Toddler Defiance and Power Struggles
We have recently been experiencing a new phase with our son, who is approaching his 2nd birthday. Now I have managed to get on top of his tantrums, but his power struggles and acts of defiance are a whole other story. But before I start….
Amazing advice from my Mum from her Nan!
Love your children, keep them safe, give them your time. Explain things to them and your little person will have the foundations they need to become great adults. Time, cuddles, listening and chatting are the most important things for our children, if you can give your child all of this then everything else will fall into place. Just remember that these hard times will pass, they are just a phase, although it may not seem like it at the time, it will all be worth it when they are their own person.
This advice has really helped me get through some of the worst days, when those power struggles are eating away at me, and testing my patience.
Now until a few weeks ago this was a completely new term to me. But from a lot of reading, advice from other parents and trying to find ways of coping with these so called power struggles I have found a few techniques that so far are working well.
At the moment these power struggles 8 out of 10 times are setting off epic toddler tantrums, that are leaving me at my wits end. Its not just one or two a day either, its when ever he doesn’t get his own way, or if we ask him not to do something. Not to mention the daily struggles of toddler behaviour, such as decorating the wall in his fine art, trying to pull the TV off the wall or destroying anything that doesn’t belong to him. Its mentally draining and I hate having to tell him off or constantly say no.
Lately parenting my son has felt a bit like dodging trip wires and other booby traps in the hope that I can avoid these power struggles and resulting tantrums. His constant unwanted behaviour is wearing myself and his dad thin.
The research I have found along with other parents views on this have been very helpful. I honestly wish I had known about these techniques before this stage! It may have just saved a few unnecessary tears, from everyone.
Coping and dealing with power struggles
Most of the tantrums are 100% developmentally appropriate for his age. OK I understand that, but in the full blown moment of a power struggle, boundary test or tantrum, how do you keep that in mind, whilst maintaining your sanity?
Its hard but the best advice I have been given is to take a step back and take a deep breath. Then you can work out the reasons behind the difficult behaviour.
6 things your toddler would tell you if they could…
1. Tell me again, and again, and again
You have the ability to focus your attention, remember instructions and control your impulses. This comes from your executive function skills. Guess what? Yep you guessed it…. Your toddler has not developed these skills yet!
OK so, on one hand my toddler loves colouring the walls because he sees it as fun. But we don’t want him doing that because, even though his artwork has a special place in my heart, I don’t want to keep repainting the walls! He does not yet possess the capability of controlling his impulse to draw on the wall. His brain is trying to make sense of what he wants to do and whether he should or should not be doing it.
As parents it is up to us to help our toddlers make these connections and help develop their executive function skills. To do this we use repetition…. A lot!
Why? I hear you asking…
Using repetition reinforces the message that drawing on the walls isn’t good. This connection building takes time and you will find yourself repeating yourself a lot. It is frustrating but eventually the message will sink in. I know that one day I will be able to get the pencils and paper out and feel confident in leaving him to it, without having to worry about getting the wall paint out!
So yes, for now you are going to feel like a parrot, repeating the same phrases over and over again! It does test your patience to the max, but when I feel my patience running out, I take a step back and imagine those connections in his head being made.
I can already see him starting to understand the things he can do and the things he shouldn’t be doing. I can see him thinking before he is about to do something naughty. He is still most likely to do the thing he shouldn’t be doing, but there is progress being made.
2. I don’t know how do say what it is I am feeling
Toddlers feel emotions, but unlike us adults, they have not yet learnt how to stop, think, and then react to any given emotion. Toddlers just go from feeling to reacting and this usually presents in the form of a power struggle, defiance, or a full blow tantrum.
You can help your toddler by recognising what your toddler is feeling.
For example: ‘I know your mad/angry/cross because you cannot draw on the walls’.
You don’t need to say anymore than that. Emotions can be overwhelming for toddlers and just recognising what they are feeling is enough to help them understand that emotion. This may or may not calm them down, but over time they will connect their emotion, be able to think about it and then react just like you do.
3. I’m not trying to be difficult or defiant
There may be times when these power struggles, acts of defiance and tantrums test you. You may even feel like your toddler is doing this just annoy the shit out of you. Believe me I’ve been there more times than I care to count, that’s mum guilt right there!
