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Toddler Tips

Parenting An Unruly Toddler
What works? What doesn't?

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 6, November-December 2007, pp. 276-278

"Toddler Tips" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help parents of toddlers. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

My toddler's behavior has recently become very challenging. He refuses to do as I ask him and is often rude and unkind to his siblings and friends. Although I don't approve of hitting children, I have felt on several occasions that it was my only option. How do other mothers discipline their unruly children?

Mother's Response

I believe that there is never a good reason to hit a child. Parents are much bigger and have a lot more power. Using physical violence only teaches children to bully smaller people.

I am the mother of four children (former toddlers!), and I co-facilitate parenting classes in my city. I often talk with parents who are confused about discipline issues and see either permissive or authoritarian parenting as the only two choices. There are other choices, sometimes called "loving guidance," "connected parenting," or "gentle discipline." This kind of parenting is respectful and firm, and not in any way permissive.

We often expect too much of our toddlers. It's not developmentally appropriate for them to do whatever we say, or to know how to share and respect others' space. Children need to be gently taught in these skills, mostly through demonstration, and with patience and kindness. Set limits respectfully. Say, "I won't let you hit your friend" as you hold the hand in mid-air, and also acknowledge feelings. "You were feeling so frustrated that you wanted to hit, but I can't let you hurt anyone." You are helping your child learn and setting firm limits at the same time, but without punishments or shaming.

Spend time thinking about all the wonderful things you love about your child -- positive regard goes a long way. Trust your child. The common parenting techniques of punishment, including threats, deprivations, time-outs, bribes, insults, shouting, scolding, inducement of guilt, and other attempts at controlling often lead to difficulties. The best thing we can do as parents to ensure that our children will grow into compassionate, communicative, responsible, caring, and considerate adults is to treat them with those same qualities, and then trust them to model our behavior at their own pace.

Emily Troper

Mother's Response

My three-year-old is just coming out of a similar phase, so it may be reassuring for you to hear that, like many challenges in parenting, this too will pass.

With regard to being unkind to siblings: I comfort the injured party with a cuddle first. Then I calm the other one down with a cuddle and explain that what she did is not an acceptable way to treat her sister. With my child, it's definitely all born of frustration. She's quite a spirited little person. I've taught her to shout, "I am cross!" rather than shout something mean at her sister. I've also taught her to stamp her feet on the floor rather than hit her sister. The other thing I have found with my child is that if she's at all tired or hungry, or if we've had a day when I've been very busy and not connected with her, she's harder to deal with. So I try to keep a step ahead with snacks, drinks, taking five minutes to read a story, and have a cuddle even when things are hectic. Her behavior is becoming a lot easier for the family because she's now better at expressing herself more constructively. There have been times when I've felt very angry when we've been having a particularly challenging day: at these times I deal with myself before I do anything. I take a minute so that I don't explode into lots of shouting. I know how hard it can be!

Fiona Jones
Cheshire UK

Mother's Response

It is possible that your toddler is trying out this newly discovered behavior in order to see what effect it will have. If the effect is interesting or gets him extra attention, he may repeat it often. Consider ignoring it. If you need to deal with it in some way, try to ensure it involves the minimum of fuss.

Attention seeking is also normal toddler behavior. It often indicates that a child feels a need for more positive, personal attention. Why not look afresh at your day and see what you can do to increase the time you spend doing fun things with your children, and minimize the activities that take your attention away. Involving children in household tasks is a way to get necessary things done and still spend quality time with them. It also teaches them important skills for the future and reminds them that every family member has a role in the family.

If you know a certain behavior is likely to make you angry, learn to identify its early signs and step in to stop it before you get mad. Remember that children learn most by example. If you don't want your child to learn that hitting others is acceptable, keep working on finding other solutions for yourself. Rather than indulge in guilty feelings when you don't make it, learn to apologize and spend some time thinking how it might have been avoided.

Don't forget to look at his diet. Some foods make children more excitable and aggressive. High energy children benefit from plenty of fresh air and exercise so try to build some into every day (preferably more than once a day).

Occasionally, you may need to deal with unacceptable behavior by removing the child from the source. Staying with him is better than isolating him -- children in time out alone are more likely to dwell on the injustice done to them than to reflect on their behavior to others. You can be present without rewarding him with inappropriate attention.

Be patient. It is, as the saying goes, "just a stage" and will be over all the sooner if you find the right solution.

