You expect your child to decorate herself with markers after you’ve told her not to for the umpteenth time, and to shriek “Nooo!” when faced with the dreaded bath, as an older two or three-year-old. But she’s only sixteen months and pushing back at every turn. So you conclude that you’ve got a little tyrant on your hands and that in some way it’s your fault (more working-mother guilt). Now, take a deep breath.
That early defiance may actually be a good thing, according to a new study from the University of Texas at Austin. Researchers viewed 119 moms getting their fourteen to twenty-seven-month-old toddlers not to play with very nice toys and then to clean up less desirable toys they’d been allowed to play with. What they found was that the more rebellious kids showed greater positive interest in their moms—smiling at them and including them in their fun and games—than the less rebellious kids, says lead study author Ted Dix, PhD, an associate professor of human development and family science.
“The findings indicate that in very young children asked to comply with requests, active resistance doesn’t mean there are problems in development or in relations with parents,” says Dr. Dix. “Rather, it may be a sign of emerging independence and a healthy confidence that they can control events in their life, although their attempts at this control are immature.” But this behavior, while healthy and acceptable at around age two, can become problematic at age four. That’s why parents and caregivers need to help young children learn to assert themselves in a more mature way. With a toddler who flat-out refuses to help clean up her toys, for instance, you might channel her oppositional behavior by turning the chore into a game: “Let’s find all the blue blocks and put them in the box. Now let’s find the red ones.”
What if your young rebel throws those blocks—or bites or hits? “When a child does potentially dangerous things to herself or others, you need to take a firm and consistent position,” says Lawrence Balter, PhD, a professor of applied psychology at New York University. He suggests holding on to your child while voicing expectations in an even tone: “I’m not going to let you hurt yourself or somebody else. When you calm down, we’ll do something else you’ll like.”
Meanwhile, don’t worry too much, since many toddlers exhibit precocious opposition. The key is to help your child learn to control her defiance now. If you succeed, you might just steer clear of the “terrible twos”—or at least make them a little less terrible.
Tot Tamers from Lawrence Balter, PhD
Helpful do’s and don’ts for when your child acts up:
- Do model good behavior. Show your child what you expect by acting respectfully yourself and, say, putting away your things when you’re done with them.
- Don’t punish a bad deed with another, like pinching your child to show him how it feels after he pinches his sister. Better to teach the right thing (“We use our hands gently, like this”). Nor should you humiliate or belittle him.
- Do provide praise. Let him know you notice when he follows directions. Positive feedback goes a long way toward cultivating positive behavior.
By Julie Trescott for Working Mother magazine