How To Stop Toddler Defiance with Positive Guidance

Defiant toddlers are often mislabeled as having a behavior problem.  In most cases, toddler defiance is actually just a sign of healthy development. Toddlers that like to say NO and “put their foot down” are not only developing well, they are actively exploring their emotional intelligence. Positive guidance can help toddlers grow well and thrive. 

Mauren Healy, author and expert on highly sensitive children says “The act of defiance is displaying an inordinately high level of emotional intelligence — your children are actually listening to their inner wisdom.”

Toddler defiance is usually age appropriate and at the same time very challenging.

“Gena is constantly climbing on our garden rocks. No matter how much I say no, put her in time out or explain she is going to get hurt, the next day, I find her doing it all over again. It’s like my words have no meaning at all and time out has zero effect.”

“Jacob tries to reach into his brother’s crib every single day. No matter how often I tell him not to, he does it. Then he hits his brother’s head, giggles and runs off! Meanwhile I scold him and run after him. Every day the same!”

What’s Behind Toddler Defiance

Gena’s and Jacob’s behavior really is developmentally expected. All toddlers (children between the ages of 1 and 3) are working each day on:

  • exploring surroundings
  • experimenting with social interactions
  • repeating actions to confirm learning
  • developing their sense of self

Toddlers also excel at resisting parental control! Toddlers love to touch exactly what you just said not to. This kind of defiance is a child’s developing sense of self combined with an impulsive brain.

Defiance is also a clue that your calm and confident guidance is needed. 

Young children often engage and repeat behaviors that elicit new, continuous or unusual responses from a caring parent.
Your toddler climbs, bites, kicks and you respond with yelling, screeching, prohibiting and bribing? Well, your reaction is really interesting.

Andrea Nair, Parenting educator  says  “I view defiance as communication gone sideways. When we can listen, understand what is wrong in the child’s world, and problem solve, behavior often improves.” 

What’s the secret to turning toddler defiance into cooperation? 

defiant toddler help

The real secret to ending defiance in toddlers is to reframe it.

Forget defiance and misbehaving, bad children. Kids are not bad. Kids are not manipulative (as in evil with a plan to stress you out) They are however very creative about getting their needs met.

Stop toddler defiance by changing how you approach it:

  1. Reframe Strive to see your toddler and preschooler as an inquisitive, learning, capable, curious child.
    The change in mindset brings so much more space in which to offer guidance instead of constant correction.
  2.  Child Proof Tired of saying “don’t touch that”? House proof so reachable items are safe. While it may seem annoying, it’s more annoying and counter productive to your relationship to be constantly saying NO.
  3. Supervise and set limits with the intent to guide and keep safety in check. Hovering and warning too often chips at self esteem and the child’s sense of capability. Instead be sure to give access to age appropriate experiences.
  4. Permit experimentation as much as possible, fancy set ups and glittery activities are not necessary if they aren’t your thing. Simply allowing children a chance to be fully involved in self care is a great start. So is a simple walk in the park to touch leaves, jump in puddles and roll in the grass.
  5. Skip Punishments and Practice setting limits in a calm manner and expect that tears, validating and listening will have to follow.

At playgroup last year, Ricky was very interested in the heating dial in our kitchen. If he climbed on a stool he could just barely reach it. It wasn’t safe to allow him to touch this dial. He could spend a good half hour fighting with anyone that would try to stop him. This dynamic was not helpful to the group or to Ricky.  One morning, I asked him if I could show him the dial. I lifted him up to it and said “this is a heating dial, you are very interested in touching it. I see that. This is not safe for you. You can look at it with me and I will not let you touch it.” He looked, reached for it and I said again “you like this heating dial and I will not let you touch it.” He started to cry, lowering his head onto my shoulder. I waited about a minute if that, he lifted his head and said “play blocks?” So we walked to the blocks and he played happily. The following week, he entered the kitchen area, glanced at the dial. This time his mother lifted him up, showed him the dial and said “I will not let you touch the knob.” Signaling to get down, Ricky ran off to play. The dial and climbing on everything to get to it wasn’t an issue any longer. 

Setting this kind of kind limit worked because limits were set with kindness and in a clear way. It wasn’t a back and forth with “get down, stop that, i already said, go play…” but a definitive limit that incorporated listening, validation, acknowledgement and acceptance of his disappointment.

