Managing the Difficult Child: Toddlers

by Warren P. Silberstein, M.D.
07/28/97

I wish I could tell you that there is a simple formula that guarantees an easy childhood and adolescence leading to successful adulthood. In fact, because no two children are exactly alike, what works best with one child might not work well with another. And since not all parents are alike, an approach that's acceptable to one set of parents may not be acceptable to another. You will have to tailor the discipline of your children to their personalities and yours. With that in mind, I hope to offer you some guidelines and insights to help you along the way.

I generally recommend an approach that allows for considerable flexibility. That's why it's possible to tailor my suggestions to your personality and your child's and the circumstances. There is a small group of children for whom parental flexibility is undesirable. These are the kids who are engaged in antisocial, dangerous, perhaps illegal activities, who are perilously close to destroying their futures, their lives, their parents, or their communities. While it may be helpful to understand the circumstances, if any, that brought these kids to the brink of disaster, there isn't time to explore that before some control is established over their lives. These children may require strict control of every aspect of their lives where every infraction results in demerits regardless of the reason for the infraction. However, if parent-child conflict or emotional scars resulting from the child's upbringing are at the root of the behavior problems, it may be best if the child is removed from the home environment to reestablish control, either in a residential school or psychiatric hospital, depending on the circumstances. This military or boot camp style approach is, in my mind, a last resort for children who are clearly headed for trouble. It is in many respects, the opposite of what I recommend for the average difficult child, and yet, you may see some aspects of this approach in my recommendations. Those parents of children who do require the strict, military approach, may find some useful information and insight in the following article.

No matter what approach you feel is the best way for you to raise your child, there are a few things you should keep in mind. It takes 18 years to become an adult. There is no way to create an instant angel. Your child's body and mind keep changing as he grows and each age has its own challenges. If an approach makes sense to you, stick with it and adapt it to your circumstances. Don't expect instant results. If you keep changing your approach to discipline because you don't think it's working your child never has an opportunity to learn what response to expect from you for problems that arise. A consistent approach to discipline helps a child to learn what's expected of him. This is as important in dealing with older children as toddlers. To quote an article in All about health - News (article no longer available on-line), "Parents who are inconsistent about disciplining their children are like slot machines. Their children keep gambling that their behavior will result in a payoff."

First, you must set reasonable goals for the discipline of your child. I hope your overall goal is to have happy, healthy children who are capable of independent thinking, who, when faced with a choice about how to behave, will make the right choice. Toddlers, however, while capable of having independent desires, are not capable of independent thinking or making wise choices. They lack self control and are entirely dependent on adults to set limits. Since discipline starts when children are at the toddler stage, let's begin there. The first bit of discipline most children experience is the word "No!" It's a simple enough word and it should mean the same thing to everyone, but it's meaning may change depending on how it's enforced. Remember, children learn as much from what we do or don't do, as they learn from what we say. And they learn the meaning of what we say from what we do or don't do when we say it. The first time you yell "No!" at your toddler, it may stop him in his tracks, but mothers who spend all day yelling no at their toddlers will quickly teach them when "No!" means no, and when it doesn't, by how quickly they enforce no. Of course you'd like your child to respond to verbal instructions. In an emergency, his response to your yelling "No!" could be crucial. If you want your child to learn to respond appropriately to "No!" every time, you must be prepared to go over to him and enforce "No!" every time you say it.

Now, perhaps you're thinking. "You can't possibly expect me to be running over to my child to enforce 'No!' for every little thing just so that he'll learn that I mean 'No!' when I say it." That brings us to a very important point about using the word "No!" and to a concept that applies to the discipline of older children as well. Children really do want to please their parents, but it's a world full of temptations and there are so many rules to remember. It's our job to make it possible for our children to succeed at pleasing us. Sure we want them to learn the rules to get along in the real world, but while they're still living in a world controlled by us we can remove some of the temptations from their paths and decide what rules are important for them to learn and concentrate on those. "Don't run out in the street!" is way more important than "Don't bother Mommy while she's on the phone." or "Don't go near my record collection." If you handle all of these rules the same way, your child doesn't learn what's important. If you turn every rule into an issue of enforcement you probably won't have the resolve to enforce all the rules consistently. If every day is a battle all day of "Don't do this" and "Don't do that" your child never has an opportunity to feel that he can please you and to strive for the positive reinforcement that comes with good behavior. You want your child to know that you are in control, but you don't establish that control by waging battles with him and winning.

Use all the resources available to you as an intelligent adult to maintain control over your child's world and his behavior. Move your precious objects out of harm's way until your child is old enough to learn to respect their value to you. Provide your child with activities to keep him busy when you need a moment for yourself. When possible keep him with you and provide him periodic words of approval for what he is doing even when you're doing your own thing. Your attention and approval are the most important things in your child's life, but he'd rather disturb you and be yelled at than ignored. Distract your youngster from unacceptable behavior and provide him alternatives. It's just as important to show your child what he should do as to teach him what he shouldn't do. When your child continues to act in an unacceptable manner in spite of your best efforts, put him in time out. Sit him or stand him in a corner long enough for him to regain his composure and return to you ready to cooperate. The younger the child, the shorter the time out should be. Older children may sometimes need only a short time out if the main goal is for them to cool off. If appropriate for the type of misbehavior, an older child can be allowed to rejoin the group as soon as he is ready to cooperate.

Never, never allow a child to push your buttons. Don't punish or discipline your child in anger. If you can't control yourself, you can't control your child. Respond appropriately to situations before you reach your limit. If you respond in anger, you risk regretting your actions and confusing your child by taking back what you've done. Discipline should always be based on doing what you think is best for a given situation. And that requires that you take the time to think.

For more information check the following articles:

ParenthoodWeb - Toddler Won't Listen

ParentsPlace.com - Discipline and Very Young Children (under 2)


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