Does your child refuse to listen, or does the opposite of what you say? Learn 7 huge mistakes to avoid making with a defiant 2 year old.
I try not to call it the Terrible Twos, but sometimes the label can feel so accurate, doesn’t it?
Maybe your toddler 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 being sassy, screaming, or biting, leaving you ragged from trying to discipline her strong-willed personality.
If this sounds familiar, you’re 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 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 and refused to let it go.
There were many days when I felt both guilty for how I reacted and even resentful to him for “making it hard on me.”
7 things not to do with a defiant 2 year old
So, how do you discipline a defiant 2 year old? Well, it was during these times I learned a great deal about this age.
For instance, I learned that common reactions and discipline methods we’ve all heard were not effective. In fact, doing the opposite seemed to work better. I also discovered that my son wanted me to hold my ground and set limits (I just needed to do so in a better way).
And that I had to focus on what I could control—and it certainly wasn’t my child—but rather myself and how I responded.
I wanted to share the mistakes I made so you can avoid them with your own toddler. Here are several important reminders you should not do:
1. Don’t bark orders
With clean-up time, I’ll admit: I sometimes sounded 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 seemed to work. The kids perked 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 talking to them 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 effective way to go.
Because there always comes that time when your defiant child will push back. She’ll refuse to do what she’s told or will do 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.
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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 many of us, you begin the conversation by correcting her bad behavior:
“Don’t hit your brother!”
“Please stop whining and come and eat breakfast already.”
“What is it, now?”
Often, the intention is right: you want to make sure she knows her defiant behavior is wrong or stop her from repeating it.
But young children 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 her behavior, you connect with her first? You can do this by showing empathy and acknowledging her motives first, long before talking about what she did.
Let’s say she 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:
“You seem upset because he took your toy. I’d be upset, too.”
In those two sentences, you showed that you understood why she’s mad, and that it’s normal to feel that way. Acknowledging the motives that drove her to misbehave is one of the best ways to break down her toddler defiance and get her to listen.
3. Don’t withhold affection as punishment
Sometimes it feels like nothing gets through that you resort to withholding the one thing you know your child wants: your love and affection.
At times, it seems to work with her behavior problems. She listens when you harden your face and takes you seriously when you 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 she needs, it’s the reassurance that you love her no matter what.
Even when she misbehaves or ruins the entire day with a tantrum. Even when she refuses to budge or makes an issue out of every little thing. She can expect consequences, but one of them should never be the loss of your affection.
In fact, instead of sending her 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.
Because this is when she needs you most. Not only when she’s calm 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 2-year-olds are sometimes, don’t we?
When you butt heads with your toddler, you might assume he’s thinking along the same lines as you are. That he’s a mini adult ready to see reason and understand why you need to leave for school or not climb on the coffee table.
But that mindset only clouds a truth we sometimes fail to see: that he’s still… a kid.
His brain is far from fully-formed, making him less likely to control impulsive behavior or plan for the future. He can’t communicate complex emotions, wants, or needs as well as you and I can. And he doesn’t have the many years of experience that we adults do.
Despite his strides and milestones, he’s still a child. He may not understand why he has to stop playing at bedtime, or why he shouldn’t throw a fit because he can’t have an extra cup of juice.
Learn how to handle 2 year old bedtime tantrums.
5. Don’t be too lenient
Dealing with defiant toddlers 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 child to stop watching television. You’re barely able to take care of the new baby, so you let him make a mess of the house and break from routines. Or you’ve just about had it because none of your efforts seem to work anyway.
Despite his behavior and initial reactions, he actually wants you to set boundaries. Yep, even on how long he can watch television or cleaning up after himself.
Boundaries give him 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 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 he needs you to hold your ground? He needs to know you can stand up to his behavioral issues with patience. 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 temper tantrums, then who will?
6. Don’t control your child
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 them, 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 to control them or the outcome.
Sure, we raise them in a way that aligns with our family values and better prepares them for their future. And we might even resort to fear, threats, and bribes to get them to comply. But at the end of the day, we can’t actually control them, and nor should we want to.
After all, you can imagine how ill-equipped they’ll be to make choices as adults when we’ve made nearly every decision for them.
Your defiant 2 year old might decide to wake up in a grumpy mood despite your best attempts to start the day right. And what happens then? You might resent him for making the day difficult or lose your temper because he didn’t behave the way you thought—or assumed—he would.
Instead of trying to control him, focus on what you can control: yourself and your home environment.
