This article explains techniques for disciplining children and discusses several causes of bad behaviour in a young child, giving advice on what to do about them.
There are several stories in it about parents whose children's behaviour improved after they started using different discipline methods.
Skip past the following quotes if you'd like to get straight down to reading the article contents and self-help article.
Insanity is hereditary: You can get it from your children.
We worry about what a child will become tomorrow, yet we forget that he is someone today.
Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.
--Neil Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood (introduction), 1982
Children are one third of our population and all of our future.
--Select Panel for the Promotion of Child Health, 1981
Even when freshly washed and relieved of all obvious confections, children tend to be sticky.
Every child comes with the message that God is not yet discouraged of man.
There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.
--Ralph Waldo Emerson
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Stephanie graduated from college with a psychology degree but hasn't got a job. She volunteers as a classroom assistant at her local school where she helps young children learn to read and write and so on.
One day, the school staff are told the school are going to start running parenting advice sessions for local parents in the evenings. They're hoping to get psychologists to speak, but Stephanie is asked if she'd like to help, and to speak sometimes if no psychologist is available. It seems they think she might know quite a lot about child development and helping parents with problems, having done a psychology degree. She didn't study that kind of thing, but she says she's willing to learn up about it, so if she's ever needed, she'll do her best to help, though she couldn't pretend to be an expert. They say they'd appreciate that, so she decides to try to learn as many useful things as she can in the time she's got.
She gets some self-help and psychology books and reads them, imagining what she might say to parents.
One of these books is called Little Angels. It was written about a TV series of the same name, where child psychologists helped parents change the behaviour of their young children. Cameras were put in the homes of the families and they were also filmed when they went out, and the psychologists looked at the recordings and gave advice based on what happened on them. After that they stayed near the parents during some difficult situations, giving the parents advice on what to do differently and talking them through stressful situations where their children were being awkward and difficult to control, using an earpiece so they could be somewhere in the background but the children couldn't hear them telling the parents what to do; they just knew how the parents were behaving. Once the parents got used to doing different things that made their children better behaved, they were left to try them on their own.
Most parents can be reassured that they're not especially incompetent parents and their children aren't behaving unusually badly, because it's just natural for toddlers to have tantrums several times a day and for young children to fight with their brothers and sisters, to whine, and to refuse to do what they're told.
It's normal for that kind of bad behaviour to diminish as a child grows older; a two-year-old might throw themselves on the floor and have a tantrum several times a day; but it's not normal for a child of six to do that. It's normal for a one-year-old to find it hard to get to sleep and want help; it isn't normal for a four-year-old to still want to sleep in the parents' bed.
Also, even babies have different personalities. It seems people are born with different temperaments; personality isn't just to do with the way parents treat them. Some babies and young children are just naturally more boisterous and aggressive than others. So a struggling parent doesn't need to think they're bound to be doing something wrong because otherwise their child would be much calmer. No children are perfect, no matter how good the parenting is. So a parent doesn't need to feel guilty about their child's bad behaviour. Even if their parenting style does have something to do with it, they can't be held to blame, because they might well be at a loss to know what to do for the best. And surely no one thinks, "I'm going to deliberately shout at my toddler and get far more angry with them than they deserve, to make them all aggressive", or anything like that. A bad parenting style will likely simply mean the parents have never learned better ways of coping, or that they have, but they're so used to doing things another way that in the heat of a stressful moment it's easy to resort back to the ways of doing things they know best, even if they're not so good.
If parents are isolated trying to look after a misbehaving child, it's easy for them to get the impression they must be doing a terrible job of parenting, or that the child is especially naughty and might even need professional help. They can be reassured if they meet a number of other parents whose children behave just as badly.
Having said that, there are certainly things parents can do to improve the behaviour of their children.
Some parents despair about the angry and aggressive behaviour of their little children; but when they examine their own behaviour, they realise they're sparking it off by being aggressive to their children. It's not the parents' fault; it can often be a vicious cycle; a child does something a parent doesn't like; the parent shouts; the child feels angry and stressed at being shouted at, so they shout back. The parent shouts more to try and get control. That just makes the child more hyped up with aggression and anger and they shout more themselves.
Also, if a parent shouts at or nags a child and the child doesn't do what they say, the parent can automatically assume that what they need to do is to shout louder and nag more insistently. So they shout and nag some more. The child doesn't like the impatient angry tone of voice and feels rushed and stressed, and it just makes them angry themselves so they argue back or have a tantrum or something, or they get defiant and refuse to do what they're told. The parent doesn't realise their child's behaviour is a reaction to their own, and besides, they've no idea what else might work to make the child do what they're told; so they assume they just need to put more effort into nagging and shouting for it to work. So they shout louder and nag more impatiently. The child still doesn't do what they're told but gets more angry, defiant, stressed and aggressive. The parent just thinks of it as more disobedience, so they assume they have to shout even louder and nag even more angrily to make the child do what they're told. They try to do the same thing that didn't work before with more effort, assuming that's what they need to do. But what will work best will often be something totally different.
For instance, a child might refuse to put their toys away and a great battle of wills might take place between child and parent, when actually, their parent could avoid it completely if they turned putting the toys away into some kind of game, for instance helping them put toys away and turning it into a competition to see who could put the most away in a minute, so the child thought of it as a bit of fun rather than a chore and a sign it was time to stop playing.
Sometimes parents simply don't realise how they're coming across to their children. In fact, most people don't really realise how they're coming across to each other. People can get a surprise, not always pleasant, when they hear others talking about what they think of them.
But it's easy to simply not realise how much you're shouting at someone and how angry you sound, because when you're concentrating on arguing or trying to get a child to do something, you're not thinking about how loud your voice sounds or how angry you sound; you're concentrating entirely on doing what you believe will eventually get you what you want. Everyone's probably like that. So parents can get an unpleasant surprise if someone records them and plays the recording back to them.
Some parents on the series Little Angels were upset when they realised how they were coming across to their children. They hadn't realised before just how much they shouted and how much they nagged, and how the shouting and nagging provoked their children into behaving badly. They had thought their children were nasty rude little monsters out to rule the roost. When they realised their children were just responding aggressively to their own aggressive behaviour, while it was a bit upsetting for them to realise just how they were coming across, it was also a relief, because it meant that if they changed their own behaviour, their children might well slowly change as well. And since changing their own behaviour was something they knew was in their control so they could have a good go, they could be more confident there was something they could do that would influence their children to change. Then the psychologists gave them advice on what to do to change their behaviour, and also the best ways of dealing with their children when they misbehaved.
The books say a lot of people try something to discipline their children and give up on it because they don't think it's working. One reason techniques can fail is that they're not being used all the time. For instance, if a parent refuses to give in to a child having a tantrum four times out of five, but then the fifth time they're tired and can't bear the screaming and give the child what they want to shut them up, the child has learned that tantrums do work sometimes to get them what they want and sometimes don't, so they'll think it's still worth having them because sometimes they do get what they want, and this time might just be the time they do, and if they don't at first, having a worse and worse tantrum might work, just as it used to. Parents who want to stop their children having tantrums need to refuse to give them what they want every time they have one for the technique to work, so the children realise after a while that things have changed and that tantrums simply don't work for them any more.
Similar things happen in adult circles. For instance, in a marriage where there are a lot of arguments, the husband or wife might think to themselves that things need to improve and decide to try changing things by being nicer to the other one. But if they don't explain what they're doing to the other one, the other one will take some time to realise they're making an effort to be nicer. Before they do, they might still make nasty comments and criticisms, because they expect the other person to still behave in the same old way. By the time they realise there's been a change, the one who tried to be nice might have got discouraged about being able to improve things and given up, or got so angry with the continued nasty comments from the other one that they don't feel like trying any more.
