1 In All About Children's Emotions/ All About Your Child's Development/ Child Development/ Mindful Parenting

Toddler Defiance and the Brain: They Know Better, But Can They Do Better? (yes, but they need help)

What to do about your 3-year-old's defiance

The difference between 2-year-old defiance and 3-year-old defiance is that smirk.

That twinkle in their eye, the thrill of knowing better, but still doing it anyway.

That irresistible urge to flex their newfound power of assertiveness, the realization that they have power too — the knowledge that their reactions can cause a big reaction in you.

You know what I’m talking about right?

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You’ve seen that twinkle in their eyes and that smirk — you know the one that makes think that your 2-year-old learning the word “no” and saying it over and over was, well, cute.

I remember looking at my son and seeing that streak of defiant independence and the psychologist part of me feeling proud he was such a strong, determined little guy while the parent part of me wanted to scream or cry or maybe both.

I remember how I felt. I felt like he did it on purpose, just to upset me!! I felt like he knew better. Why was he doing this!?!

Here’s the thing…

Three-year old’s do know better, yet they don’t. 


They are more mature and understand more than they did at age two. But, that knowing look your 3-year-old gives you after doing something that they know better not to do — well, it’s not nearly as sophisticated as it seems.

Three-year-olds are still very immature both emotionally and cognitively. In the research world, 3-year-olds are known as having perfectly logical, yet completely irrational thought.

Jean Piaget called this the pre-operational stage of thinking — or the stage before mental operations function smoothly. In other words, pre-logical. 

Preschoolers are very active thinkers, but their thinking is also rigid and limited.


They think in terms of logical steps yet they are unable to apply that logic.

Couple that with the newfound sense of self and egocentric-thought and you have the perfect recipe for defiance.


The Three Year Old’s Brain

The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

Your three-year-old is much more capable than they were at age two in understanding concepts and understanding rules. Their self-control centers of the brain have begun to organize and gear up for some rapid development.

They are more mature and they do know more and we expect more from them. But, there are still limits to what they can actually do — even when they may have more knowledge.

There is one experiment that researchers do with three-year-olds that illustrates this perfectly, it is the Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS) developed by Dr. Philip Zelazo.


Here is how it works:

Children are told they are going to play the “color game.” They are shown some cards that are red and some that are blue. The cards have pictures of trucks and flowers. The children are asked to sort the cards by color.

The red cards go in one pile and the blue in another.

The children do this pretty well.

Then the rule changes:

The researcher tells the child, “Now we will play the shape game. In the shape game, the trucks go here and the flowers go here.”

The child is given a picture of a red truck. The card sorting container has a picture of a blue truck. A 3-year-old will mistakenly continue to sort by color, not by shape.

They will put the picture of the red truck in the container with the red flower — sorting by color.

The researcher will try again.

They ask the child Where do the trucks go?”  The three-year-old points to the container with the red truck.

The researcher asks “Where do the flowers go?” The three-year-old points to the container with the blue flower.

The researcher says “Here is a red flower” and hands the child the card.

Where do you think they put it?




The 3-year-old learned the game as a color-sorting game. They sorted the cards by color first. They understand the rules have changed. They can point to where a truck should go — but when that truck is a different color they can’t do it. They will continue to sort by color alone.


The same thing happens if you start with shape game. When you change to the color game they will only sort by shape.


Whatever rule you started with, the child will continue to play by that rule even though they know the rule has changed. 


How the brain is involved in toddler defiance

Tueber, a psychologist called this a “dissociation between knowing and doing.”


Then, as if by magic, bring that same child into the lab when they turn 4-years-old and they can now do the task. They can sort by color and when the rule changes, they can sort by shape. They can think about the rules, reflect on them, and switch between the rules fairly easily. This development occurs undercover in the brain — it isn’t something we don’t easily see unless we test for it in a methodological way.


Is it Defiance?

It looks like defiance.

The child knows the rule, yet they continue to do the opposite.

You remind them of the rule, yet they still do the opposite.

But, it is not defiance — instead, it is an immature brain. 

Their knowledge of the rules remains rigid and unintegrated.

In the 3-year-old brain, there is a step missing between knowing and doing. A disconnect.


The 3-year-old knows the new rule, they can even tell you the new rule. They can also keep the previous rule in their working memory. But, they do not reflect on the two sets of rules at a higher level of thinking. So knowledge of the rules remains in separate mental representations in the mind.


