elevating child care

Confident Momentum: How to Stop Battling Your Toddler’s Resistance and Defiance

Raising our children with love and respect requires us to take on a role that might not come naturally: leadership. Without the security of unflappable, empathic leaders, children are less able to focus on the work they need to do – growing, developing, playing, exploring, and ultimately, flourishing as self-confident, content, successful people.

One of the not-so-fun duties of our leadership is handling our children’s age-appropriate resistance and defiance. In my work with parents and toddlers, I give a lot of thought to figuring out how parents can approach this challenge more easily and effectively.  One of the best tools I’ve come up with recently is confident momentum.

Confident momentum has nothing to do with speed or rushing. It’s a positive, sometimes heroic kind of energy, an I-can-do-this-thing attitude of helpfulness that stems from the understanding that it’s perfectly normal for young children to stall, resist, and test limits. This is particularly true during transitions of any kind or whenever they’re experiencing uncomfortable emotions or stress, tiredness or overstimulation. It is in those situations that confident momentum is most helpful and respectful.

Confident momentum means coming in (not on) strong, the way athletes do as they wind up for a pitch, or swing a bat, racket or golf club. We’re prepared for the likelihood of resistance and will meet it with positive action. Acting as if helps us find our groove. It gets more comfortable and fluid with practice.

Confident momentum overrides struggles while we fully accept and validate them. So as we gently but firmly take our child’s hand or carry him or her out the door, we acknowledge, “Ah, it’s time to go, but you don’t want to leave the party. You wanted to stay and play. That’s such a bummer!”

Confident momentum is decisive and prevents power struggles from taking hold. Fueled by confidence, we won’t need as much physical strength as we do when we unwittingly create a stand-off by being tentative or asking more than once (and then getting angry or annoyed). Our momentum is even more important if we have personal physical issues or very strong children. I recently did a home consultation with a single parent whose back issues had made her afraid to set limits and be decisive with her toddler. I was able to demonstrate confident momentum for her, showing her how, with a fearless, focused attitude, she could guide him by simply placing her hands on his shoulders. Within a day or two, her boy went from resisting every step of his bedtime routine to rarely resisting at all. He could relax into her leadership and was getting the nurturing he needed.

It can be really tough to remember how emotionally immature children are because they can be so impressively intelligent, capable, and aware. When they seem deliberately bratty or downright mean, we’ll need to remind ourselves: These are tiny people with incredibly low impulse control who are very easily overwhelmed. In the moment, it may feel like our kids are out to get us, but it is actually that their impulses have gotten the better of them. They know they’re not pleasing us. What they don’t know is why. In fact, we’re more likely to understand what’s going on with them than they are. There are always reasons.

Confident momentum gives children the comforting message that we understand rather than judge them, and that they can count on us to happily help them whenever they can’t seem to help themselves. We can do this.

I share more detailed explanations, and examples in this episode of my respectful parenting podcast series:

There’s much more about respectful discipline in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame (which is now available in Spanish)

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15 Responses to “Confident Momentum: How to Stop Battling Your Toddler’s Resistance and Defiance”

  1. avatar Lorka says:

    Hi Janet, thank you for this blog post and pod cast. It’s very pertinent in my life right now.
    I am struggling with knowing how to let my daughter (she will be three at the end of sept) express her emotions. She seems to want me both close and far(go away) when in deep emotional distress. I get she doesn’t really know what she wants and needs. But i don’t know whether to give her space or stay close either.
    I don’t want her to feel abandoned in her feelings and I also want her to feel respected (when she says go away) and autonomous. Plus it is difficult for me to stay present when the emotionality is heightened for so long with seemingly no end in sight.
    My concern is when it escalates and escalates and she seems to need help calming down. I try to empathize. You’re having a hard time– she says–
    Don’t say that!
    I say–i hear you
    She says don’t say I hear you!
    Do I not say anything?
    I nod– she says don’t do that.
    Everything I do– even whether it be just look at her and nod empathetically seem to escalate her emotions.
    Sometimes I say– I’m going to give you some space–I’ll be In the other room when you want me.
    Sometimes I say– ok, I will just stay here and stay close.
    None of it seems to help.
    If it gets too heightened (and perhaps I’m the one who needs to adjust and be ok with the heightened emotions) I usually just say really firmly- it’s time for us to go, or get calm, or stop and breath.
    But sometimes I’m fed up, and not so unruffled, and I hate being that way.
    If you have any thoughts regarding this please let me know.
    I am so grateful,
    Lorka

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Lorka! “None of this seems to help” I would consider letting go of this idea that you are responsible for helping her through her strong emotions by doing something. I think you nailed it here: “perhaps I’m the one who needs to adjust and be ok with the heightened emotions.” She is impatient with your words to her because she senses in them your discomfort and that you are working to get her through this and somehow calm her down. Instead, LET GO and let her feelings be. Let them belong to her, not you. An expression I sometimes use is “let the plates drop”. Let it all crumble around her and focus on breathing and calming yourself. I would stay in the vicinity with her, even if she says to go away (unless you need to go attend to something, which I absolutely would do… “I’m going to the kitchen for minute and will back in a minute to check on you”).

      Here’s a post that might be helpful to you: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2014/11/when-empathy-doesnt-work/

  2. avatar Francie says:

    Such great info, Janet, thank you! Confident leadership does not come to me naturally so I have to remind myself of your advice daily. I am thankful for your website and everything you do. I find the podcasts especially useful, since I can easily listen to them several times so they really soak in.