Naturally, a toddler simply won't have the language skills to understand that you've made a resolution to behave differently towards them from then on, for instance not giving in to them when they have a tantrum. Even if you told them and they understood, they might well not believe you and feel sure you'll give in if only they're determined enough to get their way. So when you first change your behaviour, they'll assume things are still the same, and that if they're not getting their way as quickly as usual, they just need to try harder. So things can get worse when you first try a solution. It'll take a while for it to dawn on the toddler that things genuinely have changed.
The attention toddlers get when they're having tantrums probably won't be nice attention at all. But still, children will often prefer being shouted at to being ignored. If they behave well and no one notices - probably because when they're not causing trouble their parents think they've got an opportunity to get on with other things that need to be done, little children can get bored and frustrated, and start behaving badly as a protest at not getting attention. Then if they get shouted at, at least they'll be getting an adrenaline rush that can be more enjoyable than nothing happening at all. If being shouted at and nagged is the kind of attention they get most, children will do more things that make their parents shout at and nag them, so at least they get the attention, which is better than nothing at that age.
But some children can be pacified to some extent if the parents give them good-quality attention at other times, making time in the day to play with them, help them draw pictures, cuddle them, talk through picture books with them and read them stories, and other things. Also, children need to be guided in their behaviour. They'll often have tantrums because it's the way they know how to get attention. It's worked before so they know it probably will again. But if they get attention for behaving well and they know they're likely to get more for good behaviour, they'll have an incentive to try to get attention by behaving well instead of badly. For instance, if parents make an effort to notice when their children are doing something good and compliment them for it, the children will feel pleased they're being appreciated and want to do more of the same thing, because they know their parents will approve of them for it. Everyone does that, adults as well as children. Both children and adults can be happier and in a mood to do good things if they're complimented and encouraged when they do.
The compliments do have to be sincere though and not over-done, or a person will wonder what they've done wrong if they stop, and lose incentive to behave well.
The book Solution-Focused Therapy with Children says a four-year-old boy was brought to therapy by his parents because he'd tried to hurt his baby sister Lisa on several occasions. Ever since she'd been born, he'd mishandled her in a rough way and thrown things at her, and tried to get all his parents' attention focused back on him instead of her.
The parents had tried everything they could think of to encourage the boy to treat his baby sister in a "caring and gentle" way, including making him sit by himself for certain lengths of time as a punishment, and showing him the way they'd like him to behave with her by treating her nicely while he watched, but nothing had worked. They didn't know what else to do and felt frustrated. They couldn't leave him alone with the baby anymore.
The therapist asked the boy what his favourite toys were. Apart from his toy trucks, his favourites were a couple of soft toys, Tigger from Winnie the Pooh and another one. The therapist suggested he bring them into the next therapy session, and he did.
In the second session, the therapist talked with the boy on his own, and asked him to talk to the stuffed toy animals and ask them what they'd advise him to do to help him not hurt his baby sister. The boy decided to pretend to talk for each one of them.
When he was pretending to be Tigger, he hopped around the room and said, "Be funny for Lisa." The therapist asked if Tigger thought he should be a clown for Lisa to make her smile. The boy thought it would be nice to be a clown for her.
As the voice of the other stuffed toy animal, he said he could also be a clown, and sing songs for her.
The parents liked the ideas.
The therapist ended up seeing the family three times. It turned out that the boy loved being a clown and singing songs for baby Lisa, especially when she would smile and giggle. He also enjoyed all the praise and approval he was getting from his parents now his behaviour had changed. His parents didn't report any more aggressive behaviour from him towards his baby sister.
The therapist says playing with fictional characters from children's books helped him as well. He says he used to try to rush his three-year-old daughter to get dressed in the mornings so she could go to day care and he could go to work. But the more he tried to pressure her to get dressed, the more she'd say "No!" and not do what he wanted. She didn't like being rushed. One day, he thought of a new idea. He had a conversation with her Winnie the Pooh figurine about what clothes she should wear for the day, and she came running into her bedroom and stood right next to him, listening intently to what he and Winnie the Pooh were talking about. The therapist pretended to be Winnie the Pooh and had the character point out what choice of clothes she could wear. She was happy to get dressed then. The idea solved the problem.
The therapist says he started using the same technique to distract her when she had temper tantrums and other "cranky" behaviour, and it worked just as well.
Toddlers will need to be shown what's good behaviour in practical ways, because their brains simply aren't developed enough to grasp abstract reasoning as to what's right and wrong. The part of the brain that allows people to think sensibly and think through actions in an intelligent way keeps developing throughout the first years of life; in fact, it's not fully developed till early adulthood. So having long conversations with a toddler where you try to reason with them about what's right and wrong won't do any good. They simply won't be able to follow your argument and make good judgments as to whether they're doing something right or wrong. A toddler just hasn't got control over their impulses like an older person has. If they feel like having a tantrum, for instance, they'll go ahead and have one right then. They won't stop first to think through whether it's right or wrong.
And if you try to carefully explain why they shouldn't have tantrums or bite and kick their brothers and sisters or whatever they're doing wrong while they're misbehaving in that way, they'll enjoy all the attention you're giving them. You'll think you're trying to persuade them not to have tantrums or whatever other things they're doing wrong, but the way they'll be interpreting what's going on is that when they misbehave in that particular way, you talk to them a lot. They like being talked to. Even if you're talking in a tone of voice they don't like, it's still better than being ignored. So they'll think misbehaving in that way gets them something they like. So they'll do it more. There won't be anything malicious about it; things simply come down to what they like and what they don't like at that age.
But there are exceptions to the principle about how giving them attention during tantrums can just encourage them to carry on, naturally: If you distract or surprise them, or cheer them up, or make them think they'll be missing something if they carry on, such as if you talk to their toys rather than them and they want to get in on the action, and they're not too engrossed in their tantrum to notice, it can stop them.
Some people think their little children are trying to get one up on them or belittle them, or take control, because they'll throw tantrums, refuse to do what they're told and argue back all the time. But little children simply haven't got a sophisticated enough understanding of the world or good enough reasoning abilities to predict what emotional impact their behaviour is likely to have on another person, or to premeditate doing something wrong because they think it'll hurt someone and they think that'll be fun or a good move. What's really going on will probably be much simpler: They're getting lots of attention for their bad behaviour, and they like attention because it makes them part of the action. They'll want more attention. So they'll do more of what gives them attention. If arguing usually results in them getting attention, they'll argue. If throwing tantrums does, they'll do that. And so on.
Often, a young child will get in a temper, and their parents will get angry with them and start shouting. Some little children will argue and argue and argue, and their parents will get really into the argument, shouting louder and louder and getting more and more bad-tempered. As they shout louder and get more bad-tempered, the child gets angrier at the way they're being spoken to so they'll get in a worse temper and shout louder.
That can become a normal part of family behaviour. Sometimes a parent will shout first, and the toddler, having got used to shouting and feeling indignant at being shouted at, will shout back at the parent. The parent won't like being shouted at by the child at all, especially in the tone of voice they're using. So they shout louder than the child. The child gets even more indignant at being shouted at so loudly and starts screaming and yelling. It's a family habit that can happen several times a day.
The parent might well be so absorbed in feeling angry about the way the toddler's shouting and screaming at them and so absorbed in shouting at the toddler to try to make them stop, that they simply don't realise that it's their attempts to make the toddler stop behaving badly by shouting and yelling that are actually making the toddler behave worse.
Not just toddlers, but people of all ages are triggered to behave in certain ways by the behaviour of others. An argument between two adults can turn very heated, even if it started over nothing worth arguing about at all, because each one doesn't like the things the other one's saying to them and they respond angrily. An angry insulting response from one will make anger flare up in the other one so they get insulting and angry, which will make the other one angrier, and things can escalate till the argument's quite vicious.
