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The Defiant Toddler

Dear Dr. Gwenn:

I hope you can answer this child development question that my husband and I disagree on. We have an active 16month old son. At what age should he understand and follow “no”? For example, we’ve been telling him “no touching the outlet” for about 6-8 months. He’ll stand next to an outlet and wag his finger and babble. I assume he understands he’s not supposed to touch it but lacks the self-disciple to stay away. My husband thinks he should have learned to stay away from the outlets four months ago. At what age will he finally put the two together—understanding that he’s not supposed to touch the outlet and actually not try and touch the outlet? -YM


Dear YM:

This is an excellent question and you are not alone in your confusion. Understanding toddlers can be very tricky. Both you and your husband raise very valid points but are missing the big picture here developmentally. This is not about self-discipline or understanding but about control. Your son is now an official member of the “terrible 2’s” farm league...that delightfully exasperating phase of over exuberance, exploration and button pushing. So, what you are all engaged in is an old-fashioned war of the wills.

While your son’s short term memory is admittedly underdeveloped compared to an older child, he clearly knows what he is doing as demonstrated by wagging his finger at the outlet. “No” means “don’t do it” to you but “let’s give it a try and see how Mom and Dad react” to your son. According to child development expert Dr. Ed Bailey, Medical Director of North Shore Children’s Hospital in Salem, MA, “non compliance (in young toddlers) is 1) often attention seeking, 2) at times defiant, and 3) environmental testing , thus the pushing of buttons. ‘No’ doesn't mean ‘I don't remember’, it means ‘I don't care, I want your attention, and I wonder what happens if I do x’.” Remember, your son’s goal is to push your buttons. If he knows he has succeeded, he will come back for more. So, try and stay calm and redirect him to something new.

But this doesn’t end the story. Complicating matters is the fact that toddlers are impulsive and immediate; a state that can last until preschool and early kindergarten. “I remember quite clearly when my daughter (age 4) finally developed a superego – it wasn’t that long ago”, comments Dr. Donna Wren, pediatrician and mother of 2. “Just because a toddler knows he shouldn't do it doesn't mean he has the self control to realize that it applies to HIM at ALL TIMES and to actually apply that self-regulation.”

Staying calm can be a real challenge when parenting toddlers and it is important for parents to really care for themselves and their marriage to help keep the adults refueled. This is a great phase to find some sitters or mother’s helpers just to carve out a break now and again. Finally, if you are feeling overly stressed by your toddler’s actions and antics or worried that developmentally he is not acting as you’ve seen other kids his age act, talk to your pediatrician.


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