039: What to do when your toddler says “No, I don’t wanna…!”

Jen Lumanlan
May 21, 2017 · 21 min read

It’s no secret that I do some episodes of the podcast altruistically for you, dear listeners, because I’m not facing the situation that I’m studying — or at least not yet. (Eyebrows were raised in our house when I started researching the impact of divorce on children but luckily for me I don’t need that episode…yet…)

But today’s episode is for me, and you guys are just along for the ride. Because, friends, we are in the thick of what I now know to be called “oppositional defiance,” otherwise known as “Noooo! I don’t wanna [insert activity here]”. We’ll discuss why toddlers are defiant, and lots of strategies we can use to deal with that defiance and even head it off at the pass. If your child has ever said “No!” to something you want them to do, this episode is for you!

Other episodes mentioned in this show

020: How do I get my child to do what I want them to do?

022: How to talk so little kids will listen (Author interview)

References

Dix, T., Stewart, A.D., Gershoff, E.T., & Day, W.T. (2007). Autonomy and children’s reactions to being controlled: Evidence that both compliance and defiance may be positive markers in early development. Child Development 78(4), 1204–1221.

Dunn, J., & Munn, P. (1986). Sibling quarrels and maternal intervention: Individual differences in understanding aggression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 583–595. doi: 10.1111/j.1469–7610.1986.tb00184.x

Eyberg, S. M., Nelson, M. M., & Boggs, S. R. (2008). Evidence-based psychosocial treatments for children and adolescents with disruptive behavior. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 37, 215–237. doi: 10.1080/15374410701820117

Grolnick, W.S. (2012). The relations among parental power assertion, control, and structure. Human Development 55, 57–64. DOI: 10.1159/000338533

Grusec, J. E. (2012). Socialization and the role of power assertion. Human Development, 55, 52–56. doi: 10.1159/000337963

Kaler, S. R., & Kopp, C. B. (1990). Compliance and comprehension in very young toddlers. Child Development, 61, 1997–2003. doi: 10.2307/1130853

Knowles, S.J. (2014). The effectiveness of mother’s disciplinary reasoning in response to toddler noncompliance (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). Oklahoma State University. Full copy available at: https://shareok.org/bitstream/handle/11244/25670/Knowles_okstate_0664D_13688.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

Kuczynski, L. (1984). Socialization goals and mother-child interaction: Strategies for long-term and short-term compliance. Developmental Psychology 20(6), 1061–1073.

Langer, E., Blank, A., & Chanowitz, B. (1978). The mindlessness of Ostensibly Thoughtful Action: The Role of “Placebic” Information in Interpersonal Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(6), 635–642.


Transcript

Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Now it’s no secret that I do some episodes of the podcast altruistically for you, dear listeners, because I’m not facing the situation that I’m studying — or at least not yet. (Eyebrows were raised in our house when I started researching the impact of divorce on children but luckily for me I don’t need that episode…yet…)

But today’s episode is for me, and you guys are just along for the ride. Because, friends, we are in the thick of what I now know to be called “oppositional defiance,” otherwise known as “Noooo! I don’t wanna [insert activity here]”. There’s actually an oppositional defiant disorder that’s described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which is more commonly known as the DSM-5, because it’s in its fifth revision. And I should say that the DSM is not infallible and is susceptible to societal trends — homosexuality was defined as a mental disorder in the DSM until 1973. But right now Oppositional Defiant Disorder is in the DSM, and it’s defined as having four of a list of eight symptoms which fall into three major buckets: 1. Angry or irritable mood, 2. Argumentative or defiant behavior, and 3. Vindictiveness. And before you think “wait, I think I fit those characteristics some days” I should point out that it’s the persistence and frequency of these behaviors that should be used to distinguish behavior that is within normal limits from behavior that is symptomatic. For children younger than 5 years, the behavior should occur on most days for a period of at least six months, and for children older than 5 years it should be at least once a week for at least six months. There are additional critieria around whether the behavior is associated with distress in a particular setting or if it impacts negatively on social or educational outcomes. I’ll put the link to the detailed critieria in the references in case you’re worried that your child might meet them, but today we’re going to talk about the non-clinical kind of oppositional defiance that can still be incredibly frustrating to deal with.

According to one group of researchers, “few periods in development are more important than when parents’ attempts to control and socialize children emerge in the second year,” so as you might expect, we’re going to need to sort through quite a bit of conflicting information.

