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Defiant Toddlers and how to cope.

Updated: May 10, 2020

Defiance. It’s a right of passage for toddlers isn’t it? We all expect it and know it will happen. So why then is it SO hard to deal with?

Your child essentially is acting up because they have a need. Whatever that might be. Normally it will be due to big changes in their life (big changes for a toddler may seem small to us), or because they haven’t had enough (quality) time with you for their liking.

So the defiance normally happens at a time of heightened stress- we need to get somewhere. We are in public. Everyone is tired. We just want things to be easier.

But that is exactly why it’s happening. Children are sponges for atmosphere and picking up emotions. They pick up on the mood around them and react instinctively. They are also desperate to be loved and absolutely hate feeling shame. But they are so little still and don’t know how to articulate these things so the minute they feel they have disappointed us or have done something we find irritating, their reaction naturally is often to resist or fight.

The first job for us is to try our best not to get them to that point. The point where they are like a little version of a drunk person, making no sense, refusing to do anything that is good for them and sometimes doing that annoying jelly legged thing and throwing themselves backwards or refusing to stand up. This means trying to be one step ahead, being in tune with them and their needs. Making sure we don’t let them get hungry or thirsty. Thirst is a surprisingly easy one to forget and can cause the worst meltdowns.

Yes we are tired but addressing children with irritation is never going to win. You’ve just got to stop doing it. That might make you think “but I haven’t got time to negotiate” or “I’m too tired to battle”. And that may be the case but putting in a bit of effort and energy will actually shorten the battle and improve chances for connection rather than conflict.

My top tips:

⭐️ Give constant updates on what you’re doing ‘now’ and ‘next’ and what your expectations are.

⭐️Use short instructions.

⭐️Use eye contact (and touch if needed- eg a hand on theirs).

⭐️Use visuals. Make one for your most testing time of day. Pictures of what you need to happen/ what you expect.

⭐️LOADS of positive praise all the rest of the time for even the teeniest of things. The non-things like sitting up at the table or just when they’re chatting to you about something, compliment them all the time on how lovely they are and how much you love them.

⭐️Use energy, even if you don’t have it, fake it. Be decisive. Children can tell when we don’t mean something or doubt ourselves.

⭐️Don’t say too much but mean what you say.

⭐️Spend quality time with them talking, reading or playing (5-10mins is fine if that’s all you’ve got) here and there but make sure your time is undivided and there are no distractions or phones in sight.

⭐️Know your triggers (often related to how your parents reacted to you as a child). Be conscious of these and think them through in a way that assesses them. Is what your child doing so bad? Your response is an instinctive one built within you but it CAN be controlled and changed. Try and change it.

If you’re doing all this and a meltdown still happens then give them space to live through it. Sit down with them and let them thrash it out and cry and scream. Tell them you are there for a cuddle when they need it. But stay with them so they know you mean it. This allows them to feel what they are feeling and will help de-escalate things more quickly than any other kind of resistance.

They will calm down knowing you are there and they are forgiven and there is no shame- and then you can move on. Maybe you’ll be late, but you were going to be later anyway. At least now you’ll feel connected rather than guilty or angry.

Children thrive with connection and love. In your most testing moments remember this.


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