Winning Back a Defiant Toddler

January 22, 2020 Updated: January 22, 2020

Dear Michael, my beloved 3-year-old is getting more defiant and aggressive. She takes away almost all of the toys her younger brother tries to play with, refuses to do what I ask, and she is even aggressive with me. I love her so much and she can be so sweet sometimes, but I am getting more and more frustrated with her behavior. How can I get my sweet little girl back?


Growing Frustration


Dear Growing Frustration,

The first step to taming toddler defiance and getting toddlers’ behavior under control is to work on your relationship and your bond with them. Since toddlers can’t necessarily express their feelings and needs directly, they might express them indirectly through their behavior. You need to establish a strong bond with them, which is different from the bond you have with a baby. Then you can start to work on setting and enforcing rules.

Many parents make the mistake of tightening discipline when they encounter defiance without focusing on the closeness of the bond first. This can increase defiant behaviors from the child, cause escalating power struggles and result in retaliatory, anger-based punishments from parents.

When I work with parents on relationship skills with their child, often, 80 percent of the negative behaviors go away before we move into the phase of setting rules and consequences. Having rules and consequences is also necessary. But a positive relationship creates the foundation for your child to cooperate with the rules, rather than battling against them.

Creating Quality Time With Your Child

How exactly do you improve your relationship and bond with a 3-year-old? Just like with other people, you need to spend consistent, focused time with your toddler, and she needs to feel heard and understood.

Since children of this age don’t typically have the verbal communication skills necessary to communicate effectively, art and dramatic play are important forms of expression they can use to tell you what is important to them. I teach parents to use the following format to get the most connection possible from the quality time they spend with their toddlers.

Set aside specific focused time to play with your toddler and let them know that this is your special time together. If you can do this for at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week, you will get the best results. Make it part of a regular schedule with your child, such as after dinner or before bath time. Buy or set aside specific toys that she only plays with during her special time with you.

All of this establishes the structure and routine that let your child know that this is her special time with you. If you don’t have this much time to spend with your child, it will still help to follow the rest of the steps. However, the less time you put into it, the less of an impact it will make.

Unstructured Play Is a Toddler’s Love Language

Engage in unstructured play activities with your child and allow her to be in the lead. How do you conduct unstructured play? I like to use either art activities or some type of toy figures that the child can use to tell a story. A variety of toy figures can be used for this purpose, including miniature toy people or animals, puppets, dolls, or stuffed animals.

The parent allows the child to determine what she will make or what the story will be, and simply describes and reflects back to her what she is doing or making. The parent also participates, but lets the child set the lead for what she will create or what the plot of the story is.

Let your child know that you are interested and enthusiastic about what she is doing. This is all you need to do to establish a strong bond with your child. Parents often feel the need to teach, read, or engage their child in a type of game or structured activity. There are times and places for those activities, but they are not as effective for creating a bond with your child.

Allowing the child to lead unstructured activities has several benefits. Children are often being told what to do all day and don’t get to make a lot of choices. This increases defiance. More importantly, your child will use the format of art or storytelling to express her feelings to you.

When you reflect back to her what she is saying or making, that is an equivalent of you deeply listening, validating, and communicating an understanding about her feelings. Having someone feel heard, listened to, and understood is one of the most bonding activities you can do with anyone. When you do this through art and play, you are doing it in the toddler’s language. After you do this activity with your toddler a few times, you will be in a much better position to create rules, consequences, and order in your house.

A Strong Relationship Is the Key to Parenting a Child of Any Age

It is important to continue spending quality time with your children in ways that allow them to communicate and feel heard and understood. This is the basis of a strong relationship and will make them feel closer and more connected with you. This will naturally make them more cooperative, and allow you to enforce rules and consequences with less resistance.

It will also establish a strong foundation for continuing a strong parent-child bond into the school-age and teen years, where this bond remains crucial for the next set of parenting challenges you will face with them.

Michael Courter is a therapist and counselor who believes in the power of personal growth, repairing relationships, and following your dreams. His website is

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