In the real world outside of the laboratory children don’t necessarily have two conflicting rules, but rather two conflicting desires. Their own will and what you want them to do — or really what broader ‘society’ dictates they should do.

We have to remember that 3-year-olds are very much still learning the ‘rules of society ‘ or what you have to do in order to be accepted and forge relationships.


They know they shouldn’t grab the toy from their friend. Yet, they WANT that toy. They want it really, really bad. They also want to be a good friend and they want to do the right thing. But at age three, the desire for the toy often wins and overrides everything else.

And so, they grab it.


They can tell you they weren’t supposed to grab it. They can tell you the rule. But their immature brain cannot yet reconcile two conflicting thoughts.

They know better, but they cannot quite do better.


This is why it feels like your three-year-old is manipulating you. Because they are mature enough to know the rule and repeat the rule.

What we don’t see under the surface is the tension between their self-will and the outside world. Couple this with their growing sense of independence and self-centeredness and you have a child who wants to do the right thing, knows the right thing, but yet isn’t quite socialized, has an immature brain, and is extremely willful — in other words, defiant. 


The Magic Tool for Defiance: Teach Your Child Mindful Reflection

Researcher’s discovered that if they told the child exactly what they did wrong and asked them what they did wrong, in other words, taught children to actively reflect on what they did, even a 3-year-old could begin to follow the new rule.

Here is an example:

(After playing the color game for a while) “Now we will play the shape game. The trucks go on the truck pile and the flowers go on the flower pile.” The child mistakenly sorts by color.

Then the researcher says:

“No, that’s wrong. Where do the trucks go (the child points)? You put the truck here on the flower pile. That’s okay. Let’s do it again.”

With practice, correction, and the adult providing direct reflection on what the child did, they can change their behavior and follow the new rule!


Our role as a parent is to help our kids build that bridge in their mind between knowing and doing.

Four Steps to Support the Development of Mindful Reflection (and handle defiance!)

1. Sensitively Help Your Child Reflect on Mistakes

Repeating the rule or instructions isn’t enough. Having them repeat the rule to you isn’t enough. Talking, lecturing, and so on, won’t help. Instead, help your child reflect and learn from their mistakes in a warm, encouraging, and sensitive way.

Toddler defiance peaks at age 3 and for most children, as they mature defiance decreases — this is a normal part of development. For some children, defiance increases with age. The difference between kids who stay high in defiance and kids who decrease is predicted by two things: sensitive parenting and regulation skills.

Teaching Regulation Skills With Reflection

Teaching your child to reflect is helping them learn the important skill to stop and think about their actions and to learn from mistakes.

This is a foundation for self-control and could even be a foundation for mindfulness:

“You remember how to ask for a turn with the toy. You didn’t ask for a turn. You grabbed the toy and now your friend is sad. That was a mistake. That’s okay. You can try again and ask for a turn.” 


Correcting Behavior in a Warm and Sensitive Way

But, it is also important to do this in a warm and sensitive way. To guide your child and connect with them, even in the tough moments. The bridge between knowing and doing is not yet formed in their brain — as a parent, you help them make that connection until they can do it themselves.

Warmly correcting a child’s mistake — helping them develop reflection and regulation will build up those skills and lead to a better regulated little person who may still make poor choices sometimes, but generally can and wants to do the right thing.


Harsh parenting has the opposite effect — leading ultimately to more defiance and perhaps even worse behavior down the road.

Harshly punishing the 3-year-old who can’t quite always do the right thing isn’t going to help them develop reflection skills or regulation skills. It is going to give them the message that they are bad, that they don’t have control over themselves, that they are a disappointment and so on.


2. Help Your Child Reflect on How They Feel

There is a little catch to the research I discussed above. The card sorting task is a “cool” cognitive function task. It’s based on logic and thinking — not emotion and feelings — which would be a “hot” task.

When you throw “hot” emotions into the mix — that disconnect in the brain is much harder to bridge. It is also why we don’t see 4-year-olds behaving with high self-control all the time. Yes, their brain has matured — but they have a lot left to learn in terms of regulating emotions.

How did you feel when…?

When your child does something good, for example, when they show empathy to others or remember how to ask to share a toy help them reflect on that feeling:

Say to them — “Wow you remembered to ask kindly for a turn with the toy. How did that feel?” or “Wow, you remembered that Sarah doesn’t like hugs and you gave her a high-five. She gave you a big smile back, how did that feel?” or “Wow, you said something kind to your friend when they felt sad. Do you think it made them feel better? How did you feel?” 


