Disobedience and Defiance

Almost every child will go through times when they don’t do as they are asked, or seem to deliberately break rules. Also common is digging in the heels and refusing to do things, often accompanied by a loud “NO!”

The first step is to keep calm yourself. You are the grown up and it will all get sorted out. But if you get flustered, or start seeming scary to your child, it will probably just get worse


We have to learn how to comply

Doing as you are asked is actually quite complicated, as the picture on the left shows!

For a small child, that is quite a lot to manage all at once. The truth is that the brain systems that make all this work are still developing, and that means it will go wrong quite a lot of the time.

Here’s a classic example. The toddler knows she is not to touch the TV. But she really wants to – it is all about exploring. The need to explore can be stronger than the desire to do as she is told. So she touches the TV, looks round at you and says, “no …?”

Annoying, but don’t take it personally. What has happened is it has all come in the wrong order – the “no” rule was just not strong enough.

So what does this child need? Punishment will just make her scared or even more curious. Patiently explaining again or distracting when you see she is on the way to the TV tend to work eventually.

On this page you can find some ideas to help children develop the skills they need in order to do as you want. Click on the ones that you need:
Understanding what you want
Stopping what they are doing
Be able to do what you are wanting
Resist doing the “wrong” thing
Feel good about having managed it
And remember that most toddler skills come and go – tomorrow may be a better day for everyone

Understanding what you want
  • make sure you are using simple language, and short instructions
  • if it is a complicated task, practice it with your child
  • use all the tricks for building understanding that you can find here
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    Stopping what they are doing
    • make sure you have your child’s attention – get down on their level, use their name, give them time to attend to you
    • for changes you know are always difficult, give notice well before the change. For example, if it is time to stop playing and go out, talk about this a few minutes before, remind your child a few times
    • it is about stopping something they really love, help them know when they can go back to it – “we’ll come back and see Nana tomorrow!”

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    Be able to do it

    The more you can help your child develop control over movement and coordination, the easier they will find it to do what you are wanting
    Reflect on whether you are asking too much – most toddlers can’t be quiet for long, and the forbidden thing/place may just be too attractive
    A lot of what we want children to do involves moving, or co-ordination – click here for ideas to develop these

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    Stopping themselves from doing the “wrong” thing

    A helpful first step is to see if you can understand the point of the misbehaviour. A lot of forbidden things are actually quite interesting – are there ways you can safely explore them with your child? Then they’ll soon have had enough of it

    • usually we want children to do something that is less attractive than what they had in mind. For example, putting your coat on is much more boring than playing with a toy.
    • make sure your child understands the point of what you are asking. Instead of “don’t touch the cooker”, which just makes the cooker more interesting, try “the cooker is too hot …”
    • never rely on obedience to keep your child safe – it is just not strong enough at this age
    • develop your child’s self-control skills using games like these

    Remember this will need a lot of practice as it is hard for children at first.

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    Feel good about having managed all that

    Your child will learn faster if you let them know what they are doing RIGHT than what they are getting WRONG. If you praise good sitting at the table, your child will do it more
    try not to get into rewards and bribery though – this tends to get more expensive as you go along. The best reward for your child is praise and cuddles
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