So let’s start with why all this is important and, funnily enough, it actually goes back to the episodes we’ve done on culture — our second episode (which was the first real episode of the show, after the introductory one) was on how culture impacts our parenting and we just dived into that topic again recently with the episode on the book Generation:Me. I’m going to read a short paragraph from a paper on compliance and defiance in early childhood: “Lay persons and researchers agree that compliance with parents is critical to child development. Parents report that obedience is a principal childrearing objective, and researchers emphasize that compliance facilitates the development of morality, self-regulation, and a range of social competences. When parents elicit compliance, they integrate children into interactions that help children regulate their emotions, internalize prosocial behavior, and in general coordinate their intentions and actions with the intentions and actions of others. In contrast, noncompliance is often considered a marker for poor parent-child relationships, poor internalization of prosocial values, and increased likelihood of serious behavior problems.” Now I was actually really surprised to see that both parents and researchers put so much emphasis on children complying with parental requests, especially since we learned in the Generation:Me episode that parents in this generation put a premium on encouraging children to think for themselves, which seems to contradict the emphasis on obedience we’re seeing here — unless, I suppose, your child learns to think for himself or herself and decides by himself (or herself) that you are right and of course they should obey you. But researchers now understand that strong parent agency and strong child agency are not incompatible — in other words, both parties can have some control in the relationship, although who has what control and how it is asserted have be renegotiated over and over again as the child gets older. In our culture, the child’s power assertion can be seen as having a positive role — the child not only learns how to negotiate, but also that it is possible in the first place to take initiative and oppose what the child sees as injustice. Most of us want our children to learn that protesting what a person thinks of as unfair is fine as long as the protest itself isn’t defiant or antisocial in its character, so our challenge is to induce compliance where we need it while demonstrating that we are open to negotiation where the request is reasonable.

Part of the reason that these conflicts occur seems to be that the child reaches an age where they realize that they actually can assert their own opinion right at the same time as the parents realize that the child isn’t just a baby any more, but should start to learn about some of the social conventions that make both the family work as a unit and the child function successfully in the wider world. So the child wants to assert their own ideas but the parents either want their child to behave in a certain way, or see that other people around the family want the child to behave in a certain way, then the stage is set for disagreements. But I think we can agree that even if we value independent thinking there are times when we want our children to just do what we ask them to do, for goodness sake, so let’s talk about the factors involved in gaining that compliance.

The very highly regarded child psychologist Diana Baumrind described three types of relationships that parents can have with their children. The first is a permissive relationship, where parents are reluctant to discipline and avoid dealing with their children’s problematic behavior. It’s pretty well established at this point that an authoritative relationship between parents and children is good for kids, at least if you are white. If you’re a regular listener you might recall having heard this term before; authoritative parents allow some give and take, provide reasons when they make demands of children, and are open to negotiation. They provide a loving and warm relationship although they are not afraid to set limits when limits are needed. And I say that this is the best style if you’re white because the vast majority of research on parenting styles has been done on white children with white parents, but some research shows that an authoritarian style, which is where parents have high demands but provide little in the way of feedback and nurturance and may also be coercive and make threats toward their children. White children tend not to do well with authoritarian parents but black children actually fare better. Authoritative parenting might still be best, but authoritarian parenting is OK.

So that said, researchers have been curious to find out whether parents that have an authoritative relationship (which, as a reminder, is the “good” kind of relationship) with their children experience more or less conflict. Relationship theories say that when children form secure, affectionate, reciprocal relationships with their parents then they’re more likely to want to please their parents and comply with their parents’ wishes. So if parents are warm, sensitive, and non-coercive, then children will cooperate most of the time and not be defiant very often, and this has been supported by research as well. Now this is troubling to me, of course, because I think I’ve worked pretty hard to develop a warm, sensitive, non-coercive relationship with my daughter and she still puts up a fight when it’s time to get dressed pretty much every damn morning.

But let’s set that aside for a minute and look at another set of processes in a child’s development that are also important, and those are the emerging sense of autonomy and self-efficacy. The researchers in this camp observe that a child doesn’t say “Noooo I don’t wanna get dressed” just because she wants to be obstinate but because she wants to be autonomous and control what happens in her life. They think that where parents avoid exerting too much control over their children and allow the child to take the lead, the child learns that their wants and actions control events around them.

