How do I handle 2-year-old who opposes and contradicts me at every turn? says "no" to everything? I'm exasperated! If I offer him a cracker or a cup of water, he says "no!" If I set the cup aside, he cries and begs for it. He acts the same way with other children at the church nursery. Is this phase ever going to end?
Your child's negative and contrary behavior is completely normal. Up until this point, his explorations of the world have been fact-finding missions. He's been discovering what happens when, for example, he pulls the cat's tail, eats the mashed banana, or turns the knobs on the stereo. Now he's ready to take things a step further. Now he wants to know how much power he wields. In effect, he's asking, "What will happen if I push the limits? Who's really in charge here?" This phase generally begins at some point during the second year of life, usually between 14- and 16-months-old. It's what many parents popularly refer to as "the terrible twos."
During the coming months, most, if not all, of the limits you've established will be challenged. At times these challenges will take the form of a spectacular full-frontal assault. To call a child at this stage "oppositional" – a developmental term applied to this period – may be an understatement. "Openly defiant" is probably a far more accurate description. By 18 months, his favorite word may well be no followed by three exclamation points. The basic premise underlying this behavior is very simple: if it's not his idea, he doesn't want anything to do with it!
The duration and severity of this oppositional stage will vary, but you can count on seeing evidence of it for at least six months. Some children who are particularly agreeable and compliant won't give you too much trouble (there aren't too many of these), but others who are especially strong-willed may seem to push the boundaries on a daily basis.
To a certain degree, this behavior represents an important developmental milestone for your toddler. He is developing a budding sense of identity, an awareness that it is possible to make things happen and a compelling need to find out how far his new-found capabilities can take him. In some ways these characteristics are strikingly similar to those observed in another age-group – teenagers. But there are important differences. During the teen years, your goal will be to let go and escort your son to the threshold of responsible adulthood. With a toddler, on the other hand, it's critical that he understand without any doubt that you are in charge. If you don't establish your authority by 24 to 36 months of age, your child may be very unpleasant to live with for months – or even years – thereafter.
How do you do this? By balancing love with limits and applying appropriate consequences for negative behaviors. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind as you prepare yourself for the inevitable conflicts that lie ahead:
When your child doesn't do what you've asked, take action and explain why. You don't have to get angry or raise your voice. You don't have to complain or make threats. Just take appropriate action, making sure that what you do will be meaningful but not harsh and that you will follow through with the action. If he's doing something he shouldn't be doing or something that harms others or places himself in danger, remove him from the situation. Arrange for him to take a "time out" in an isolated and boring location. Make it clear that similar results will follow every time he engages in this kind of activity.
Make certain that your response to your child's misbehavior is timely. A toddler will not remember what you were upset about an hour ago, so act decisively and act now.
Be sure to enforce your rules and limits consistently. Not only should your child know that you will back up your words with action every time, but he should also understand that your response won't waver to any great degree. On-again, off-again discipline is confusing, and it generates disobedience and unhealthy fear.
If you need help implementing any of these ideas, don't hesitate to call Focus on the Family's Counseling department.
The New Strong-Willed Child