So attempting to discipline a toddler by shouting and yelling can just make them behave worse.
And when the adults are stressed and angry, little children can pick up on the air of tension and aggression and get edgy themselves, and more prone to behaving angrily if they feel irritated by something.
That's not the only way parents can accidentally cause a child's behaviour to get worse when they're trying to make it better.
Another way is that if the parents find it difficult to tolerate the noise when their toddler has a tantrum, they might be in the habit of pacifying them by cuddling them or giving them some kind of treat. Though that will stop each tantrum, the child will learn that if they want a cuddle or a treat, all they need to do is have a tantrum and they'll get one. So they'll have more tantrums, to get more treats. And if the parent doesn't give them something nice at first, they'll scream and yell more and more till they get one, because they'll be fairly certain they will get one if they carry on the tantrum for long enough.
Not all tantrums are sparked off because a child wants something they can't have. Toddlers can have tantrums for several different reasons, such as if they're frustrated because they want to move something that's too heavy to move, or do something else they're not strong or big enough to do, or communicate when they don't know enough words to get across what they'd like to say, and so on. They can sometimes get aggressive and scream because they're trying to use all their energy to do something they're finding difficult, and screaming is a way of releasing the frustration at not being able to do it.
Toddlers Can also often get frustrated because things keep going wrong when they try to do things, because they're just learning so they need practice to get it right. For instance, if they see the rest of the family eating efficiently, they might want to feed themselves, but before they get the hang of it, food might keep falling off their spoon. So they might get annoyed and start yelling.
If a child's having a tantrum not because they want something they can't have but because they're trying to do something that's too complicated for them to do or trying to lift something too heavy and so on, it's naturally fairest to help, encourage and comfort them rather than punishing them.
Also, sometimes toddlers have tantrums because they're frightened of something. If that seems to be the case, they need comfort and reassurance rather than discipline at that point.
If a parent sees a tantrum coming, or knows they're in a situation that often triggers off a tantrum in their child, distracting their child with something when they can see the first signs of it coming on can stop it, for instance picking up a toy and encouraging them to play with it. Toddlers have got short attention spans, so before they've lost their temper and really revved up for a tantrum, if they suddenly like the look of something and think it would be fun to play with or to look more closely at and so on, they can forget all about the tantrum they were about to have and want to do the interesting new thing instead. Toddlers might look as if they're about to get full of anger and passion at not being allowed to do something one minute, but then the next minute they can have forgotten they ever wanted to do it and be full of laughter and happiness at playing a fun game. Trying to distract them from having a tantrum won't always work; but it can sometimes.
The book Little Angels gives some examples. One mother dreaded taking her three-year-old daughter shopping because she would always have a tantrum. She tried taking her daughter around the supermarket while being advised on what to do by a psychologist talking to her through an earpiece she was wearing.
When her daughter started showing signs of having a tantrum, she distracted her by looking up at the ceiling and saying, "My goodness, can you see the bird? You look up and tell me when you can see it." It diverted the child's attention, and by the time she'd looked up and become convinced she could see it too, she'd forgotten what she'd been wanting to make a fuss about.
They went around the shop with the mother saying things to the daughter to distract her from getting worked up, and also including her in things by asking her to do things and then praising her for helping. Things went a lot better than usual. So much so that she didn't feel she'd done a day's hard work like she normally did, and her daughter enjoyed it more as well. She said she usually felt guilty about taking her daughter shopping because she didn't like it, but that time had been different.
Telling children something's there when it isn't really might seem a bit dishonest to some, but there are plenty of other ways of distracting a child, and anyway it doesn't have to be done in a serious way as if you genuinely believe there's something there when there isn't. It could be said in an excited dramatic way as if you're doing a comedy act in a play: "Oh my gosh, there's a dinosaur on the ceiling! Can you see it?" with exaggerated gestures and funny faces. The child might very well burst out laughing, and forget the tantrum they were thinking about having.
There are lots of other ways of distracting a little child. You could comment on the clothes or hairstyle or jewellery of someone nearby, or say something with a laugh like, "Imagine if those fish fingers grew legs and started chasing us!" Or it could be something matter-of-fact like, "Oh look at that! Someone's spilled something on the floor!" See what your imagination comes up with.
At home, you could use your imagination just as much. "Gosh, is that a pig in the garden?" Then when they look you could say with a chuckle, "No? Oh, silly mummy! I must be imagining things!" Things like that. If you do it in a playful way, not as if you're being earnestly serious, they won't think of it as an attempt to fool them; they'll think of it as a game. If they laugh too, they won't be in the mood to throw a tantrum anymore.
Or you could point out things that really are there, such as an especially dirty bit of floor, the pattern on the wallpaper, someone going by the window, or anything else they might take an interest in. Or if there's a television programme they like that's about to start, they can be told it's on. Or maybe you could remind them of something nice to drink you've got in the kitchen. All kinds of things could do. Toddlers have short memories, so it might not take much at all before they forget they were getting worked up.
Not all toddlers will be diverted that way all the time; some will be determined to throw their tantrum and it'll take other tactics to divert them. But it works sometimes.
Distraction doesn't just work when they're building up to a tantrum. If they're getting into an argument with you, or demanding something you don't want them to have, you could just try changing the subject. The technique even works with some adults sometimes. It won't always work, but if it doesn't, you could try something else. Or if they're doing something you don't want them to do, suggesting something else they could do can often completely stop them. For instance, a mother might say something like, "Hey, would you like to come in the garden with me and help me plant some seeds?" Toddlers love helping, feeling as if they're part of the action, in the middle of what's going on and appreciated. If there's anything they can join in, such as helping you mix food, move things or whatever, they'll likely enjoy helping, especially if you thank them and tell them how well they're doing.
If you need to stay in the same room as they're doing something you don't want them to do in, sometimes saying, perhaps in an excited tone of voice, "Hey, would you like to play with your toy trucks?" or something like that can divert them. If they don't seem keen at first, sometimes if you start playing with them yourself it can bring them running to see what you're doing, or to join in, or to play with them themselves because they don't want you taking their toys and having all the fun while they miss out. When they're happily playing, you can leave them to it.
Naturally, how well that will work will depend on how much they really want to do what they're doing. But some suggestions will be more tempting to them than others.
The author of the book Little Angels says one mother of a four-year-old boy was scared to take him out to play because he was so likely to have a tantrum when it was time to come home. They showed her how she could distract him with things so he didn't. She went out with him to play by a lake. When it was time to come home, she didn't say so, but instead said to him, "Oh look, did you see that squirrel?" Then she walked off towards it and home without looking back. He followed. Then she had to think of the next thing to distract him with. She said, "Ooh, are those blackberries up there?" Then she walked further away and he followed. By tempting him with a new distraction every few minutes, going home became a time of fun for him rather than a let-down and she managed to get him home without any fuss at all. He was too absorbed in things to behave badly.
Distraction works best before they've got engrossed in their bad behaviour, while they can still hear you, for one thing, before the volume of a tantrum blocks out a lot of the sound around them. If you haven't managed to distract them before they're too engrossed in bad behaviour to take any notice, you could always try distracting yourself from getting stressed about it, for instance by trying to sing over the top of a tantrum.
It's understandable that when toddlers have tantrums, their parents often don't start wondering why they might be having them but just get the impression that their child must be a difficult child and try to discipline them with more effort. When anyone's confronted with challenging behaviour, they want to deal with the immediate problem as quickly as they can rather than thinking about its cause. But sometimes, trying to work it out can help solve the problem more permanently than just trying to deal with each outburst of it as it comes can.