Here is a quick check list that may help with turning toddler defiance into cooperation 

  • are limits truly clear, set with calm and kindness
  • are surroundings set up well and with safety in mind
  • are you providing enough and age appropriate information
  • does your child have access to interesting play/discovery opportunities
  • are you connecting one on one before making a request
  • are you respectful of your child’s needs
  • are you willing to listen and accept the feelings that come with your limit or request

The next time your toddler is being defiant, try to reframe and respond with positive guidance. It’s a small change that can truly make a big difference. You can find more ideas for setting limits and encouraging cooperation in the Terrific Toddlers: Positive Discipline for the First Five Years course. 

Peace and Be well,


parenting class toddler

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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

15 thoughts on “How To Stop Toddler Defiance with Positive Guidance

  • Teresa C

    I was sent your article from my daughter in law. My grandsonis 2 1/2 & has a normal ‘testing’ defiance. What I feel is the problem is that he becomes physically aggressive when reprimanded by hitting. biting or throwing things to the family member initiating the discipline. He’s bitten hard enough to break skin, hit hard enough to startle & broken a big screen tv w/ a thrown toy. He shows much anger @ the time & yet he is very mad @ himself too. He is a very loving, intelligent child otherwise. His parents think this is normal behavior, I do not. I think it would be wise to have him accessed by EI. If nothing else, maybe we could all learn a positive way to assist my grandson through this trying period.

    • Dear Teresa
      You seem like a very caring grandmother. While it can be developmentally and age related behaviors to act out with biting, hitting, throwing and kicking, it is important for development that a child be helped to understand their reactions. Limiting such behaviors is one of a few steps in teaching self regulation (how to calm down and makw better choices) accepting, validating and naming the feelings is another step. “You seem mad. I will stay with you. I will not let you hit.” For example. Its not possible to detect a developmental delay without knowing the child and history, but certainly asking the pediatrician for some assistance, if the parents ao choose can be a good starting point. Aggression or acting out behaviors can have many causes, learning to set limits and using positive parenting tools can certainly help in many cases. i hope all works out well.

  • I have similar problems with my 2 and 1/2 year old son climbing on things to reach whatever he likes. He will focus on alot of the same things for days. Anytime he is told “no” he will often times throw himself down onto the floor or against the wall and start screeching at the top of his lungs. I find it difficult to follow any of your advice in your articles as I have a hard time keeping my cool, and he cannot hear me over his own screeching for me to even talk to him about things.

    • Karen

      Don’t try to talk to him when he is screaming. Try to stay near him to make sure he is safe and wait for him to calm down. Then give him a hug and talk to him. So hard but try to stay calm, he will eventually follow your lead x

  • Lynda

    Wonderful advice as always. Thank you.
    I have a 17month old who quite enjoys pushing and grabbing the faces of children around her age/size (and her 3yo brother). She is quick to say sorry with a cuddle and kiss if prompted but isn’t deterred at all, even if the victim is crying/distressed from her attack. I’m not sure how to approach this behaviour. I do believe it is a way to get my attention, however a conscious effort to connect regularly and individually with her hasn’t changed the behaviour at all. I feel she is too young to truly understand why her behaviour is unacceptable and there is only so much redirection one can do! Any tips or ideas??

    • Lynda, I wonder if you can observe and notice when this happens most? If you can spot what leads up to the face grabbing you can hopefully step in and prevent some of it. I know it can be hard and I don’t mean you should hover (that’s not helpful or fun for either of you)…Beyond redirection, I see a request for learning how to express affection and interest here. So I would playfully explain how to touch and greet friends. You can use your hands to model, and dolls or puppets to pretend play “hello, I’m puppy, I want to say hello. I say hello by touching your hand. Oh hello there hand! let’s play” Learning personal space and boundaries is an ongoing process from 1 through 6 years and even beyond. I hope that helps!

      • Lynda

        Thank you. I have noticed she will do this for a number of reasons: to get my attention, to retaliate, to protect her domain and sometimes to just to show who is boss. She seems to experiment with face grabbing to see the reactions of others (child, me).
        I love the idea of role playing and will implement that ASAP. I do feel it is a phase however want to make sure I’m not encouraging it unknowingly.
        Thanks again.

        • Lynda, if you find this is going on to retaliate or show “who is boss” an option is to very calmly, take her hands, hold them in yours and simply say “I will not let you hurt (name of child)” and hold her hands until you are sure she understands the limit. This may be met with crying, in which case you may need to step away together for a moment, but if you do the role playing so new skills are being learned and when needed combine it with a clear, calm limit I would guess new skills will emerge and this will pass!

  • Debbie A

    Thank you so much for your insights! I have a very loving 2+. She is extremely defiant! When she gets anyone upset she says “sorry I got you upset”etc. She is not a calm toddler, although she’s very friendly, but I find it so embarrassing and it does hurt me when her teachers/Sunday school volunteer ties are good side to her ” naughty” side, for example she does not listen, she does not sit down or listens, really I know kids are diff but I have seen those her age and even younger listen to their moms. How can I help her before she starts school when she turns 3?! A very worried mom!

