How to Discipline a Strong Willed 2 Year Old

Struggling with your toddler’s temperament? Learn how to discipline a strong willed 2 year old (and why these traits may not be so bad!).

How to Discipline a Strong Willed 2 Year Old

“She is just so stubborn, and… strong-willed,” a friend vented. She was talking about her 2 year old who was challenging her in ways she wasn’t used to.

A strong-willed child wants to be in charge and test limits. He insists to “me do it!” as he fumbles with putting on his shoes. Meanwhile, you know he won’t put them on as quickly as you can. And at 2 years old, he’s wired to challenge and push boundaries, especially with his parents.

Still, this is also the perfect stage for you to be more aware of how you talk to him so that, however inevitable these power struggles might be, they don’t have to be so difficult, or so frequent.

Below, I’ll share the tips that have worked wonders when it comes to disciplining my kids. Just doing one of these can make a drastic difference in encouraging good behavior. Take a look at how to discipline a strong willed 2 year old and turn your days around:

1. Say what you want

Do you feel like you’re constantly telling your child “no” all the time?

As frustrating as it is to hover and correct his every misbehavior, imagine what it’s like to be him and have to hear that over and over. No wonder he remains strong willed and set on doing things his way.

To help him oblige, try this trick: tell what you want, not what you don’t want.

Let’s say he’s holding a cup of juice precariously, ready to spill it at any moment. Instead of saying, “Don’t spill the juice,” you might say, “Hold the cup steady.” Or even better: “Do you want to drink the juice? Come drink it at the table.”

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2. Give your child choices

Just as challenging as it is to hear “no” all the time, so too is it to be told what to do.

Of course, as parents, we often have to make the call for our kids, regardless of how they feel about our decisions. We determine the time they wake up to the food they eat, keeping their best interests in mind.

But I’m willing to bet that, throughout the day, you can find plenty of opportunities to give your 2 year old a choice in the matter.

For instance, you might ask:

  • “Would you like to get into your pajamas yourself, or would you like me to help you up?”
  • “We’re going to the grocery store. Which jacket do you want to wear, the gray one or the orange one?”
  • “It’s time for snack. Which one do you want to start with—carrots or pretzels?”
  • “We’re going to change your diaper. Do you want to do it on the changing table, or on the floor?”

Simply having the power to choose can be enough to help him not only oblige, but take ownership and follow through with his decision. The key is that the action is non-negotiable—he needs to change his diaper or wear a jacket—but now he can give his input, too.

Get more tips about giving choices.

3. Redirect your child to an appropriate activity

Sometimes we reprimand our kids for a behavior that, in another context, is totally fine.

Let’s say your spirited child won’t stop jumping on the bed, even after you’ve already told her three times not to. What you’re really saying “no” to isn’t the jumping itself, but that she’s doing it on the bed, where she can fall and get hurt.

In fact, you might have even praised her for jumping at other times, like when she was at the trampoline park or when you two were dancing. Jumping itself is not the culprit—you simply have to redirect her to a more appropriate way to do so.

Offer guidance and say, “I know jumping is fun, but you can fall off the bed and hit your head on the side table.” Then redirect her to a similar but safer way to jump: “Let’s put the pillows on the floor and jump here instead.”

Get more tips on redirecting children’s behavior.

Redirecting Children's Behavior

4. Stay consistent

Giving in to your 2 year old’s demands can be so tempting when you’re out sheer will and patience. For instance, you end up letting him sleep in your bed, just to avoid yet another temper tantrum. Never mind that you had just spent the last hour explaining why he has to stay in his own bed for the night.

As you might imagine, he’s less likely to take you seriously the less consistent you stick to your word. One day you say no, but the next it’s a yes, adding to the confusion even more.

As hard as it is to hold your ground and stay consistent with your rules and routines, you must follow through if you want his full cooperation. You can’t let the difficulty or inconvenience of his meltdowns stop you from doing what you know is right for him.

Put the hard work in now, so that over time, your consistent response will all but stop or at least decrease the tantrums in the first place. After all, the long-term goal is to raise him into an amazing adult, including learning how to handle frustration and disappointment.

That said, you can be flexible and understanding on some matters, so long as you’re consistent with those that are non-negotiable for you and your family. For instance, sleeping in your bed might not be up for discussion, but you could allow him to watch an extra television show this weekend.

Get tips on how to follow through with consequences.

5. Respond calmly

We’ve all felt it. That urge to yell, the anger ready to erupt because your child did something so crazy that you’ve just about had it. And sometimes, it feels like reacting this way is the only thing that will finally, finally get him to listen.

Except fast forward to what happens next. How heavy everyone feels—he so frightened, you more than remorseful. Getting angry is certainly not a sustainable way to get him to listen, especially for simple, everyday tasks like finishing dinner or putting on his shoes.

Instead, respond calmly, offering comfort and empathy for the situation. Try to see the situation from his perspective. I know this is a hard ask, but in the long-term, it’s far more effective than getting upset.