    My 2.75 year old son has never been affectionate. He never initiates kisses, hugs, or “I love you”, not even once. If asked if I can kiss/hug him he either acts like it’s a chore or does it kind of aggressively (I.e. For hugs he’ll grit his teeth and stiffen his body and hug really hard). He also does the gritting his teeth/making hands into fists/stiffen body when he’s wound up or “full of emotion” (not exactly sure how to describe it). have you seen other (neuro typical) kids do this? And is the lack of affection “normal”? I see other kids giving their loved ones hugs, kisses, and I love yous freely which is a bit hard to see and not want (though to be clear I’ve tried very hard to not let my disappointment regarding his lack of affection show and of course never force physical affection on him if he says no). Thank you for any insight you can offer.

    • avatar janet says:

      Hi Francie! Thanks for your supportive words. As hard as this might be for you, I would trust your boy to initiate affection in his own way when he decides to. I wouldn’t ask him for hugs or kisses. My guess is that this is partially temperament, but has also become a bit of a testing ground for him, because he senses your agenda in these requests to kiss or hug, even though you’ve been working at not letting your concern show. What I would do is make it a point to give him your 100% undivided attention periodically… during meals, snacks, diapering (if he’s doing that), bathtime and bedtime, and also sometimes when he’s playing or just puttering or sitting around. Be an open, accepting, interested-in-him presence, let go of the physical affection part and I think he will surprise you at some point soon.

      • avatar Francie says:

        Thank you, Janet. I will focus on doing just that <3

        • avatar janet says:

          My pleasure, Francie. Please let me know how it goes. 🙂

  3. avatar Abraham says:

    I have great appreciation for this enlightening work you do. I first noticed the brilliance with which you express your self in a documentary called “schooling the world”, and have followed you now for 3 years. My daughter is almost four now, and reading your posts has helped enormously, especially these kinds dealing with a positive and empathetic approach to discipline. All the best to you and thank you.

  4. avatar Sarah says:

    Thank you for your article and pod cast, it is very pertinent for us right now. We moved earlier this month to a different state and your article made me realize that I have not been providing the confident leadership my daughter needs amid the current upheaval in our lives. One issue that we struggled with (and have struggle with even before the move) is hand washing before meals. When it’s time to wash her hands our daughter (who will be 3 in November) will either ignore us or get “floppy body” where she goes limp and won’t stand up when we say “okay you can either walk or be carried to the sink to wash your hands”. Generally it’s the worst of course when she’s overtired which we do our best to avoid but she has also begun to skip her naps though she still goes in her crib and will just chat and hang out during her rest time. We have also tried saying alright let us know if you need assistance washing your hands, we are going to eat dinner now but she will come to the table and have a tantrum when we say, “no please wash your hands would you like to do it yourself or do you want some help?” I realize it has turned into a power struggle but I am not sure which approach I should be taking. Thanks!

    • avatar janet says:

      You’re so welcome, Sarah. I would confidently escort your daughter to wash her hands, rather than giving her choices and waiting for her to respond. Instead of saying, “it’s time to wash your hands,” approach with confident momentum, already helping her along as you say… “And now we will go to the sink to wash your hands… ” That’s what I mean by overriding and preempting the power struggles with momentum. When you wait, it’s too late. (Haha, that might be a new motto.) In other instances with children “wait” is the magic word, but not in these transitions or in situations where our child typically demonstrates resistance.

      Another option (for you to decide on) might be a wet washcloth at the table that you can use to wash her hands a bit. But I believe you are fully capable of escorting her to the sink if you do it in capable, confident Mama Bear style.

      • avatar Sarah says:

        Thank you for your reply and helpful suggestion! Reading your blog has really enriched our parenting over the past year and a half!

        • avatar janet says:

          Aww, thank you, Sarah, it’s my absolute pleasure.

  5. avatar Jane Lopez says:

    One of the best posts for new parents like me. I have learned some importing things from it. Now it’s time to follow them and see the result. Thanks a zillion.

  6. avatar Abi says:

    Hi Janet,
    I suffer with constant ‘I’m not sure if this is the right thing’itis. I’m trying to be more of a mama bear but I’m not naturally good at setting boundaries. 2 examples from the past couple of days. Brushing teeth last night and my 2 year old start smearing the toothpaste on my clothes with her brush. I say, you want to put that on mummy but no I can’t let you. She looks at me and does it again. I say if you do that again I will have to take the brush. She does it again so I take hold of the brush firmly and she eventually let’s go. She is very upset, but not angry, then let’s me brush her teeth. I empathise that it was upsetting when mummy took the brush.
    Second is today, messing around in bathroom to do nappy.i give her the option that she can put her nappy on or mummy can. She won’t so I pick her up (she squirms and cries) and put nappy on. Again she is upset and I empathise. I feel like, because I don’t feel like I’m firm enough then when I am firm do I come on too strong. Is it too much to take things, pick her up. Then I debate constantly with myself to how I should have done it differently, or how I’ve damaged our relationship. My other instinct tells me she feels safer with me when I give her a consequence. Help!?

  7. avatar Amber says:

    Hi Janet! There is just one thing that is not very clear to me. If you could shed some light, that would be great!

    (2yr old)

    When my son (for instance) is refusing to hold my hand while crossing the street (and saying “no! No!”) do I just grab his hand confidently and let him scream and cry and just keep going not saying anything to him? Or when he doesn’t want his hands washed do I just walk him there screaming and crying and force wash his hands?

    He will battle me all day long if I try to give choices or let him sit and cry/scream.

    Can you give me a full senerio of what I should do in these moments? Do I just grab his hand, walk him across the street (drag him really is what it turns into) and let him scream and cry and just keep going on? I’m a little confused about how to be confident and not make it turn into a power struggle at the same time? Help!

    Thanks for any and all advice!!! It’s so appreciated!

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