Sometimes toddlers have a lot of tantrums because they're sleep-deprived, because they enjoy staying up late but it means they don't get enough sleep. Then they get irritable and more easily stressed. Sleep deprivation is likely to have the same effects on the parents. When parents and child are responding irritably to each other, both can become more angry and they're heading for problems. Giving toddlers an earlier bedtime can improve the problem quite a bit.
The author who wrote the book Little Angels says in one family, a three-year-old girl was hard for her parents to manage because of her many tantrums. They didn't know why she was so difficult. But she and her older brothers would stay up watching videos in their room till half past ten. When she began to be put to bed earlier, she became better behaved, and the parents started enjoying life more.
Everyone likes to feel a certain amount of control in their lives. People like to know what they're going to do when, and don't like sudden unexpected things happening that mean they have to abruptly abandon what they're doing to do something else. People tend to feel more secure if things are predictable to a certain extent. Children even more so, perhaps. So it can help calm them if the family has a daily routine where possible, for instance if the children have a set bedtime, if meals are roughly at the same time every day, and if there are predictable consequences for bad behaviour, rather than them being allowed to get away with it sometimes but severely punished for the same thing at other times, for example.
The book Little Angels talks about how a family was helped to get into a routine that meant they were all happier. Life was chaotic for the parents and their five children. They had three-year-old triplets, and the husband was trying to take care of them while also working from home! His wife was also at home, but they hadn't made specific plans about who was going to take care of what. They wanted help with disciplining the children and sleep problems the children had, but first they were asked to make plans for the running of the house so they could have a happier routine. That included agreeing times when the husband could have long periods of uninterrupted work time, and times when the wife knew she could call on him for help when things were most busy. They planned what they would be doing for every hour of the day, wrote it down and pinned the new routine up in the kitchen. Then they looked at organising mealtimes and bedtimes for the children so they'd be at similar times each day.
Things in the house began to feel more organised and better managed, and people calmed down. Then it was easier to organise coping with other behaviour that needed changing.
So it's best if parents talk through who's going to be responsible for what around the house, and if children have a good idea of what's likely to be happening from day to day.
Naturally it won't always be possible to have a set routine. Little children can sometimes get irritable and make more fuss about things if they get confused about what's going on because the family routine's changed for unavoidable or perfectly understandable reasons, for instance because they go on holiday, or move house, or one of them starts work, or a new baby comes along, or a family member gets ill or dies, or fierce arguments are going on in the family, and so on. Even much more minor changes can over-excite a toddler, such as late nights or visitors, especially if they stay late.
So it's best not to see their behaviour as just pure naughtiness when it coincides with a change in the family's routine; if anything can be done about the cause, or if reassurance and patience would help calm them, then that's the approach it's best to take.
Sometimes it can be useful to think back to try and remember when the children's bad behaviour started. Sometimes it can start at a particularly stressful time in life for the parent. Sometimes, that's because a stressed parent will behave in a short-tempered or anxious way that their children pick up on and it makes them edgy. For instance, if a child thinks there's something to be frightened about but they don't understand what, having a tantrum or being awkward in other ways can signify that they're scared and need reassurance rather than discipline. They're too young to have the words to explain what the problem is.
Some parents feel sure their children are out to get them, constantly provoking them out of spite, playing a power game with them that they're determined to win, because they want to be in control. Determined not to let the children win, the parents argue back, sometimes trading insult for insult, struggling to belittle them all the time to show them who's boss. But the truth is that children that young simply don't understand the emotional impact they're having on the people they're arguing with and just haven't got the skills to plan something that sophisticated. They usually have another motivation entirely for their behaviour.
In fact it's the same with adults. An adult might take offence at something another adult says, try to belittle them to get even, and not understand why the adult they've just done that to responds with a worse insult. If the exchange carries on, the one who took offence in the first place can feel sure the other one's maliciously out to get them, trying to provoke them for no reason because they must be a nasty person. They're unaware that all the other person's doing is responding to the irritating things they themselves have said. People can feel victimised when all that's really happening is that they're finding themselves on the receiving end of insults they don't like from someone who was provoked in an exchange they started, because they took offence at something that may or may not have been meant to offend. Neither one of the two people arguing will have a detailed idea of how what they're saying is making the other one feel. There's no reason why they should, if neither one explains how they're feeling. So one of them can feel sure the other one's out to get them and respond out of spite because they want to get even, while the other one might not have a clue they feel that way and just become angry by the spite being shown them and say worse things. And it can go on and on, with the argument just getting worse.
The same thing can happen when parents argue with their children; the parents' thoughts about what the child's trying to do can provoke them and make them react in a more hostile way than they would if they understood things differently. And because no one likes to be spoken to in a hostile way, the child will likely respond in an angry and maybe insulting way. A parent might think the child's insults are entirely unprovoked, since after all, they might think, it's a parent's job to discipline their child and the child should just expect the parent to have the upper hand and to shout at them as part of their discipline. But children often don't see it that way. Children can feel provoked. Often, parents don't even realise how aggressively or how much they're shouting at and nagging their child, because all they're trying to do is to get the child to do what they want, and they're totally focused on that. It's perfectly understandable that they won't be worrying about how they're coming across to the child at the same time. If they record themselves and play the recording back, they can sometimes be shocked at how they sound.
The author of the book Little Angels says one mother contacted the psychologists for help with a six-year-old boy who was forever insulting her, even saying he'd like to kill her. And when he couldn't get his own way he'd get in a temper and physically elbow her. She almost didn't think she could cope for much longer. She was sure he was deliberately trying to provoke her just for the sake of it. She would get angry and argue with him. But he would always answer her back. She found his defiance difficult to manage. What she didn't realise was that they were locked in a negative cycle where the behaviour of each of them was provoking the other to worse behaviour. The more angrily she argued, the more he would provoke and answer back. Also, because she was getting so tired out by the arguments, she rarely gave the boy any of a nicer kind of attention, like playing with him, reading to him and cuddling him. Unfortunately that also contributed to his bad behaviour, since because an angry kind of attention was all he seemed to be able to get, it was the only kind of attention he thought was on offer. And he wanted attention, as all children do. He knew how to get bad attention. So he would constantly provoke her to get more of it.
What she needed to start doing was ignoring his insults, not arguing with him any more. That way, it wouldn't get into an exchange that just got more and more heated, but instead, when he got no reaction to his insults, he'd get bored and stop bothering with them, especially since he'd been used to getting a lot of attention for them, but if he was no longer doing so, but was getting attention for good behaviour instead, he'd want to behave better to get the attention he was learning he'd get by doing that.
When the mother saw the recording that had been done in her home, she was shocked at how aggressively she'd been nagging the boy and how often she'd been telling him off. Every time they spoke it was like a battle, with her tone of voice and body language betraying how frustrated and tired of him she was. It provoked him and made his behaviour worse. When she realised she was partly responsible for the bad relationship, she realised she needed to change the way she behaved. She needed to stop noticing and nagging all the bad behaviour she didn't like, stop reacting so easily, and start praising the behaviour she wanted more of. She did, and the results were good.
She took on the challenge of trying to put a tent up in the garden with the boy without things ending up in an argument. She managed it, with a psychologist talking her through it. When the boy tried to grab a tent pole, she firmly took it back from him without a fuss. When he started being abusive, she just acted as if it wasn't bothering her a bit. Discovering he wasn't getting any attention for his usual rudeness, he soon lost interest in being abusive. The more relaxed his mother got, the less likely it was that things would turn into an argument.
The mother was pleased she'd stayed calm. She noticed what a big difference not giving the boy's irritating behaviour attention had made. She realised that before, she'd always just automatically lost her temper immediately.