For one thing, you’re modeling the very behavior you’d want him to do when he gets upset. You’re also able to use this as a teachable moment, whether it’s learning how to share with others or dealing with sadness. And you’re better able to think and make good decisions than if you were screaming or yelling yourself.

If need be, go to another room to collect yourself. No one is expecting you to go from “I’m ready to burst!” to “I’m having the best time of my life!” Even a gradual shift up the ladder to, say, “I’m still mad but I’m keeping my mouth shut” is already accomplishment enough.

6. Compromise

I no longer consider compromise as the way of the lenient parent or permissiveness. But for a while, I did: I assumed any detraction would encourage kids to sneak their way in and manipulate their parents.

That was before I learned the benefit of picking your battles. Yes, we need to establish respectful boundaries, but with room for flexibility.

Another reason to compromise? Doing so teaches your child how to compromise.

Rather than expecting the world to comply, he learns how to meet the other side halfway. He understands the other person and sees the situation from their perspective. And he feels satisfied even when his initial requests weren’t completely met.

So, how can you model a fair compromise in productive ways?

Pick scenarios you’re okay with. “I want to eat a snack right now,” he might say, a mere 15 minutes before dinner time.

“Well, you do seem a bit hungry,” you can respond. “I don’t want you to eat too much or you might lose your appetite. But you can have some of the apple slices now and save the rest for after your pasta.”

7. Respect your child

Want to know the best way to get your child on board with nearly everything you need him to do? Treat him with respect.

We adults can sometimes take this power thing to a whole new level. Because we have the authority, we forget that we’re dealing with human beings. We disrespect our kids in ways we wouldn’t other adults or our partners.

We condescend, we’re rude, we snap. And when they react in ways we don’t like, we blame them.

It all goes back to us somehow. Start fresh and respect your child as you would any other adult. When he sees and feels your genuine respect, he returns that right back at you.

8. Are you strong-willed too?

Strong-willed kids are often met with equally if not stronger willed parents.

What’s your reaction when you hear your child challenge you and test her limits? The best reaction is to stay calm, as this can be far more effective than if you challenged her right back.

Of course, you’ll still lose your temper, especially there will be times when you can’t stop yourself from yelling. Still, remind yourself to remain calm and model how to behave.

How do you know if you’re getting into a power struggle with her? You know it’s a power struggle when you’re determined to win.

Don’t make it about winning or losing, or focusing on complete obedience. Instead, accept your child and work with—not against—her temperament so that both of you “win.”


Learning how to discipline a strong willed 2 year old keeps you on your toes, doesn’t it? But as you can see, simple shifts in how you respond can make a world of a difference.

Start by using positive language and say what you want, not what you don’t want. Give him choices in the matter so he feels more empowered and invested in following through with his decision.

Acknowledge the impulses driving him to behave the way he does and redirect him to a more appropriate activity. Stay consistent with your word and follow through—this will avoid confusion and set clear expectations. And finally, respond calmly so you diffuse—not feed into—potential power struggles.

No more yogurt smears or crackers on the floor, friend! By using positive parenting techniques like these, you’re setting him up for long-lasting change from the get go.

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  1. I hate that I’m losing my patience and raising my voice. We have a 2 year old and a 9 month old. My husband and I are both exhausted and struggling with my daughter’s “terrible twos.” I don’t feel like we handle things right by raising our voices with her or threatening to take things away. But sometimes she just runs away, tells me no, or screams. And meal times are absolutely awful. It feels like we can’t have a good supper together because she is such a goofball at the table. She refuses to eat, gets out of her seat, and screams when she doesn’t get her own way. This is our struggle as it’s really our only family time besides the weekend.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Sarah, It can be rough dealing with behavior at this age, and with a baby, too. Losing our tempers can definitely backfire, as they just pick up our energy and feel even more anxious and angry. One thing that I’ve found to help is to spot the times when she IS behaving well and to point it out. For instance, thank her for bringing her cup to the sink, point out how she got her pajamas on her own, or that she really helped you out by putting her shoes on right away. The more positive reinforcement she gets, the more likely she’ll focus on that kind of behavior and less of the one you don’t want to see. Hang in there, mama <3

  2. My 2 year old has been screaming lately which is no longer conducive in a house with a 3 month old. I feel myself getting so mad when trying to quiet her which makes her mad and turns into a tantrum/fight/bad parenting moment. Then of course I feel terrible after. I need to find a better way to stop the screaming without being triggered.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      Hi Allyson! It’s definitely rough with a newborn in tow to keep your temper in check. That was also one of my triggers, especially since you put so much effort into getting the baby to sleep and all the fighting with the older child feels especially petty and unnecessary. Hang in there, mama <3 It's a rough period. Knowing that her screaming triggers you can allow you to pause and respond in a different, even if just slightly better way than getting upset.