More than Positive Reinforcement

They will feel proud, they will feel a sense of accomplishment, and that warm-fuzzy feeling that comes with handling a tough (for them) situation well.

This is like positive reinforcement, but it is more than that.

It is teaching your child that doing good is feeling good.

It is building up their internal motivation to get along and cooperate, which in the long term will translate to less defiance and better social skills.

Another way to help your child is to use picture books as a tool for reflection on behavior and feelings. This is a strategy that I found worked really well with my son — and in fact still does even at an older age. You can see my series of positive behavior books here, listed by age and books that teach children how to stop and think, be mindful, and handle emotions, here.


3. Encourage Practice and Do-overs: Learning from Mistakes

I probably sound like a broken record when it comes to do-overs, but they are a great parenting tool.

Just like the researcher says in the game above, “that’s okay, let’s try again”, we can use this in everyday life.

This helps children engage in direct reflection on their behavior and encourages children to have a growth-mindset and self-efficacy, the belief that they can change their behavior.


Instead of a time-out or a lecture, try giving them another chance.

Help them reflect on what they did wrong, tell them how they can do it better, and let them know you believe in them.

Because that’s the whole thing with three-year-old defiance isn’t it? They know better. They just have to gain the skills to do better. 

Sitting in a corner thinking about what they did wrong won’t help. Practicing and trying again with a parent who believes in them, will do wonders.


4. Empower them to Do-it Themselves– Give Them Tools

One of the reasons there are so many battles at age three is because emotion regulation is immature, their sense of an independent self is high, and they are unable to truly take other’s perspectives — so they are selfish and willful with big emotions.


And their biggest source of frustration? Having their goals blocked.

Often, we — their parents — are the ones doing the blocking.


They want to keep playing, we say it’s time to go.

They love playing in the dirt, we say to wash it off.

They want to climb, we say go down the slide the right way.

They want to stay up all night, we say go to bed.

They are immersed in their TV show, we say it’s time to turn it off.


How can we stop being the one blocking their goals, yet still get things done, have them be reasonably clean, not watch TV all day, and get a decent amount of sleep?

A change in perspective is all it takes…

Pick your battles and for the ones you put your foot down about, use tools and take yourself out of the equation. Simply change their perspective. 

You would think this wouldn’t work — but it does. Here is an example — get a clock that turns color when it’s time for bed. Tell your child — “The clock turns blue when it’s time for bed! Look we have just a few minutes to brush our teeth and put on pajamas before it’s blue!”

Now it’s the clock saying it’s time for bed, not you. Now, it’s you and your child racing against the clock — together, as a team. This can shift the tone of bedtime from one of power-struggles to one of playful togetherness.

Here is another example — use TV tokens to limit TV use instead of you saying when to turn it off.

Tell your child — “We’ve been disagreeing about when to turn off TV shows so here are some tokens for you, it’s your job to decide when to use them. You get two tokens a day. One token is good for one show. What do you think happens when the tokens are gone? Yep, you turn it off. That’s an important job!” 

Or simply use a toy to tell your child what to do instead of you telling them directly to get through routines like bedtime and getting ready or getting out the door.


Also, using a routine chart has the same effect. It’s not you saying brush your teeth, it’s just the next step. My readers have been loving this one (referral link).Routine Cards for Toddlers and Kids


Why it works…

I think these types of strategies work for a few reasons. It isn’t you against them, it’s you working together and now your child knows what they’re working for — it isn’t some abstract, seemingly arbitrary concept of time, instead, it’s a routine chart, a color on a clock, or a game. You are speaking their language. 

With a concrete tool that they have some control over, they will have less reason to feel defiant. They feel empowered to take charge of some of the things in their life. And these tools are playful — they make sense to kids.

Now beware, these strategies won’t work as easily forever. The precocious 4-year-old will negotiate for more tokens or begin asking how the clock works or want to change the routine (and all these things you can work with them on)– but because of the 3-year-old’s brain, they won’t yet reflect on the fact that you set the clock to turn blue at 7:30 (insert laughing emoji here!).


More Resources

And 4-year-old defiance? Well — We will have to get to that another day — it’s a whole new stage.

And your 2-year-old? While some of this will work with them as well, get my inside scoop about 2-year-old’s here:

The Secret to Your 2-Year-Old’s Heart (and gaining their cooperation)

3-year-old toddler brain

To see all of my posts about toddlers click here: Whole Child Development: Toddlers

























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