    • Hi Debbie,
      Two can be such a fun and exciting age…two year olds are ready to explore and learn everything, and they are willing to repeat experiments as many times as it takes to understand something….therefore…it’s also often exausting. Getting 2 year olds to listen is all about channeling their cooperation, not so much convincing them to do as we say but helping them understand the routine and family expectations in a kind yet clear manner. What does this sound like? Instead of saying “can you find your shoes for mama? can you put them on? we are going to leave now, okay?” or “GET YOUR SHOES ON, OUT WE GO;cOME ON::::” We change it all around to cooperative, calm, confident words “Time for shoes!! I’m finding mine, here they are, can you find yours? Time to put them on.” and “Time to Leave. Here we go!” This same kind of clear guidance goes for everything. As for getting ready for school – I don’t mind to sound terribly nostalgic and annoying….. but enjoy the now. Your daughter will only be 2 this year. At 3 and with your guidance as she grows in this year, she will become ready for school. Instead of worrying that she “can’t” something, look at all the wonderful things she CAN do. hope that helps!!

      • Jen L

        Hi Ariadne,
        Wonderful advice. I just had a very similar experience with my 2.5 year old. So, after saying, “Look, Mommy has her shoes on! Would you like to put your socks on or would you like Mommy to” I got a “No”. Then I said, “OK, it looks like you need a minute before you put your socks on, I’ll give you a minute and when I return we will put on your socks together”. I came back, and received a “No”. I then asked if she’d like to sit on my lap to put on her socks and shoes and got a yes! She sat down, but refused to put on her socks. What next?! What else should I be doing?

        • Hi Jen,

          In such situations when putting on shoes really isn’t a choice but it’s necessary (because you are leaving the house for example) than it’s perfectly alright to walk your child through getting the shoes on with your help. It’s important to keep your tone respectful and to validate the fact that your child was having a hard time making a choice. if you negotiate over and over again and don’t offer clear guidance your toddler stays stuck and unable to cooperate. In our terrific toddlers course we visit many ways to reduce defiance and also how to set KIND and FIRM limits that help your tot feel ready and able to say YES to your requests. Giving choices is a great tool, but we sometimes open up a trap of negotiations when that isn’t the actual intent. Learning to balance kind and firm in a respectful way can help reduce such refusals. hope that helps!

  • A.S.

    I have a newly 2yo & a newborn. The 2 yo is much more active than other kids his age. He is very bright & learns quickly, knows all of his colors, count to 10 & identify numbers, memorized books, even long ones like Dr. Seuss. However, he rarely just sits & plays. We have a problem with him throwing things, his toys, utensils, anything. He does it both for fun & to retaliate. For example, he will build with his blocks for a few minutes & then start throwing them up in the air or run into different rooms to throw them. He is very physical & likes to crash, jump, & tumble. He likes to get things he knows are off limits or do things to get a reaction out of us & often laughs while hitting or kicking during diaper changes. We have tried ignoring, sitting & thinking, time out, rewording (feet down please instead of no kicking, blocks are for building, you can throw your ball but blocks stay at the table, ect), taking toys away (he just says bye bye toy & laughs). He is very sweet & good with the baby other than not knowing how big he is sometimes, but he is very defiant in general & we can’t find a good way to shape his behavior or consequences that work.

  • Cheryl

    Hi Ariadne,

    Thanks for this great advice. My 2.5 year old twin girls have recently become competitive and aggressive and have begun to hit and push each other. I read your advice to Lynda above and I do physically come between them and calmly use “I will not let you…” when I can but I’m also trying not to hover, and to give them space to play and work things out together. It seems to be a very quick escalation from physical play and disagreement to physical violence at this age and I often arrive after the incident, when someone is already hurt or crying. I try to see to the injured party first but they’re often both crying, as a scuffle has ensued. I’m not quite sure how to address this. I do sportscast and comfort, “You’re hurt…”, etc. but they then go on to blame the other for their injuries. They’re not interested when I suggest a couple of ways they could make the other person feel better. We have always given them lots of positive feedback for being kind, gentle, good sisters, etc., which they are, generally. This behaviour is new but seems increasingly frequent. Other normal defiance I’m ok with. I know it’s a phase that will pass and treat it with calm guidance and limits when needed. Maybe it is a personal space/boundaries issue or an issue of developing identity? I imagine this is just more challenging for twins. I should note that although they share a room they have mostly separate possessions, have never been dresses identically and are rarely addressed collectively. Any advice is welcome!

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