Christine Raches, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and board certified behavior analyst with Indiana University Health, explains why kids this age are so willful and what parents can do to limit power struggles.
As every parent knows, the toddler years can test the patience and resolve of even the toughest among us. As kids near their second birthday, it starts to seem like every question you ask or request you make of them gets a loud “no”—it’s their way or the highway. But what seems like stubbornness and defiance is actually completely normal behavior.
“Kids this age are undergoing so many developmental changes that make them act this way, and it doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with them or your parenting skills,” Dr. Raches explains.
For starters, your toddler now realizes that he’s his own person, and he’s excited to experiment with his newfound independence. “What seems like defiance is actually just your child exerting his autonomy and trying to figure out what he can and can’t do,” Dr. Raches says. This isn’t a bad thing—kids learn through cause and effect and by trial and error—but the ensuing power struggles can be frustrating. Complicating matters is that kids this age are naturally curious about the world and want to explore; however, they don’t realize that they lack the physical and cognitive skills to do everything they desire. So when you have to say no to something your child wants to do, there’s a good chance he’ll resist.
How can you preserve your authority (and sanity) without stifling your child’s independence? Dr. Raches offers these tips:
Pick your battles. If your child tries to defy you in a fairly trivial situation, it can be helpful to let her do what she wants. “If she insists on getting dressed herself, you might let her do so on the weekend when you have time to spare,” Dr. Raches suggests. This way, your child feels like she has some of the control she craves. Offering choices—say, green beans or peas with dinner—can also help satisfy her need to make her own decisions. Don’t offer more than two options, however; any more than that will overwhelm her.
Avoid saying “no” too often. All kids need to hear the word “no,” but if you use it constantly, your child may start tuning it out or becoming even more defiant. “Rather than saying ‘No running,’ for example, you could say ‘I need you to walk,’ which is a more positive interaction,” Dr. Raches says. Look for opportunities to praise your child for good behavior as well so it doesn’t feel like he’s always being disciplined or punished.
Know your child’s triggers. If she always fights you when she has to get in her car seat, for example, you can be prepared with a distraction or a way to make the situation fun. “Explain that once she’s buckled in her seat, she can have her tablet or a book, or you’ll play music she likes,” Dr. Raches suggests. But if your child still resists, don’t keep negotiating (especially in a non-negotiable situation like this one.) “Simply say, ‘We’re not going to do anything until you get in your car seat,’” she says.
Don’t give in. It’s tempting to cave to your child’s demands when he’s screaming (especially if he’s having a meltdown in public), but it’s crucial to stand your ground. “Once you give in, your child learns that a tantrum will eventually get him what he wants,” Dr. Raches says. If you’re in public, take your child to an area where he won’t disturb others and wait until he calms down, or cut your losses and leave.
-- By Jessica Brown