She was much calmer after that, and realised the boy's anger seemed to have just disappeared, because she was no longer getting angry with him.
It's natural to want to argue and respond angrily to abusiveness, especially if a child really does seem to be doing it for fun or out of spite. But responding angrily will provoke them and make them respond angrily, and it can make both child and parent unhappy, although the child might enjoy it for a while because it's giving them attention and an adrenaline rush. That's why sometimes, pretending you didn't hear abusive remarks is better. Everyone wants to defend themselves and get the last word in an argument; but it can be better to think about where you want the conversation to be in two minutes' time and how best to get there. Little children haven't got the skills to think about the consequences of their actions and decide to stop arguing because they'd prefer the atmosphere stayed calm. But grown-ups have. It's important to try and detach from an argument to ask yourself what you want to try and get out of it and whether that will be good for the relationship long-term. Adults who get right into arguments with their children can end up behaving and sounding just as childish as they do. Part of being an adult is knowing when to stop and being able to discipline yourself to do that. In the heat of an argument, it can be easy to forget things like that. You could try keeping on reminding yourself of it till it's firmly in your way of thinking.
Sometimes, children hear things being said on television and repeat them back to their parents without really knowing what they mean. Sometimes they can be abusive things that provoke the parent, who doesn't realise the child doesn't really understand what they're saying. Sometimes they can be things that make them sound more grown-up and the parent argues with them as if they have a lot more understanding than they do, because the parent assumes the child knows what they're talking about. The unwanted result can be that the child enjoys the attention they're being given and will argue some more to get more of it. Or the parent can explain things they assume the child understands when they don't. Then when the child shows they don't understand, the parent can assume they do really and that they're just being naughty on purpose. A little child's main aim will often be just to get attention. Their thinking is often not much more sophisticated than that. So being drawn into arguments with little children is best avoided where possible.
That doesn't mean all bad behaviour should be ignored. You need to decide what kinds of behaviour you're willing to tolerate and what kinds you're not, and then be strict about not tolerating the behaviour you've decided not to tolerate, letting the child know there are clear boundaries of behaviour they must not cross, and that if they do, there will always be consequences.
It can sometimes be a surprise to parents to realise how similar their children's behaviour is to their own, and that their own behaviour was probably what their children learned to behave the way they do from.
There's a story in the book Solution-Focused Therapy with Children about a couple who brought their two young children for therapy because they were always fighting with each other over every little thing, and breaking each other's toys and kicking and hitting each other.
When the therapist asked them about how they'd attempted to solve the problem in the past, the parents started blaming each other. The mother thought the father was too strict, and the father thought the mother wasn't strict enough. While they were arguing, the children started fighting over the toys they were playing with. When the father yelled at the children, their behaviour got worse.
The therapist sent the children out and talked with the parents on their own. He tried to discuss what they could do about their children with them, but they couldn't agree with each other on anything and just started arguing again, blaming each other for their children's bad behaviour.
He tried to get them talking about what they'd like to happen in an ideal world to stop them arguing, but they just started again.
He thought it might help to stop the argument in its tracks if he got up and went away for a minute. He did, and when he came back, they'd stopped arguing and were much calmer. They laughed about how he must have wanted to get away from them.
While he'd been away, the therapist had thought of two possible tasks the parents could try in the coming days to stop themselves arguing so much. One thing he suggested was that every day, each one of them could look out for and keep written notes of anything about the other's parenting style they actually thought was good. They shouldn't tell each other what they were writing, but they should bring the notes in to the next therapy session.
The other suggested task was to calm arguments between them by getting a kitchen timer, and finding a quiet room in the house for them to argue in. They were to flip a coin and choose heads or tails to decide which one would go first. The partner who'd won the toss would go first. For five minutes, they would say everything they wanted to say to the other one, while the other one sat in patient silence, just keeping eye contact. When the five minutes had ended, anything else the person speaking wanted to argue about should be written down on a piece of paper and kept for the next arguing session. Then the other one would have a turn at doing the talking, while the one who'd just been arguing kept totally quiet and just patiently listened, keeping eye contact. After their five minutes, anything left over to argue about should be kept for the next scheduled arguing session.
The couple decided to try both tasks. They also began to realise that when their children were fighting, they were just copying them. So they realised that changing their behaviour would be a good idea because it would help to change the children's behaviour.
The therapist got them enthusiastic to try the tasks.
He ended up seeing the family five more times. When they came in for their second session, they reported that there had been lots of changes. They had each noticed there were a lot of things about the other's parenting style they liked. And after their first special arguing session, they had found it difficult to argue with each other in the session.
By the time they came to their fourth family therapy appointment, the children's fighting problem had been resolved.
Children don't have enough experience of the world to know what's generally considered good behaviour and what's normally considered bad behaviour. So if their parents argue and shout a lot, any little children they have will assume that's just the way people behave and behave in a similar way. All parents probably shout at their children sometimes when they shouldn't and argue over things they shouldn't. But if parents can do their best to stop shouting and arguing, the children will likely start copying their new behaviour instead, partly because they're learning it from the parents, and partly because they won't be getting agitated because of all the aggression.
People often tell their children off a lot more than they praise them. Not deliberately. But when children shout and fight and misbehave in other ways, they're doing something noticeable that has to be dealt with. But when they're behaving well, they're often quieter and their behaviour can just go unnoticed or be taken for granted, or parents can think it's a good opportunity to get on with things that need doing around the house. Or parents think children should just naturally behave well without needing praise for it. But both children and adults can do things more eagerly and more often if they feel happier doing them because they know they're going to be appreciated for them.
Also, praising or thanking a child for the good things they do helps them understand that you like that kind of behaviour. If they're good and it goes uncommented, they won't know if you're pleased with what they've done or whether you couldn't care less about it. For instance, if they offer to help you with a bit of housework and you don't express any pleasure that they're helping, how will they know if you're pleased they're helping or whether they may as well not have bothered? That's another reason it's good to praise and thank and encourage children - so they're more sure about the kind of behaviour you like from them.
It might be surprising to some, but praising a child for good behaviour more than telling them off for bad behaviour actually makes them more likely to behave.
The book Little Angels says that in one family, the parents were so irritated by their boy's defiance that they often spoke to him in a critical way and in an exasperated tone of voice. They expected to be given advice on discipline, but the first priority was that they were taken to the park to play. All the psychologists asked them to do there was to watch the little boy playing in the playground, commenting on what he was doing and praising him for everything he did on the climbing frame and slide. They did that, and the boy immediately showed he was enjoying it and was soon leaping into their arms for hugs and kisses.
His parents were moved by what happened. They realised praise was bringing out a warm lovely side of him they thought they'd never see. After that, their attitude towards him changed. They had thought of him as a bad boy who only wanted to be naughty all the time. They began to realise he wasn't really like that. In fact, it was such a revelation to them they thought playing in the park with him like that was one of the best things that had ever happened between them.
Some families find it helpful if they make a special point of finding something they can compliment the others on at least once a day. Several times is better. It can increase good feeling between family members so they start enjoying each other's company more, especially if they've started stewing over all the things the others do they don't like, so they're coming to think of them as all bad, overlooking the good things they do. Making an effort to look out for the good things can help them feel happier about being together, because they realise there are more good things than they thought. And talking about the problems doesn't seem so bad if people don't think problems are all there are.
While nagging and complaining a lot can just sour the relationship, between adults in the family as well as between children and parents, giving praise and compliments for behaviour that pleases can give people a powerful incentive to carry on the behaviour, so goodwill in the family increases and better behaviour can come of it.
