve established.
Think of boundaries as a fence on a farm: set the fence at just the right distance. Too close to the barn, and animals feel constricted and can’t move. But with no fences at all, they run wild without the order and predictability they need.
And the biggest reason your child needs you to hold your ground? He needs to know you can stand up to his tantrums and antics. These are, after all, scary and unpleasant experiences not just for you but for him as well. If even his parents can’t stand up to his tantrums, then who will?
6. Don’t try to control your 2 year old
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When we think of “parenting,” we usually think of raising and guiding kids as they grow. It’s no surprise then that we focus so much on the kids, from controlling their choices to correcting their behavior.
Except we have it all backwards.
I’ve since learned that parenting isn’t really about the kids. It’s about us, the parents. It’s almost silly to think we can do certain things in order to control the outcome, AKA our kids.
Sure, we raise them in a way that aligns with our family values and better prepares them for their future, but we can’t go into parenting thinking we can control our kids. It’s simply impossible, and is often the reason we butt heads with them.
Because there’s nothing worse than doing something only to realize we can’t actually control what happens.
Your child might decide to wake up in a grumpy mood despite all your best attempts to start the day right. And what happens then? You might resent her for making the day difficult or lose your temper because she didn’t behave the way you thought—assumed—she would.
Instead of trying to control your child, focus on what you can control: yourself and your home environment.
You may not be able to predict when your defiant 2 year old decides to throw a fit, but you sure can control how you’ll respond.
You can’t control whether she’ll take forever to put her shoes on in the morning yet again, but you can wake her up 15 minutes earlier to give her plenty of time to do so.
Switch the focus away from your child—someone who, deep down, you can’t control—and toward yourself and your home.
7. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture
One of the reasons I found parenthood hard as a new mom was that I was always looking toward the next thing. The next milestone or stage that would somehow make whatever challenge I was currently going through feel less difficult.
But in doing that, I failed to see an important fact: this is the season I was in.
I was in such a rush to get out of each stage—from newborn sleep deprivation to the Terrible Twos—that I resented rather than accepted the difficulties.
Now, accepting the difficulties doesn’t make them go away any faster. And it’s not about “cherishing the moments” (because those moments can be hard!). But it does give you permission to ease up on yourself and know that this is all normal.
At the end of the day, these challenging moments will become a small part in your child’s life. He’ll outgrow it just as he outgrew the fussy infant stage. Focus on accepting it as the season in your life and be where you need to be.
Learning how to deal with a defiant 2 year old is not easy, especially with so many other things to juggle in your life. But we can take our cue from our little ones and avoid a few pitfalls that make our interactions with them more difficult.
For instance, don’t expect your child to behave like a rational adult or correct her behavior right away. Focus less on controlling her and more on what you can control, such as your responses and home environment.
Barking orders like a drill sergeant doesn’t work in the long run, nor does withholding your affection as a form of punishment. That said, your child does want you to hold your ground and establish boundaries in a firm but loving way.
And finally, don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. These moments can feel like the worst, especially when you’re in the thick of it. But they’re also fleeting in hindsight. This is the inevitable season you—as all parents before you—are in.
Hopefully now that you know what not to do with your defiant 2 year old, this stage can begin to feel more manageable—and perhaps a little less terrible.
Are you beginning to realize just how important it is to know how to respond to your child’s challenging behavior? In my ebook, Parenting with Purpose, you’ll discover how to prevent outbursts and handle meltdowns in an intentional, purposeful way.
Because ask yourself this: what’s your life going to look like a year or two from now if you continue with what you’re currently doing? Grab your copy of Parenting with Purpose and begin to build a strong relationship with your child today:
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