You know that old expression, if you give an inch, they take a mile? Unfortunately, the adage aptly describes most toddlers. Small children are constantly pushing limits, acting naughty and gauging the parental response. Children quickly learn what they can get away with, and with whom. It’s up to the parents to set boundaries and stick to them, as much as possible. When it comes to setting limits, parents often feel badly about upsetting their children. Take the example of sleep training. Parents worry that allowing a child to “cry it out” will cause the child to feel abandoned or unloved. Studies have shown this isn’t the case. In fact, setting unambiguous limits is extremely reassuring to children, whether in the arena of sleep training or elsewhere. Rather than resenting parents, children grow to respect them when clear and consistent expectations are reinforced over time.
Temper tantrums are an example of an undesirable behavior that responds well to consistent parenting. When toddlers are angry, hungry, or overtired, they often resort to tantrums to express their unhappiness. In the span of five minutes, a cute little angel can morph into a demon from hell. When dealing with tantrums, the number one parenting rule is don’t give in. If a child screams her head off and ultimately gets what she wants, then the parent has reinforced the screaming, which (unsurprisingly) will result in more temper tantrums. At home, a good strategy for dealing with tantrums is to leave the room and ignore the child. Studies have shown that parents who try to interact with children during tantrums (either by holding or speaking to them), can inadvertently escalate the tantrum, making the joyful experience last even longer. During a tantrum, feel free to place your little gremlin in her room and close the door (you may have to quietly hold it closed from the other side for a while and tiptoe away once she settles down). While closing the door, you can say something like, “You’re welcome to come out when you’re done screaming.” Tantrums outside the home, in public places, can be more challenging to manage. When my children escalated in public, I usually scooped them up, wrestled them into their car seats, and went home. Leaving a fun place due to bad behavior can be a useful form of negative reinforcement.
Sometimes bad behavior requires a quick, definitive response. If a child hits, kicks, or starts throwing objects against the walls, you’ll need to provide solid discipline—lest your child behave this way with his teachers and friends at preschool. One strategy parents utilize for disciplining children is a “time out,” which can begin as early as one year of age. When a small child is behaving poorly, the parent places the child in a “naughty spot” for a short time period, usually one minute per year of age. Before and after the time out, the parent explains to the child the reason for the time out, and the child is asked to apologize to the parent.
If a child is remorseful about being placed in time out, then the strategy tends to work well. But time outs frequently fall apart, either because children aren’t remorseful, or because they actually enjoy the time out. Naughty behavior may be an attention-seeking strategy orchestrated by the child. For little kids, negative attention can be form of secondary gain. Children sometimes turn time outs into entertaining games—they’ll run from the naughty spot, causing the parent to chase them all over the house. If you’re spending time huffing and puffing, chasing after your toddler (who is laughing hysterically), then time outs aren’t working.
Rather than forcing a child to sit in a naughty spot, I find that placing a child in his crib for a time out is much more effective. For children who haven’t yet learned to climb out (and for some who have but still respect the boundaries), the crib is jail. By isolating a child in a crib, you’re giving him exactly what he doesn’t want—less attention. This helps to extinguish the unwanted behavior quickly. Parents always worry that children might then associate the crib with punishment. However, children are highly intelligent beings who know the difference between bedtime and punishment. I’ve yet to meet one who confused the issue.
Another strategy for dealing with physical aggression is to offer a child a socially acceptable outlet for negative energy. When my youngest was four-years-old, for example, she struggled with acting out physically. Sometimes she tried to hit me and my husband, and other times she threw things at the wall. To provide her with a better outlet, my husband introduced her to the punching bag in our basement. He taught her a few things about boxing and instructed her to punch the bag (or a pillow), instead of people, whenever she was feeling angry. The punching bag strategy, along with time outs in her room when necessary, went a long way toward alleviating this sort of behavior.
When time outs aren’t working, parents can confiscate toys, valued objects, or privileges. As much as possible, they should try to use logical consequences when disciplining a child. For example, a child who breaks the TV remote by throwing it against the wall should lose TV privileges for a while. The younger the child, the more quickly a consequence should occur. Threatening to take away dessert after dinner won’t work if it’s only nine in the morning. Young children have poor short-memory and are easily distracted, so punishment should be dished out as soon as the undesirable behavior arises. In some cases, a parent may choose to offer a warning before delivering a punishment, especially if the behavior isn’t too egregious (if the behavior is egregious, give an immediate consequence and skip the warning). Here’s an example of a warning:
“Amanda, if you don’t stop coloring the refrigerator this instant, then I’m going to take away Mr. Muggles (Amanda’s beloved stuffed animal)!”