So one group of researchers decided to try to test which of these apparently contradictory theories was mostly responsible for defiant resistance. They thought that if young children resist being controlled primarily because their relationship with their mother isn’t very good, then even when control is not an issue, “defiant” children may display negative behavior toward their mothers. But on the other hand, if young children resist being controlled because they have a strong sense of autonomy, then when control isn’t an issue, “defiant” children may display more positive behavior toward their mothers. They conducted an experiment where mothers and children in a lab setting were put in a room with some things like a pair of eyeglasses and a jug of water with some paper cups that needed parental supervision to use. There were also some toys that the mother and child were to play with together, as well as some attractive toys that the child wasn’t allowed to touch, and at the end of 15 minutes playing the researcher asked the mother to get the child’s help with cleaning up. The researchers recorded the interactions between the mothers and children and coded those to analyze them. It turns out that the more defiance children displayed, the more they initiated positive interaction with their mothers. So among children who initiated a lot of positive interactions, 54% were also high in defiance, and among children who didn’t initiate a lot of positive interactions, only 21% were high in defiance. Children who smiled more at their mothers and initiated positive interactions with their mothers were significantly more likely to display both high defiance (behavior like taking more toys of the box at clean-up time) and low passive non-compliance (which is behavior like just standing by while the mothers did the cleaning up). The researchers also timed how long it took children to initiate positive interactions and display defiant noncompliance at cleanup time, and the more quickly children initiated positive interactions, the more they displayed defiant noncompliance.

So why does this happen? Why are positive relationships with a parent linked to more defiant behavior? The researchers hypothesized that because sensitive mothers adapt to children’s signals, use noncoercive forms of control and allow children to control the social interaction, their children may develop strong autonomy motivation, the belief that they can control events, and expectations that their mothers will respond favorably when the children assert their needs. And children who exhibit strong defiance may elicit something from parents that helps children to develop ways to resolve frustration and reconcile conflict — things like rules around social interactions, the fact that others have feelings and needs that should be respected, and potential actions that can be taken to cooperate with parents. A variety of researchers think that children who are securely attached to their parents feel comfortable enough with those parents to be less compliant; it’s the ones that aren’t comfortable with their parents who are compliant because they’re afraid to be defiant. What isn’t yet well understood is whether children benefit when parents tolerate defiant behavior or try to inhibit it, but researchers do think that while defiant behavior is a hallmark of problematic development a few years after toddler-hood, there’s no indication that defiance in toddlerhood is linked to problems later in life.

OK, so we now have some evidence that just having a toddler who is defiant doesn’t mean we’re terrible parents (perhaps we should all carry a card with the link for this episode on it that we can give to strangers who give us snarky looks when our child pitches a fit out in public.). But what are we supposed to do when our child doesn’t do what we ask?

One set of researchers that are focused on parental interventions based on behavioral management train parents to minimize their use of disciplinary reasoning and instead respond to noncompliance with a series of increasingly forceful tactics to assert their power — things like commands, then single warnings, then time-outs. The idea is that children eventually learn that if they’re being given a command and they refuse now, they’re going to eventually get a time-out so they might as well just obey the command now. But the research supporting this approach is largely based on children who have behavior “problems” that the parents perceive as so severe that the children have been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder or its relative conduct disorder, and it’s not at all clear to me that these approaches are suitable for children who have not been clinically diagnosed with these disorders. Secondly, since these tactics are among the more common ones parents tend to use to gain compliance in the first place, it seems not inconceivable that the breakdown in relationship that may have occurred as a result of the parent’s frequent use of power to gain compliance might be in part responsible for the “disorder” in the first place.

Professor Wendy Grolnick has done a lot of research on a different approach; one of her major interests is on self-determination theory so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised where her results land in this arena. Self-Determination Theory is the idea that humans have a need to feel as though they have control over their lives, and that they are competent, and that they are connected to and valued by people who are important to them. So self-determination theorists believe that acknowledging the child’s perspectives, providing choice, displaying empathy, and engaging in joint problem solving helps to build not only a positive relationship between parent and child, but also the child’s own feelings of control, competence, and connectedness. And if these strategies for gaining compliance sort of sound vaguely familiar to you then they should, because they are *exactly * the kinds of strategies that are described in the book How to Talk so Little Kids will Listen, which we discussed with the co-author Julie King back in episode 22 of the podcast. So now we understand a little more clearly that the strategies Julie and her coauthor Joanna Faber describe aren’t pulled out of thin air; they’re actually grounded in research about how children develop a sense of control, competence, and connecteness.

We can look at parental authority in the light of characteristics like empathy, competence, and connectedness and try to understand what about parental authority — where it’s not forced or coercive — makes it helpful to children. Professor Grolnick argues that when parents provide clear and consistent expectations about behavior, and predictable consequences, children understand how their actions lead to success or failure, which helps them to feel both in control and competent. By contrast, when parents just assert power over children as a means of gaining compliance, that power isn’t connected to any need that the *child* has but rather just the *parent’s* need for the child’s compliance, so it doesn’t help the child to learn or develop.