And when toddlers start to take pleasure in doing good things because they enjoy the appreciation they're given for it, they'll start wanting to do more and more good things. They'll learn that being good is the behaviour their parents most want from them. Just telling them off for shouting and biting and having tantrums lets them know what Not to do, but it doesn't say anything about the kind of behaviour that's wanted. Praising them for wanted behaviour does, so they'll know to do more of it. Toddlers and children need guidance about what kind of behaviour is best, just as much as they need to know what not to do.
Also, qualities like effort should be praised, even if the result isn't that good, since just praising achievements can make children feel discouraged when they come up against difficulties and they're not achieving much.
It's best to praise them regularly, rather than just when they first do something with the expectation that they'll remember you like it. For one thing, toddlers tend to have fairly short memories. For another, the more often you seem pleased with them for doing something, the more they'll get the message that it pleases you when they do it. Also, if you seem pleased with and proud of them for doing something, they start to feel as if it's a real achievement they can be proud of themselves, so they'll try to do whatever it is more, since they get a good feeling when they do.
Someone told me the other day that his little granddaughter was being potty trained. He said she was proud of herself when she did a wee in a potty. They would stand around and clap and praise her when she did, as if it was a real achievement. For someone of her age, just starting to learn, it would be. And if she thinks it's something she can really be proud of, it'll encourage her to carry on.
It's good to praise young children both for doing what you actually ask them to do, and for the nice things they do just because they feel like it. It'll make them feel more loved, so they'll probably feel more loving towards you in return. So, for instance, if you see them playing quietly by themselves, being good and not causing any trouble, you could tell them how nicely they're playing. Several times a day, you could give them a hug and tell them how nice they're being. When they find they get more attention for being good and it's a kind of attention they like a lot, they'll probably feel encouraged to behave that way more often. And if they're made to feel loved more than they're made to feel as if you think they're a pest who needs to be shouted at, they'll likely calm down and their behaviour will improve because they're not feeling so agitated and angry.
And if you can ignore what you can of their bad behaviour, or at least try to be matter-of-fact about it rather than getting agitated and angry, you won't be accidentally sparking off their own feelings of agitation and anger. If they haven't got an excited audience for their bad behaviour but they have for their good behaviour, the bad behaviour is likely to diminish and the good behaviour increase.
Certainly, there is such a thing as over-praising; if a child has been praised more than they deserve, they can come to think of themselves as great people even though some of the things they do are nasty, or they can get discouraged when they're no longer being praised because they think doing things without praise is too much effort or they think something must be wrong. Praise should be deserved. There should be limits on praise so kids get a right perspective on things. But a lot of children could do with more praise than they get.
If they've been used to getting attention by fighting and having tantrums, when you start praising and cuddling and playing with them more, it'll take a while for it to sink in that being good gets them better attention now. They might take a while to learn, and to unlearn the habit of doing the bad things they used to get attention for before. So don't expect their behaviour to change immediately; at first, they'll be in the habit of getting attention by being naughty, so being naughty will come naturally to them. But as it dawns on them that they get much nicer attention for being good, they'll want to do more of the being good and less being naughty, because they'll be getting to know which kind of behaviour is preferred, behaviour that'll start making them happy as well as you, because you're getting what you want, and they'll be being encouraged and praised and they'll like that, and they won't be getting all upset with their tantrums and being shouted at anymore.
Tantrums and bad behaviour won't disappear completely, because the desire to get attention isn't the only reason toddlers misbehave and have tantrums. But if you work at guiding their behaviour towards better behaviour by praising them when they're doing something good, and you keep it up even if there's little difference in their behaviour at first, they'll probably be encouraged to behave better more and more.
The book Little Angels advises parents to keep a diary of what happens when their children misbehave, to see if they can work out what kinds of things trigger their children's bad behaviour off, so they can start thinking about what they could do differently. It can be kept in something like an exercise book that's small enough to be taken out so it can be written in when the child misbehaves outside the home. The book advises that though parents are bound to dislike the idea, they don't try changing their children's behaviour straightaway, but observe themselves for a week or so to see what they might be doing that sparks off bad behaviour in their children, and write notes in the diary each time their children misbehave, taking care to mention what led up to the bad behaviour, what the behaviour was and what happened as a consequence of it. Then later they can remind themselves what they noticed. That way, they can get a better idea of what needs changing.
For instance, a couple's toddler might be throwing tantrums several times a day. The parents' reactions might be so automatic they don't really think about them. So if someone asks them what often triggers the tantrums off, they might not be sure. But if they think through what happened after each one and write it down, and keep doing that for several days, or even just often sit and have a good think, they might come up with answers. Answers like, for instance:
"He often loses his temper when we say no to him. We get angry with him and raise our voices. Then he starts kicking and screaming. After a few minutes, we can't stand it any more and give him what he wants."
If they start thinking that something to do with the way they react might be making the tantrums worse, they'll have a better idea of what they can do to try to stop them. For instance, they might think,
"Us getting angry with him might be agitating him and making him worse; if we try to say no in a voice with a calm tone of controlled authority when he starts to get angry, rather than shouting, and perhaps try to distract him with something else to take his mind off the idea of having a tantrum and off what he was trying to get that we wouldn't let him have, it might often help. And then when he has a tantrum anyway, we need to make sure we don't give in to him, since that'll give him the idea that all he has to do when he wants something is to have a tantrum, and that if he doesn't get what he wants when he starts, he just has to have a bigger and bigger one because eventually he will get it if he does that. He might have worse tantrums when we start refusing to give in to him, because he'll think he'll get what he wants if he only does that; but once he begins to realise we're just not going to give in to him any more, he'll stop bothering to have tantrums. But we must do our best to make sure we never give into him once he's started a tantrum, or he'll think tantrums do work sometimes so it's still worth having them and making them bigger and bigger till we give in."
Keeping a diary of what happens when a child misbehaves for a while might seem an unnecessary burden, especially when it needs to be written in after every time they misbehave, and soon afterwards, so the parents don't forget things. After all, they'll still be busy with the children for a while afterwards so it won't be that easy to make the time. But it can help to show the way to making the children less of a handful in future.
It can be good to keep the diary as well for a couple of weeks after you've started trying new techniques to change the kids' behaviour. One advantage of doing that is that it can be encouraging to look back at it when the children's behaviour is beginning to improve; if the improvement's slow, it might be hard to notice it's happening at all; but looking in the diary can help a person realise it's happening. They might think,
Oh, things are improving a bit. the day before Yesterday my kid had seven tantrums; yesterday he had six; but today he only had four."
So that can encourage people to continue with the technique they're using to try to change their child's behaviour, when yet another tantrum might otherwise make people feel so disheartened they feel like giving it up and trying to find something else or putting up with things the way they are for a bit longer. Techniques do tend to take a little while to work.
The diary should contain notes about what happened just before the bad behaviour started that might have triggered it off, what the bad behaviour was, how the parents responded to it, and what happened next. That can give parents an idea of what effect their attempts at discipline are having, so they get a clearer idea of whether they're doing something the child's reacting badly to. It can also give parents reminders they can look back at later of what works. If they did something and the child calmed down, they'll know it's worth trying again.
One mistake a lot of parents seem to make is to assume a toddler has all the thinking skills of an adult, or at least a lot more than they really have. And they can misinterpret their children's behaviour in other ways. Punishments and other reactions often have far more to do with what a parent thinks is going on than with what really is happening.
Sometimes, parents can worry far more about what their children are feeling than they need to. For instance, when a child cries, they can think the child's in deep distress, when really the child's just trying to communicate to them that they don't feel happy about something that's going on. Since they're not that skilled at using words, they have far less choice about how to communicate than adults do, and crying is something they know gets the message across that they're not pleased.