The key to using threats effectively is the follow through. If the child doesn’t respond positively to the warning, then the parent must immediately follow through with the punishment. Otherwise, the child won’t trust the parent and will ignore future threats. Only make threats on which you can deliver. The same goes for bribes. Feel free to solicit good behavior with bribes. Here’s one example:
“Amanda, if you put away your blocks, you can have Mr. Muggles back.”
As with any threat, you must deliver on the bribe 100%. Be sure to choose your threats and bribes wisely.
One common mistake parents make when dealing with bad behavior is to emotionally escalate. If a child loses his temper, the parent may become upset and start yelling at the child. Before you know it, everyone is yelling, and the parent has lost control of the situation. Remember that children feed off attention, including negative attention, so screaming at a toddler doesn’t do anyone much good. The only thing the child learns is how to scream more loudly than the parent. When children escalate, parents should instead modulate their behavior and actively remain calm. What do I mean by this? If a child starts yelling, parents can come down to the child’s level and speak more softly, in a stern but controlled manner. This not only helps to deescalate the child, but it also gives the parent a sense of control of the situation. Using a calm, though still angry voice, the parent can redirect the child and avoid reinforcing bad behavior. By seeking higher ground, the parent is modeling mature behavior, thereby setting a good example for the child to follow. Voice modulation also helps to put an emotional wall between the parent and child, a valuable strategy in anyone’s parenting toolbox.
Because children mimic the behavior of their parents, corporal punishment is never a good idea. If you don’t want your children to get physical with you or their friends at school, then you had better not hit them. Hitting children, while simultaneously telling them hitting is wrong, is ambiguous and confusing. How can a child possibly learn to suppress physical aggression if she’s being swatted or spanked by her parents? On this point, the AAP and I are in complete agreement. Not only is corporal punishment wrong from a moral standpoint, but it also teaches children that it’s okay to get physical when they’re angry—the opposite of what most parents would like children to learn.
As any parent comes to realize, not all battles are worth fighting. If your child wants to jump in mud puddles or cover her body with stickers (though not stamps), you might choose to allow the debauchery and deal with cleaning up later. On the other hand, some battles are worth fighting. These include practicing tummy time during infancy (if your baby cries, so be it—tummy time is important for building up strength in the neck and getting ready to crawl), brushing teeth twice daily (you may be forced to hold down your toddler during teeth cleaning), sleep training at any age (which is good for both you and your child), limiting unhealthy junk food, and minimizing screen time, to name a few. When it matters, dig in and don’t give up. However stubborn your child is, try to be more stubborn! And when things don’t go as planned, remember that we’re all human; despite the best laid plans, we can’t be rigid all the time.
Lastly, if your child is behaving well, be sure to offer lots of praise for the good behavior you’re trying so hard to achieve. Despite their naughtiness, most children want to please their parents and relish positive attention. Feel free to lavish your children with praise, particularly when it’s deserved.
Below I’ve listed a summary of how not to raise a 20-pound tyrant:
-Set clear and consistent limits; ideally, all caretakers should be on the same page when it comes to setting and enforcing rules.
-Ignore temper tantrums and don’t give in.
-Use time outs, but only if they’re working; consider doing time outs in the crib or a quiet room if your child keeps running away from the naughty spot.
-Offer a punching bag (or pillow) to a physically aggressive child.
-Choose threats and bribes wisely, and follow through 100%.
-Practice voice modulation to stay in control when behavior is escalating.
-Don’t spank or hit your children, unless you want them to learn that hitting is okay (be warned—they will eventually hit you back).
-Choose which battles you’re going to fight, and don’t sweat the small the stuff.
-Use lots of positive reinforcement to encourage good behavior.
Almost forgot one more recommendation—have another baby! Getting eclipsed by a new star and learning you’re not the center of the universe is a tough lesson, but it’s very good for the soul.