Toddlers learn best through experience. This is where your parrot skills come in! Sorry, to say. They may need to do and hear things over and over again before their brain can make the connection between what it is they want to do and whether mum or dad says its OK to do.
4. I need you be kind and firm at the same time
Sounds hard to do right?
Toddlers are learning that they are their own person. They are beginning to develop their own ideas, opinions and preferences. As parents we need to set boundaries to keep our toddlers safe from harm.
How can you be kind yet firm?
So for example, you are walking to the park with your toddler, and they suddenly go to run across the road because they can see the park.
Our quick response would be to say something along the lines of ‘That was naughty don’t do that again’. Not very helpful for a toddlers brain.
Here is the be kind but firm technique:
Be kind: ‘I know you want to get to the park’
Be firm: ‘But cars come past and could hurt you, next time please hold my hand, we will cross together’.
This technique has been hard to remember to do, especially in the heat of the moment when my son is doing something that could hurt him or someone else. This technique means he doesn’t have to double process what you are saying. (There’s more on double processing coming up).
When I have used this technique I have found that he stops and thinks about what he was doing for just a couple of
minutes seconds. I am really going to try and use this technique more!
5. I’m not ignoring you
It really feels like
sometimes most of the time, my son is not listening to a word I say. This is something I am still struggling with. Again I use the wrong technique in the heat of the moment. Although no one said that this stage was easy, and this is my first experience of being a mum to a toddler. Hopefully when my daughters reach this stage I will be more prepared!
Picture this, I’m sure you’ve had similar scenarios….
Your toddler is climbing the TV unit. You say ‘Don’t climb that, you will fall’. You might think that’s a pretty good response to him climbing, I really thought I was doing good, explaining to him why I didn’t want him climbing the TV unit…. How wrong I was!
Using words like ‘don’t or ‘stop’ is hard for your toddler to understand, and it will appear as though they are ignoring you. This is because they have to double process your request. Your toddler first has to understand what it is you don’t want him to do (Don’t climb the TV unit). He then has to work out what it is you want him to do (get down). Confusing I know, so here are some alternatives:
Instead of saying: ‘Don’t climb that’.
Use: ‘Please get down, you will fall and hurt yourself’.
Instead of saying: ‘Don’t run’.
Use: ‘Please walk slowly’.
Instead of saying: ‘Don’t draw on the walls’.
Use: ‘Pencils are for drawing on paper, look here’s some paper’.
Instead of saying: ‘Stop being rough with your little sister’.
Use: ‘Please be nice to your sister she is smaller than you’.
By not using the words ‘stop and don’t’, your toddler only has once piece of information to process, what you want him to do. Now to start with you are probably still going to feel like he is ignoring you, because he probably doesn’t want to do what you are asking. But eventually as those important connections in his brain develop he will begin to listen to you.
6. When I feel loved I do better
I have started to notice that when my son is being particularly uncooperative or defiant, the root cause is normally always the same thing. My god did I feel some serious mum guilt after discovering this next technique.
I am cooking dinner but he wants to play. ‘I’m cooking now, I will play with you when I’m finished.
Putting his sister down for a nap, I’ve just got her to sleep and he barges in bangs the door and throws a toy at me. My immediate response is ‘Get out, that’s naughty’.
I realised I was brushing him off, he was just trying to tell me what he needed. So the next time I want him to do something he will defy me, or just won’t listen. He needs a connection, or a distraction while I finish what I am doing. He needs to know that I am not ignoring him, and that I really do want to play but needed to finish what I am doing first.
What I should have done in those examples was this…
‘I’m cooking at the moment, but I know you want to play’ give him a cuddle pass him a toy and say I will play as soon as I’m done cooking.
In the second example I could have told him that I was just going to put his sister down for a nap, and that I would play with him as soon as she was sleeping. Give him a book to read until I come back down.
Since I have been using this technique of connecting with him, I have had more time to get things done around the house and also spend my time equally with him and his sister.
Now I am not staying that these techniques are going to fix your toddlers behaviour over night. He has to learn what is and what is not acceptable, through good old parrot fashion, and he will do this in his own time.
Yes we still have power struggles, boundary pushing and tantrums. But I now have better ways of dealing with each of these, I also have a better understanding of how his brain works. I hope this article has helped you too. Have you experienced power struggles? Please let me know how these techniques work for you in the comments below.
Thank you for reading x
Liked this post? Check Out my post on Toddler Tantrums