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Embracing Your Toddler’s Counterwill

Throughout the late toddler and preschool years, children are building their will—the ability to consciously control their actions. They are making more choices for themselves and they can be persistent in making those choices known! Behaviors that sometimes get labeled as disobedience, defiance, or opposition are often rooted in a child’s counterwill.

Counterwill is a natural, healthy response to feeling pushed or pressured to do something. This is an important part of human development: learning to be your own person, make your own choices, and listen to your inner compass. We know that any skill takes practice, and three year olds are often working especially hard to practice this.

When we consider “the big picture,” we can see the ways in which counterwill can be a positive thing. We want to support our children in growing into teens and young adults who can resist peer pressure and are able to make their own choices. Reminding ourselves of the value of these skills can help us take it less personally when our child says “No!” to our every suggestion.

If you’re finding yourself getting frustrated at the amount of resistance you’re facing, it can help to check in with how often you give your child choices and autonomy. Their capabilities can change quickly; sometimes you may need to give them more opportunities to make their own decisions or take on more responsibility.

As you think about the times your child pushes back through direct “No’s,” ignoring directions, or doing the opposite of what you’ve directed, you can consider:

  • Is this a safety issue? Is there a reason it needs to be addressed right now?
  • Does my child know the expectation? Were my directions communicated clearly and at their level? Did I accidentally offer a choice when there isn’t one?
  • Is there a way I can make this fun or silly? We can sometimes turn these moments into sweet moments of bonding and playing with our children.
  • Are there feelings I can acknowledge or encourage? Children experiencing stress or feeling unhappy about an unrelated issue may need some help sorting through their feelings before they are ready to follow our directions.

When counterwill comes up, first take a deep breath. Then, assess the moment. Can you focus on connection first? Take a moment to connect with your child before you redirect. Try to redirect with positive, inclusive language and a sense of being on the same team. Make room for their ideas about how or when the task should happen (within boundaries if needed). If you lose your cool, you can still reconnect and make amends as needed.

Take a moment to celebrate your child’s growth—your child’s sense of safety and ability to express their counterwill means you’re doing things right!

To learn more about your toddler’s development, register for Parenting Now’s Thrilling THREEs parenting group, starting April 1. Learn more at parentingnow.org/parentinggroups.

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