Parents might also wonder “well, should I reward the behavior I want to see to try to get my child to do more of that and less of the behavior I don’t like?” And Professor Grolnick’s answer would be “well you can, and if the reward is unexpected then that’s fine because the child didn’t have to do a certain thing to get the reward (which sort of defeats the point a bit).” But rewards that are contingent on performing a particular behavior control the child but don’t support the child’s competence, and also undermine the child’s intrinsic motivation to comply in the future. So if you tell them they can get a certain treat they really like after they clean up their room, for sure they’re going to clean up their room right now but next time you want them to clean up they’re going to say “where’s my treat?”. If you’re interested in digging into the research on that topic then we did a whole episode on it in Episode 20 which was called, fittingly enough and definitely rather facetiously, “How do I get my child to do what I want them to do?”. Professor Grolnick concludes that there may be some times when you don’t care if your child is intrinsically motivated to do a task; you just want them to do it, and in that case it doesn’t matter if you use rewards. But if you want the behavior to persist even if you can’t or don’t want to give a reward one day, then best not to start using the rewards in the first place.

There’s some evidence that parents naturally, without prompting, adjust their own attempts at achieving compliance depending on the goal. One study asked mothers to get their children to help organize some spoons and forks, rather than play with some attractive toys that were also in the room. Some mothers were told that the children’s compliance would only be assessed in the mothers’ presence — this was the short-term condition. The mothers in the long-term condition were told that there would also be a test of the child’s cooperation later on, when the mothers weren’t in the room. Actually, both groups of children were tested both with and without the mother but because the mothers in the short-term condition never expected there to be a later test, the researchers thought that they might use different strategies to gain the children’s compliance. And it turns out they did — mothers in the long-term goal condition were more nurturing toward their children before the task began, used reasoning more frequently to get the children to help sort the cutlery, they used more different kinds of explanations, and they were also more likely to use reasoning as an initial strategy than mothers in the short-term condition. And the children who were in the long-term condition, so, whose mothers had reasoned with them on getting them to sort the cutlery, were more likely to continue sorting the cutlery after their mothers had left the room — so the mothers were using effective strategies at gaining “long-term” compliance even when they weren’t explicitly told to do this, although I will say that “a task that takes another five minutes” does stretch the definition of “long-term” just a little. Some of us think of “long-term” as meaning something more like “months” or “years.”

This finding reminded me of some research I learned in a negotiation strategy class a long time ago — it turns out that adults are susceptible to improving compliance in the face of reasoning as well — a study conducted all the way back in 1978 had people try to cut in on a line of people waiting to use a photocopier, using one of three carefully-worded requests. The first one was “excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine?”. The second was “excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?”. The third one was “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”. How many of the people in line do you think let the researcher cut in in each condition?

60% of people waiting to use the copier let the person cut in line if they just asked to use the machine. 94% of people let the person cut in line when they said they were in a rush. But, surprisingly, 93% of people waiting to use the copier let the other person cut in line when they said “may I use the Xerox machine because I have to make copies,” even though the phrase “because I have to make copies” was both obvious and didn’t give the people standing in line any additional reason to allow the cut-in. The researchers hypothesized that our brains go on some kind of automatic pilot when we hear that “because” and don’t really evaluate the reason. We only come off the automatic pilot when the stakes are higher — the researchers repeated the experiment saying they needed to copy 20 pages, and in that case only the “real” excuse induced compliance. I’m not aware of any research that assesses what children perceive to be low-stakes or high-stakes requests or perhaps they haven’t yet learned this distinction yet. Either way, it could be a handy tool to use when you have a long-term goal in mind, and perhaps you could test the high-stakes/low stakes conditions on your own child!

One thing I do want to talk about a bit here is punishment. I want to quote the concluding paragraph of a paper by a very well-respected researcher, Dr. Joan Grusec, with whom I happen to disagree. Dr. Grusec says “children have to understand that unacceptable behavior brings with it appropriate consequences that cannot be avoided. Punishment is one of those consequences and, when applied appropriately, a necessary part of the process. Appropriateness is the key concept there, and we as researchers must continue to discover what is, indeed, appropriate.”

Now I hope I don’t shock anyone too much by saying that my daughter is almost three and I’ve never punished her. Never. And, honestly, I’m having a hard time thinking of an instance when I *would* punish her. That’s not to say that there are no consequences to her actions, because that’s not the case at all. But I never deliberately attempt to think of something I need to do to her to show her the consequence of her behavior, because I think the consequence that happens by itself is usually a powerful enough lesson for her — or maybe a lesson for me.