You may not be able to predict when he decides to throw a fit, but you can control how you’ll respond. You can’t control how long he takes to put his shoes on, but you can wake him up 15 minutes earlier to give him plenty of time to do so.
Switch the focus away from him—someone who, deep down, you can’t control—and toward yourself and your home.
Learn how to discipline a toddler without hitting and yelling.
7. Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture
As a new mom, I found parenting extra hard because 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 so, I failed to see an important fact: this was 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 my current circumstances.
Now, accepting the difficulties doesn’t make them go away any faster. And it’s not about “cherishing every moment” (because those moments can be hard!). But it does give you permission to ease up on yourself and know that this is all normal.
As I say in my book, You Are Enough:
“Really be there for your kids, through happy moments and tantrums. Hold them when they’re ecstatic and when they’re upset. Don’t blame having kids or motherhood for yet another hectic day—it’s not their fault. Choose instead to stop the power struggles and show empathy. Let it go.”
At the end of the day, these challenging moments will become a small part in your child’s life. She’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. 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, like 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, she 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’re in.
Hopefully now that you know what not to do, this stage can begin to feel more manageable—and perhaps a little less terrible.
Get more tips:
- 8 Mistakes You’re Making When Your 2 Year Old Refuses to Sleep
- How to Stop Your Toddler Whining (Even When You’ve Tried Everything)
- 5 Things to Remember when You’re Losing Your Temper with Your Toddler
- 5 Tips to Handle a Clingy Toddler
- 4 Things to Remember When You Get Angry at Your Child
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Oh, boy. After reading just to tip number 3, I think my child is out of control. I cannot tell my daughter she can’t have something, watch something, go somewhere, etc. I apologize first, always, and in the sweetest voice tell her what she can’t do, then i try to explain. Before I can make another word out after the initial “no”, I’m smacked, my cheeks are scratched/pulled, or I’m kicked. She will clench her teeth while she does this, you can see she’s trying her hardest. On top of that, she will scream at the TOP OF HER LUNGS. For literally, as long as her 2 1/2 year old lungs can. In the store, checkout line, in the car, outside, inside, going to bed, and don’t even MENTION naptime. She will push me out of rooms, slam doors in my face, she only does any of these defiant things to me. Grammy? Nope. Papa? Nope. Any other aunts/uncles? Nope. Baby daddy and I have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at points; maybe shes the first quadpolar. Who knows? I have tried time outs, i have tried talking/understanding with her, i have tried holding her until she stops flailing (internet….wtf) & I even tried popping her on the butt for a short time if she physically hurts me…to which she usually laughs. Thinks its a game. What do i do? She cant attend any daycare or preschool like this.
Nina Garcia says
Hugs, Jackie! It can definitely be a challenge when kids behave that way. One thing that popped up for me is the fact that she only does this with you and not others, and in that case, ask yourself what about your relationship or behavior is letting her think she can get away with this behavior. We teach people how to treat us, including our kids, so focus on nipping it in the bud before it escalates. No need to be “the boss” about it, but do demand in a kind but firm way that you expect to be treated with respect, just as you wouldn’t tolerate others treating you that way. And more important, treat her with the same respect you want her to show you as well. Also, show her that “you’ve got this,” that you are not going to let your external environment, including her behavior, determine how you are going to feel. It’ll take some practice, but this is why being calm and collected even in the face of tantrums works wonders. Your own behavior, energy and mood will rub off on her more easily when you can be calm and in control. I hope that helps, Jackie! xo, Nina
This is my 2 year old son to a T. Except he constantly destroys my house floods my toilet draws on walls throws stuff at our pictures to knock them off the wall tears cloths out of my dresser and closet and breaks anything he can with rocks he sneaks inside. As soon as I’m breastfeeding my newborn he instantly finds all he can to destroy and instantly destroys it. I hope he is just experiencing jealousy about his new baby sister and also just experiencing his terrible 2’s, but for some reason I don’t feel he is ever going to stop acting as terrible as he is..
Nina Garcia says
Big hugs, Kayley! That can’t be easy, especially with a new baby. I agree that this is likely a response to the new baby, as well as his age. That said, I wonder if he’s also being reinforced doing these behaviors because of the reactions he gets. Kids tend to continue behaviors that get them attention, even “negative” ones like getting in trouble. Try praising him for every little positive thing he does, no matter how small, so that he can see that it’s these kinds of behaviors that get reinforced. And see if you can spend one-on-one time with him, completely dedicated to him, so he doesn’t feel left out. Good luck, mama! This will pass soon!