Eileen Harrison
Rennes France

Mother's Response

I would like to say that I understand what you're going through. I had a similar experience with my first child, now four years old. From age two and a half to three and a half, he was unable to share toys with other children, snatching them from other people's hands, or hitting or pushing other children to get what he wanted.

He seemed to be very impatient and couldn't wait or take turns. He had to have everything the way he wanted, a sort of "control freak." Most of the time he was finding it difficult to express his feelings or his needs through words and he was very physical. A lot of situations were upsetting to him and ignited aggressive behavior. There is always a reason why a child behaves aggressively: too young for sharing, too tired, too hungry, but also other feelings can get in the way, too. For instance, my son was feeling very protective of his own house and belongings, and I realized he was not at ease with other children in his home.

Unfortunately, I found it hard when the mother of the other child was not particularly understanding and instead of working with me and recognizing that they both were just children or accepting an apology from me and my child, she would expect from me an exemplary punishment.

I don't believe in hitting a child at all, having been hit when I was a child and having bad memories of it. I believe now that when a child is behaving badly, the adult needs to find a creative and gentle solution to set a good example (not only to punish the child for the sake of it).

What I have done and I still do with my child (when I manage to resist some shouting, which does happen if I'm really tired and I can't take it any more) is try not to judge him for what he has done or put a label on him (i.e. "you naughty boy!"). I remind myself that he is just a little boy, and has all the potential to develop into a great human being. I try to think that he is probably experiencing some kind of frustration and he is not able to deal with it. I also try to remember that he will not be like that forever.

I put myself into his shoes to understand what might be causing his reaction. I go down to his level, make eye contact (if he is not running away!), and explain why what he has done is not the right thing to do, and I ask him to apologize to the child involved. This doesn't always work. If my child persists in his disruptive behavior, I physically remove him from the scene and we have a time-out, sitting together (sometimes holding him tightly to me because he may kick or hit me) until he calms down.

I try to put his frustration into words, or say to him that I love him anyway. He usually calms down or cries even more, but the anger is gone. Several times we have had to leave and go back home as I had promised him I would do if he continued to behave in such a way. I have threatened to take away some of his favorite toys if he does it again, but then if a toy gets hidden sometimes he forgets about it all together!

I have found that giving my child more attention through taking the time to read a book or cuddle always pays off. I'm not sure I get it right all the time, but now that Liam is four years old I can see a bit of a change in him. He can express himself better when he talks, so it seems easier for him to let go of his anger. I can talk to him in more detail and he seems to accept some explanations now as to why he shouldn't do certain things.

For me, the key thing is to respect my child as a person even in the most difficult situations, and to try to discipline him by conveying the message that I love him and trust him. I believe children learn from our example.

Elena Rowland
London UK

Mother's Response

Besides remaining calm, acknowledging anger, and talking about solutions, I have often found that when one of my children is behaving badly it is helpful to look at how much one-to-one time that child is getting with me or whether his needs are not being met in some way.

One-to-one time when he needs it rather than when time is available can make a huge difference to a child's sense of worth. If he is one of a large family, maybe his needs are temporarily being overlooked. Perhaps he is spending a lot of time at preschool or day care, so is not at home with you as often as he'd like to be. Maybe his urgent needs coincide with another activity, and time is not easily found to pay attention to him then. Alternatively, maybe you are the one not available when needed. Looking at ways to ensure that my children got the attention they needed in positive ways often eradicated the need for them to find negative ways of getting attention. This sometimes minimized the amount of confrontation, which was much more effective than negotiating with an angry child.

Jill Unwin
Berkshire UK

Mother's Response

I know how difficult it can be to deal with unpleasant toddler behavior. We feel embarrassed in front of our friends, we feel sad for the child who is the brunt of our child's behavior, and we feel frustrated. It is at those times when children need unconditional love the most because they are obviously having a difficult time. It may mean we need to stay very close in order to prevent others from being hurt. We can remind a toddler to be gentle. Demonstrating the behavior you'd like to see in your child is the most effective way of teaching. There is no need to punish children in order for them to learn. In fact, punishing a toddler will cause him to be fearful. Fear generally precipitates more undesirable behavior.

I recommend reading Mary Sheedy Kurcinka's, Raising Your Spirited Child along with the workbook. It really helped me recognize the triggers for my child's negative behavior. There are some really great ideas that will help you figure out strategies to help your child to be successful and help you enjoy your time together.

Donna Gilbert
Raleigh NC USA

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