When I wrote about gentle strategies for gaining toddler compliance, I knew there was more to it. Sometimes, you have to do something your toddler refuses to do (like brush his teeth). Sometimes, a toddler refuses just for the sake of refusing. During those trying times, how do I assert myself and still remain the compassionate, responsive mother I want to be?
Part of the answer lies in what Alicia Lieberman, author of The Emotional Life of the Toddler, calls benevolent authority. The idea is to confidently protect my son and make wise decisions for him when he cannot. If my concern and competence are genuine, Munchkin will feel safe -- even if he doesn't get what he wants. He may protest, but when I exercise benevolent authority it can actually avert a full-blown temper tantrum.
However, this is not the same as the "because I'm the mom and I said so" attitude. It's the difference between "authoritative" and "authoritarian" parenting styles. Consider "Please get down from there now. I don't want you to get hurt, "(authoritative) versus, "NO! I told you not to climb on that!" (authoritarian). The trick is to be firm, respectful, and loving all at the same time.
I've been experimenting with strategies based on benevolent authority to gain compliance from my toddler in non-negotiable situations. It works. I still encounter typical toddler resistance, but without much toddler drama. We bounce back quickly and remain connected. The beauty of these strategies is that they are based on mutual respect and are intended to build trust between parent and child.
Here are 10 loving techniques I find helpful in dealing with a defiant toddler:
1) Try a gentle approach first. There are a number of kind ways to put a request to a toddler. I previously compiled some gentle methods to cultivate cooperation to use as a starting point.
2) Use toddler-appropriate language. Effective communication is an essential component to any conflict resolution. I show respect for my son through language by using correct pronouns, precise phrasing, and age-appropriate speech (read this for some examples).
3) Demonstrate confidence in your request through your tone of voice. If my request is reasonable, necessary, or urgent, this tone comes naturally. On the other hand, it takes some practice to master this skill when I'm feeling low on patience or uncomfortable being assertive.
4) Offer legitimate choices. Try coming up with 2 different ways to fulfill your request, then give your toddler the choice. This approach helps a toddler feel independent and empowered in a situation in which he really isn't. For example: "Do you want to walk to the car yourself or do you want me to carry you?" or "Do you want to put it back yourself or do you want me to do it?" I find choices like these miraculous for getting out the door or leaving a store without a new toy (or tantrum). Avoid proposing "choices" in which one alternative is a punishment, removal of privilege, or a bribe ("Do you want to stop throwing toys or do you want to leave the park?"). Such false choices are manipulative and will undermine your toddler's trust and respect for you (the basis of your benevolent authority), which could lead to even more defiance.
5) Take action. Sometimes the gentlest thing you can do is, literally, step in. A great way to do this is to use a phrase I picked up from Suchada at MamaEve, "I won't let you..." as in I won't let you hit the dog/throw toys/run in the street, etc. I enforce the words peacefully by holding up a hand to block a strike or by simply standing in the way. Using assertive words and nonaggressive actions to back them up lets your child know you mean what you say. When you stop what you're doing to interact (i.e. connect) with him, he knows it's important! In addition, it builds trust because it lets him know you will protect him from harm.
6) Validate the child's feelings. Acknowledge and accept your toddler's emotions surrounding his defiance. When he feels connected and understood, he is more likely to trust your decision and not have a complete meltdown. I'm practicing phrases like, "I understand that you are angry because I won't let you..." or "It's OK for you to feel angry at me for..." or "Are you sad that...?" to let him know I care about his perspective. I also want him to know that being angry at me won't stop me from loving him (or get me to buy that toy). Avoid judging, criticizing, minimizing, or blaming him for his reaction.
7) Consider the child's unmet needs. Often toddlers "act out" because of an underlying need. Start with physical needs (hunger, thirst, fatigue, overstimulation, pain), then consider emotional needs. Answering emotional needs is tricky and may require some detective work, but the benefits are substantial and often immediate. I've seen Munchkin do a complete turn-around after I took the time to connect with him for a few moments on one his needy days.
8) Reconsider your request. Is it really that important? What's the worst that would happen if you just let it go? Letting go of a disagreement isn't a sign that your child has "won". It's a sign that you care enough to put your relationship ahead of getting your way (the same holds true for dealing with husbands!). It also shows that you're able to overcome your own control issues (often, that's all it is). Consider, "Fine, I give up! Have it your way and look ridiculous in your PJs!" versus, " I guess it doesn't really matter if you wear PJs to the park. Let's go have some fun!" To gain more compliance over the long haul, try to stay focused on developing a long-term relationship with your child, rather than on winning power struggles.
9) Work on your relationship. If you hear "No" more frequently than what seems normal for a toddler, consider your connection with your toddler. Dr. Laura at Aha!Parenting suggests that chronic defiance is a sign that the relationship needs repair. Until the parent-child relationship is healed, it won't really matter which disciplinary actions are taken. The good news is that relationship repair can happen right now since toddlers are centered on the now (as opposed to say, teenagers!).
10) Avoid bribery, threat of punishment, or withdrawal of privileges. While these tactics may be effective in the short-term, the long-term consequences are negative -- for your relationship, for your child's self esteem, and certainly for your benevolent authority. Love, trust, and respect are better motivators than fear.
These methods won't stop a toddler from being defiant. In fact, once we are better able to deal with it, defiance is something we can learn to love about our toddlers. As for me, I'm starting to look at Munchkin's "No" as an opportunity to learn more about who this little guy really is. I'm also learning more about myself and how assertive yet compassionate I can be.Looking for more tools for handling life with a toddler? Check out some of my other toddler-friendly posts:
What effective and caring ways do you use to handle a defiant toddler?
8 Gentle Strategies to Foster Toddler Compliance
Speaking Respectfully to a Toddler: Easy Phrases for Big Effects
Doing Errands With a Toddler
Getting a Toddler to Go Where You Want...Playfully
Learning to Share By Taking Turns
Handy Parenting Resources: The Fridge Lists
and many more!
Want to hear stories from other moms of toddlers? Check out this video put together by Annie at PhD in Parenting.