7 ways to discipline a toddler who deliberately disobeys

How do you deal when your tot refuses to listen to you? We have expert advice…

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"Liam, pick up your toys!”, “Serena, put on your shoes!” Parenting a toddler sure feels like you’re running a boot camp at times!

You constantly give your little one frequent instructions, except that with 2- and 3-year-olds, you don’t always get that cooperation you’re looking for. Raise your hands if your tot retorts “No!” more often than “Yes, mummy”. Yes, we’ve all been there.

I thought raising a baby was tough ― then I met my toddler and changed my mind,” jokes mum Natalie Lim. “Trying to get through to my tot is often the most frustrating thing I have to do on a daily basis.”

If it feels like your tot has morphed from a sweet baby into a defiant tot overnight, you’re not imagining things. Shortly after his first birthday, junior has realised that he is a separate individual from mummy and daddy. So, he’s trying hard to assert his new-found independence on everyone and in every situation.

However, your tot’s language skills are still developing, which means communication is not their strongest suit. Nor is logic, patience or self-control.

“In a nutshell, toddlers want what they want, when they want it and the word ‘no’ or ‘me can do’ are frequent words in their vocabulary,” says Fiona Maher O' Sullivan, a counsellor at Incontact Counselling and Training.

Why defiance can actually be a good thing
Your kewpie’s need to take control of every situation may be frustrating for you as a parent, but it benefits your child because by being assertive, they are motivating themselves to make things happen, O’Sullivan points out. Doing things for themselves also builds your kiddo’s confidence.

Instead of immediately jumping to a conclusion that your child is out purposely to push your buttons, use your active listening skills to ask questions first.

Picture this: your toddler wants to put on his own shoes in the morning, however, he’s ultra-slow doing it. This is driving you crazy because you need to get to work on time, so you lose patience and hurry your child along, which irritates him, but doesn’t encourage him to pick up the pace. In the end, you and your child enter a power struggle where you try to put on his shoes for him, but he protests. Cue the tears and tantrum

O’Sullivan says, “Parents wish to have a dream child who is compliant and easy to manage. Often, when conflict arises between parents and children, most parents try to resolve it in their favour, so that the parent wins and the child loses.”

However, this shouldn’t be your main aim. Instead, it’s more important that you find ways to show your child how he can make choices in a positive way.

By the way, sometimes what appears as blatant disobedience to you may just be your child acting their age ― they are processing, understanding and responding to things within their means, O’Sullivan adds. So, your role as a parent is to teach by example and, as tough as it is, manage your reaction when your child is pushing your buttons.

As a parent, you know by now that at any point in the parent-child power struggle, you can put your foot down and insist things be done your way, even if it ends in tears and disappointment for your child. But although you may have won the battle, your child loses out in many ways.

Disciplining your child using force or authority denies them the chance to learn self-discipline and responsibility. O’Sullivan points out, “When a parent imposes his solution to a conflict, his method of discipline, then the child will have very little motivation or desire to do what is asked because he has no ownership or investment in it; he was given no voice in making it.”

It really is more about setting boundaries and sticking to them consistently. Try these expert tips…

1. Figure out what are your tot’s intentions behind the defiance

Every child is different and communicates differently with the people around them. Even within a family, children can be very different in the way they react and behave with each member of the family. The person they respond to best is someone who comes from a position of understanding. Instead of immediately jumping to a conclusion that your child is out purposely to push your buttons, use your active listening skills to ask questions first. We communicate through our behaviour, so if junior is being difficult, start by asking if something is bothering him or her. Sometimes, your child may be acting out simply because they are hungry or tired ― even adults do this!

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2. Get down to your tot’s level and make eye contact

Prince William and Kate Middleton use this parenting technique all the time with their offspring. “Being on the same physical level starts with creating a sense of safety for the child, especially if the adult is very tall,” notes O’Sullivan. “By doing this, the child can feel more connected and in control.” It also sends the message that you are really present and giving them your full attention, which will make them want to hear you out. Either sit or kneel down beside your little one and make sure you have good, direct eye contact with them as you speak to them.

3. Follow through with the consequences

A big one as failure to follow through with consequences does more harm than good.The effects of inconsistency give the child no chance to learn the proper behaviour and avoid the undesirable behaviour,” says O’Sullivan. “As a result, they will become frustrated, confused and angry. As parents, we need to be consistent and follow up with age-appropriate consequences, if needed.”

"In the bigger scheme of things, you need to allow your toddler some sense of autonomy so as a parent you have to figure out which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t.”

4. Pick your battles

You will find it hard to accept the way your tot behaves when he tries to assert his independence. But just because you don’t understand it doesn’t mean you should shut it down immediately. O’Sullivan says. “In the bigger scheme of things, you need to allow your toddler some sense of autonomy, so, as a parent, you have to figure out which battles are worth fighting and which aren’t.” For example, health and safety issues are non-negotiable, like putting on their safety belt or taking their medicine. However, things like picking up their toys at the end of a day, you may need to let go.

5. Give your tot a choice related to the task

Life is all about choices, so give your child opportunities to use their voices, make decisions, develop ownership, and solve problems to prepare them for the future. Plus, it’s also a great way to bond with them because they’ll feel like they’re genuinely being heard and loved. “If the situation is right, give them a choice and talk to them about it,” suggests O’Sullivan. For example, let junior pick his own bedtime story, decide what movie they want to watch or allow them to make a choice for lunch every Sunday from two options. By the way, these techniques only work if everyone is on the same page. If you’re stressed, under pressure or not in the best frame of mind, refrain from giving your toddler choices as they would only aggravate the situation.

6. Follow up with a reason on why you need him to listen to you

Active listening is a skill everyone, including your little one, should hone. Once you’ve given the instruction, get your kiddo to repeat it back to you, so you know that they understand what’s expected of them. Also, you’re teaching them the basics of communication. It will take patience on your part ― also, the tone of voice you use is very important as it can make all the difference.

7. Praise them when they carry out the task – the right way

Parents praise their kids to motivate them to do what they want their kids to do. However, they often struggle in getting the praise balance right, so as to raise kids with healthy self-esteem, O’Sullivan notes. Constantly offering “empty” praises such as “good job” or “well done” will only create praise-hungry people. Instead, be specific and descriptive in your praise, so your child knows exactly what you’re happy with them about and what they are good at doing. “Praise the effort and process and not the ability. Above all, be genuine in the praise you give,” she adds.

Photos: iStock

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