Or tantrums can be interpreted as signs of a child feeling deeply disturbed about something by a parent whose child's really only having a tantrum because they want to watch television and the parent's told them it's time for bed so they can't. Again, a tantrum is just an unsophisticated way of communicating anything from real distress to simple displeasure. A dramatic one, certainly, but that's just normal for a toddler. And usually the cause won't be serious, though it can be. A toddler's rage can make a parent think something is seriously wrong, when in reality they're just getting themselves all worked up because they can't move a chair or something they've decided to do on the spur of the moment.
A man wrote into a website for jokes and funny stories, saying his three-year-old son seemed upset when he said he had to go away overseas with the army to war. The boy clung to his leg and cried, begging him not to go. Then, to try and distract him, his mother asked him if he'd like to come with her to get a pizza. Suddenly the boy forgot all about his dad in his eagerness to get a pizza.
The author of the book Little Angels says one mother was full of guilt about leaving her little child because she would always scream and throw herself on the floor. But she didn't see that a minute after she'd gone, the child would cheer up. Her tears weren't a sign of emotional torment; she was just annoyed, and the way she knew how to communicate the fact at the age of only three was to scream and cry about it. Once her mother realised that, she didn't get so upset about her child's behaviour and was able to manage the tantrums better.
Sometimes little children can go into a sulk when they don't get their way. Some adults can interpret it as a sign that they're seriously upset and feel guilty and try to pacify them. But really, it's usually just their way of communicating that they are displeased. If the parents in effect reward the behaviour by giving the child a lot of attention and sympathy and give them what they want, then the child will like being made a fuss of and sulk more often because they know something nice happens when they do. They're not being manipulative in a nasty way; they just like being made a fuss of and know what gets them made a fuss of so they'll want to do it. It's just a primitive style of thinking.
One of the families being advised by the child psychologists who wrote the book Little Angels had a three-year-old boy, who one day at the dinner table went into a sulk because his mother wouldn't give him first choice of ice-cream for pudding because he hadn't finished his dinner. He got under the table. Ignoring him till he thought better of sulking might well have been the best thing to do, since then, his behaviour wouldn't be being rewarded. But instead, the family all got involved, trying to cheer him up. Eventually both parents were trying to coax him out by offering him nice things, including more ice-creams. But he was really into his sulk and was too focused on it to realise the benefits he could get by giving it up, so he just got grumpier. But he was nevertheless enjoying all the attention he was getting for sulking. That was what kept him doing it. Meanwhile, his older brother didn't get any attention for his good behaviour; he just got his ice-cream and left the table. So the bad behaviour was the behaviour that was encouraged, accidentally. Naturally the parents were concerned about what seemed to be the younger boys hurt feelings. But his feelings wouldn't have been all that hurt really; and if that kind of behaviour's ignored, the child behaving that way can stop thinking it's worth doing.
That reminds me: I was sitting at the dinner table with a couple and their three-year-old boy. Partway through the meal, they asked him if he'd like to try something new they'd cooked. He said no. His father tried to persuade him to have some. At first, he said in an encouraging tone of voice, "It's good to try new things. People won't find out if they like them if they don't try them". I thought that was a nice encouraging thing to say. But then he ruined the effect by saying, "Silly boys don't try new things."
The boy still didn't want any of the strange food. His father repeated what he'd just said and told him he'd just give him a little bit to try. He did. The little boy put some in his mouth and immediately spat it out. I'm guessing he was thinking, "Oh, I'm silly for not trying it, am I? Well I'll show you what happens if people do try things their fathers insist they try and then they don't like them!" I would have felt like doing exactly the same thing. It can be demoralising to be called silly and things like that. The little boy was being defiant though instead of feeling demoralised.
Unfortunately for the little boy, his parents didn't guess what he was probably thinking, and called him silly for spitting the food out as well, especially since he'd spat it over his other food. Bad luck for the little boy, he decided after he'd spat it out that he actually liked it. So he asked for some more. But since he'd just spat some out, his parents weren't about to give him any more!
It's nice to phrase things in positive encouraging ways where possible, so as to help a toddler see the good side of things and not become indignant at the way they're being spoken to.
Around the same time, the little boy was having breakfast. He'd stopped eating and his dad asked him if he'd finished. He said he had, so his dad threw the rest away. But they still sat there for about twenty minutes with the cereal on the table, because there were other people in the room the dad wanted to talk to. Then the boy asked if he could have some more. The dad said he couldn't, since he'd said he'd finished before when he hadn't eaten it all. That was fair enough; but the little boy probably couldn't remember he hadn't eaten it all, and the cereal must have looked enticing being there all that time. So using refusal to give him any more as a disciplinary measure perhaps wasn't that appropriate. In hind-sight, putting the cereals away straight after the little boy had said he'd finished so they didn't tempt him as the boy and dad carried on sitting there, or not throwing his cereal away in case he wanted it again after several minutes, would have been better.
One of the mothers being given advice on looking after her children by the authors of the book Little Angels had a three-year-old child who would angrily kick and scream and yell and bite, and hit her little sister. Her mother would shout at her and smack her, and bite her back to try and get the message across to her that biting hurts.
The thing is that the lesson you think you're teaching your child might be very different from the way they're really interpreting what's happening. You probably won't realise it at all because they haven't got talking and thinking skills good enough to tell you yet, but they might be taking on board a very different message from the one you want them to.
For instance, you might think that by biting your child back when they bite you or someone else, you'll make them think, "Biting hurts! I won't do that again!" But the message they're picking up might be, "Mum bites too! That must mean biting's OK, even if she's shouting at me for doing it. In fact, since she's yelling and shouting, it must mean yelling and shouting's OK too. And since she's smacking me, it must mean it's allright for me to smack people. After all, why would it be allright for her to do it and not me?"
More than that, children learn behaviour by imitating their parents. Parents are the main people they learn what the world is like and how people are expected to behave in it from. So when parents yell and get aggressive and smack, the children will assume that's the way people usually behave and behave like that themselves. Also, they'll get so used to thinking that's the natural way to behave that when they grow up and have children of their own, they'll likely try to discipline them by yelling aggressively at and smacking them a lot.
But more than that: When parents behave in a way that provokes their children to anger, such as yelling angrily, smacking, and doing other aggressive things, it'll just make the children angry so they'll behave worse, unless they become so intimidated they don't dare, in which case they won't like their parents and will likely rebel at some time in the future when they have more power. Surely no parent genuinely wants their child to dislike them. And it isn't necessary to intimidate young children into behaving, because there are other, better ways of achieving it.
Someone with a little boy said that when he and his wife told him off, he cried sometimes, and they thought it was good, because they assumed it meant he was getting the message. But it might not have meant that at all. In reality he might simply have been thinking, "I don't like being shouted at!" or, "That's not fair! I'm being shouted at as if I deliberately did something wrong when it was an accident!" or, "I didn't know something bad was going to happen when I did that. They're shouting as if they think I knew and I did it on purpose!"
He might have been thinking any number of things that were totally different from what they assumed he was thinking.
Also, when you feel sure toddlers must have done something bad deliberately, you may well be mistaken. They simply haven't got the skills and life experience to think through the consequences of their actions like adults can.
The person who said he thought it was good when his little boy cried after he told him off is a very good parent most of the time, reading children's stories to the boy and playing with him and cuddling him a lot. But perhaps he shouts at him too much sometimes and doesn't take into account a toddler's limitations as much as he should.
