This is why your toddler is defiant and what to do about it

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We’ve all wondered about the sly look that children do when they are aware that they are making a mistake but still do it. We wonder whether they are having this infamous “bad temper” just to irritate us, or are they badly disciplined? What if we added a new option and said that in most cases, this behavior is part of your child’s development?

The Stages of Piaget

Jean Piaget defined different stages for the development of children: Sensorimotor Stage: Birth through about 2 years, Preoperational Stage: Ages 2 through 7, Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7 through 11 and Formal Operational Stage: Ages 11 and older. In the stage between 2 and 7 years, pre-operative period, children develop different skills, namely egocentrism (the inability to see other points of view besides theirs, in your head, the children consider that everyone sees the situation in the same way, analyzable in mountain experience) and the understanding of conservation – children of this age can only pay attention to one characteristic.

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Illustration by Joshua Seong. © Verywell, 2018.

Imagine the experience of the water glasses: we have a tall, narrow glass and a small, wide glass and although they carry the same amount of liquid, for the child the highest always carries more liquid because they can’t conceive the width of the glass as another characteristic that influences the volume of the liquid.

At this age children also begin to communicate through symbols, through role-playing while assuming other identities, but they still can’t make logical choices with the information at their disposal. Imagine this situation, if you ask your 2-year-old son if he has a brother, he will say yes, but if you ask him who your brother’s brother is, he will not be able to respond.

This may be the main reason that leads to the type of behaviors associated with defiance. The fact that the child cannot make the logical choices, therefore, resulting in the unwanted behaviors. At this age children do not have enough maturity to be able to understand the different situations.

How to Help Children During This Process

As in any day-to-day situation, it is critical that it be perceivable why a given situation does not happen as one would expect, to understand the error and to figure out how to do it better.

The same applies to children at this age. When the child is asked to perform a task and she cannot understand it and then perform it as intended, it is necessary not only to repeat the task but to analyze the mistake made.

An exhaustive analysis is not necessary because it can be counterproductive. The important thing is to speak carefully, calmly and motivationally to the child, to analyze together and allow him to be able to reflect on why it was a mistake and how to do better for the next attempt.

Practicing this type of exercise is very useful, as well as assisting the development of the child; it allows the child to develop a tolerance for frustration, identification of the error and the ability to believe in himself and to be aware that he can modify this behavior.

This process can be applied to any situation. Imagine inappropriate behavior that the child has, instead of punishment or time out, try talking to the child, analyzing what was done wrong, in order to experience the desired behavior more often. At this age, children know more than they can demonstrate, but the problem is they do not have the tools to do demonstrate it.

This means that even when a child engages in unwanted behaviors, they understand that they are wrong and know what is expected of them but they cannot help the situation because they lack logical thinking, the logical connection between things and situations.

A Simple Suggestion

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If we are talking about a two-year-old child, where one of their main activities is playing, making games, flipping through colorful books, it may be important to adapt our communication to the way they like to communicate and learn. Try to create a map with the activities to perform. Use their favorite cartoons and create cards with pictures of each activity they should do, namely, brushing their teeth, going to bed, wearing their pajamas, washing their hands, brushing their hair, and so on.

Create an order in which they should be used and, thus, you will not be giving orders, it will be the cartoon to recommend in a playful way the execution of these activities. By the age of four years old, the activities will need to be revamped and changed to appropriate age developed activities.

Regarding what we said earlier, unwanted behavior does not mean that you do not need to be alerted to the error, but you do not always do so assertively. Choose the behavior you want to address, analyze whether it is a learning opportunity for your child and analyze everything with it, promote different solutions and adaptive behaviors.

help with defiant child
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Written by Inês Santos

Inês is a psychologist with several years of experience working with children and teenagers in different contexts. She loves to share her knowledge to help other people and writes based not only based on scientific evidence, but also on the experience she has accumulated through her work.