So some of these things have actually happened, and some have not, but I just want to give you some examples. If she were to get hold of something of mine that I don’t want her to have, perhaps something I’d previously told her not to touch, then I would consider that my fault for giving her access to it in the first place instead of putting it out of her reach. If she hit me, I would move away from her and say “I don’t like it when you hit me; it hurts me. I’m going to move over here.” She usually wants to be close to me, so me moving away from her is “punishment” enough. If she’s messing around with her food at the dinner table, I say “please finish your food, or I’m going to take it away;” if she continues to mess around with it then that just means she’s had enough to eat, and I take the food away. If she were to do something that wasn’t safe I’d remove her from the situation and tell her I can’t let her do whatever it is, and I wouldn’t let her be in that situation again until I thought she was ready, and even then I’d talk with her about it first to make sure she wasn’t going to do the thing I thought was unsafe.

Right now we’re struggling a lot with getting dressed in the mornings, and she loves to wear pajamas at night time. So one evening, long enough after the difficult morning we’d had that we were both calm, we talked about how much she doesn’t like geetting dressed and how long it takes and how I don’t like to fight with her about it and I can tell it doesn’t make her happy either. So I let her know that if she can help me to get her dressed in the mornings, she can continue to wear pajamas at night time. And on the mornings when she resists getting dressed I remind her of what we talked about and that I need her help to get her dressed, and that if we don’t have time to get dressed we’ll need to wear tomorrow’s clothes to bed tonight. Often that’s enough to induce compliance but when it doesn’t, we just put on tomorrow’s clothes before bed, which makes the next day much easier. The important part is that I don’t see this as a punishment, and I don’t believe she does either because she is in direct control over whether or not she gets to wear pajamas. At the first sign of resistance in the morning I remind her of the conversation and give her the opportunity to rethink her approach, which she usually does. And if she doesn’t I get her dressed anyway because going to school in pajamas is not an option in our family, and she wears tomorrow’s clothes to bed that night. And, honestly, I don’t see that as a punishment because I’m basically doing everything I can to not threaten her, and to give her as much control as possible over the situation while still holding my ground on something I think is important. Now where I draw the line on wearing pajamas out of the house is irrelevant, but the point is that even in the face of what I perceive to be active defiance I give her as much control as I can while still achieving my goal.

One psychology student actually wrote a doctoral thesis on this, and found that offering alternatives explained virtually all of the effect that reasoning induced compliance more effectively than any other parental strategy, regardless of the type of noncompliance, the toddler’s temperament, or the mother’s characteristics. What’s important is that both of the choices — in this case, complying with getting dressed or wearing tomorrow’s clothes to bed — are acceptable to me. My daughter is also free to suggest alternatives herself, and sometimes she already does suggest them. She doesn’t love brushing her teeth right now either and she will suggest brushing them in the living room, although I can’t say for the life of me why it’s better to brush your teeth in the living room than in the bathroom, but I think it’s that she appreciates the control she has over the situation by saying where she wants to brush them. Her feeling a sense of control seems to deescalate the situation so we don’t get to the point of a tantrum, and I try to fine-tune my own reactions to her, adding more explanations and offering her more control to avoid that tantrum state. You might want to observe your own strategies when you’re dealing with non-compliance as well; you may find you do these things too, and now you’re more consciously aware of them you might choose to use certain strategies more than others.

Going back to something we talked about in the episode on the book Generation: Me, I use my own irritation as a guide to where those limits should be set, because when I’m irritated it means my values have been overstepped. That allows me to set a limit that I am happy to hold, because I know the limit is “real” and not something I just set arbitrarily, and as we already learned, consistent boundaries help a child to feel competent and have a sense of agency. I also try to keep in mind that she is still learning the language, and research has shown that toddlers are less likely to comply with a maternal request when they don’t understand it. Of course, I still want to improve her vocabulary as well, so I might say “I need you to help me out; I need you to cooperate.” Now she uses the word “cooperate” by herself, because I scaffolded her learning of that word, but I still made sure to use very clear language to be sure she’s not failing to comply just because she doesn’t understand what I’m asking her to do. You can also watch for your child’s use of reasoning in other areas of your lives together as an indicator that they’re ready for more advanced reasoning in negotiations over their compliance.

So I hope this episode has given you a bit of consolation if you feel you have a good relationship with your child but are still exasperated that they don’t comply with your requests a lot of the time. Because, as we’ve learned, that is pretty normal. It’s what we do next that has profound implications not only for our child’s development, but for our relationship with them as well.

Thanks for listening — if you’d like to read the references I used for today’s episode, you can find them at yourparentingmojo.com/defiance.


Originally published at Your Parenting Mojo.

Jen Lumanlan

Written by

M.S. (Psychology: Child Development); M.Ed., host Your Parenting Mojo podcast (YourParentingMojo.com): turning scientific research into useful tools for parents