One day, the little boy was trying to get a doll's push chair down from the stair banister it was hooked over. Just why he wanted to play with that is a bit of a mystery, because he normally likes playing with boys' toys. But it seems he thought it might be fun. But he was too small to lift it off the banister. No one was watching so no one knows for sure what happened, but we heard the noise of someone moving something around, which started a couple of minutes before the crash. He probably worked out cleverly that if he lifted it up from the bottom, it would be easier for him to get off. Most of its weight would be resting on the banisters while it was being unhooked so he wouldn't be holding it, just the bottom of it that was lighter. But when he lifted it up enough for it to unhook, it became too heavy for him so he accidentally dropped it and it fell down the stairs. He didn't have the life experience or sophisticated enough thinking processes to think things through enough to realise that it was likely to be too heavy for him so he'd likely drop it before he could bring it towards him and put it on the floor. Toddlers want things in the here and now and haven't yet got the wisdom to think through the possible consequences of their actions. Much older people also have that problem, so it's no wonder toddlers have.
When the pushchair fell down the stairs, his father heard it and rushed out of his room and roared at him, "NO!" Then he commanded, "Naughty STEP!" He made him sit down on the stairs for a few minutes as a punishment. He assumed the little boy must have deliberately thrown the push chair down the stairs, and angrily said it could have hurt someone.
While his concern for other people was obviously a good thing, he shouldn't have leapt to the conclusion that his little boy had thought something like, "Hey, wouldn't it be fun to fling that down the stairs, and who cares if there's someone in the way!"
The little boy started crying and hit his father. His father told him he'd have to stay on the step for longer if he did that.
But the child was only reacting to being suddenly bellowed at. He was probably frightened that the thing had slipped his grasp and gone hurtling down the stairs and he'd been bellowed at at enormous volume straight afterwards; and he was probably angry that he was being roared at and punished for something he didn't do deliberately.
The book Little Angels says there was one family who asked the programme for help because they thought their five-year-old son was a defiant monster. His mother was convinced he was on the lookout to "press her buttons". The family was unhappy and stressed.
When they watched the recording of what had been going on in their home, it became obvious that it wasn't just the boy's shouting that was the problem; it was the mother's. The son's behaviour simply mirrored the mother's; he had clearly learned to behave like that from her. She was quick to shout and argue. For instance, when he accidentally spilled apple juice, she was immediately shouting at the top of her voice. When the boy's younger brother scribbled on his drawing, he was upset and shouted at his little brother at the exact same volume with the same tone of voice his mother used to shout at him. The only thing the mother's shouting was achieving was to teach the boy how to shout back, and how to shout at others. It wasn't making him behave better as it was intended to; it was making his behaviour worse.
When she stopped shouting at him and being so quick to argue, he calmed down and showed a nicer side, more willing to do what she wanted. The mother admitted that her and her husband just hadn't realised how stressed and worked up he'd got by all the shouting and arguing.
The parents had also used smacking to show the boys they meant what they said, without realising it was encouraging the boys to smack each other. The parents didn't realise it was causing a chain reaction to go through the house, as the mother smacked the older son, he smacked his little brother, and the little brother then kicked the cat, and he got smacked by his mother for doing that. Clearly smacking was just making things worse.
Another mother sobbed when she watched a recording of her having an argument with her three-year-old daughter who wouldn't get dressed. The daughter lashed out at her and she smacked her back, shouting at her that she mustn't do that. But it just made the argument worse. The mother was upset to see herself smacking her daughter, saying her children didn't deserve to be smacked.
Smacking and shouting was just making the children more aggressive and making the arguments worse. When parents calm down and try new things, the children will often calm down.
Also, bear in mind that toddlers simply don't have the long-term memory to remember you told them not to do something for long, or that they did something wrong earlier. If you wait to punish them till their father gets home or something, they won't know what on earth they're being punished for. All they'll know is their parent's being nasty to them for some reason. Their parent will seem a less trustworthy and more scary and unpredictable person, and it will just make them think their parent is prone to fits of irrational nastiness. It won't teach them that what they did was wrong; it'll just give them the message their parents can be unfair, so they'll start thinking punishments have more to do with their parents' scary or angry moods than anything they do wrong.
Children can think the same if punishments seem unreasonable to them. Some parents think it's a good idea to yank their child's pants down without warning and suddenly smack them, for instance. But it really isn't. If the child's old enough to think it, they'll likely just get the impression their parent must be a bit perverted, rather than thinking they've been justly punished. That'll be especially true if the parent's smacking them in anger, because that makes it more likely that the punishment will be worse than the offence. If the child didn't even know what they were doing would be considered an offence by you, that naturally makes it worse still. Instead of getting the message that what they did was wrong, they'll be going away with resentful thoughts about how their parent is prone to losing their temper over stupid things and is a bit of a pervert.
Or just an ordinary smack can just make a child unhappy and resentful if it doesn't seem fair. And smacks often don't seem fair, because parents often tend to smack to get rid of their own anger, rather than because they genuinely believe it's an appropriate punishment for the child; and they can give big smacks as punishments for trivial offences. That will often be because the offence they gave the smack for will be the latest in a long line of irritating things the child's done and the parent's fed up and doesn't think they can take any more. But the child won't understand that. To them, they'll have been smacked for something they didn't think was that bad at all, and they'll think it's unfair and might be upset, angry or even scared because the parent's behaviour was so unpredictable and they smacked for such a minor thing.
So naturally, smacking a child when they've forgotten what they've done is even worse.
The fact that toddlers have short memories means you can instruct them not to do something, and the next day, or even just 15 minutes later, they're doing the exact same thing. You might think they're being deliberately disobedient and shout at and punish them, when in reality, it might be that they simply cannot remember you told them not to do it.
The boy who dropped the doll's push chair down the stairs used to love playing with a ball in his grandparents' garden. He loved to kick it into the fish pond. His parents told him he mustn't do that. After all, it was awkward for them to get it out. But he often did it. He thought it was funny. He probably didn't understand that it was a pain to get it out of the pond. His parents never smacked him for that, and only very rarely for anything else. They would confiscate the ball from him, and wouldn't let him play with it till next time he went in the garden after he kicked it or threw it in the pond. That was fair enough when they told him not to and immediately after that he did, as if he thought it was especially amusing to kick it in the pond when they didn't want him to, or that he thought it was funny to watch them getting a stick and getting the ball out of the pond. But if he hadn't played in the garden for a few weeks, it would be unfair to be impatient with him or to confiscate the ball the first time he kicked it in the pond, because he probably simply wouldn't remember they'd told him not to.
And toddlers simply don't have an adult's understanding of what's inconvenient and why. The little boy might have thought it looked like great fun getting the ball out of the pond, and couldn't understand why on earth his parents would object. So when he was kicking the ball into the pond deliberately, it wouldn't have been with a full understanding of why that wasn't a good thing to do. He thought it was just a game. So it wouldn't have been so bad a thing to do as it would have been if he'd done it having a full understanding of the feelings of dismay he was causing his parents, which of course he couldn't have. All he knew was they were telling him off for it.
That's not to say that explaining things in detail to toddlers would do any good. They won't understand most of what you're talking about. They might, however, ask a lot of questions. They might well not understand much about the answers though; they'll simply be enjoying all the attention they're getting from you and want to ask more questions to get some more. Some parents might think it's the nicest thing to do to explain to toddlers all the reasons why they're not allowed to do things. It is nice. But since they can't understand things all that well and their memories aren't good enough to remember everything you said for long, sometimes just saying no is best, especially if they're doing something that's a real nuisance like pulling plants to bits or worse.
Young children will be especially bad at understanding attempts to reason with them if they're having a tantrum or agitated. Even adults find it much more difficult to think clearly and take in attempts to persuade them of something when they're angry or stressed.
There needs to be a balance between explaining everything to them as if they have the reasoning abilities of an adult, and being too disciplinarian, not explaining anything to them but trying to keep order by shouting and smacking.
Shouting and smacking can lose their effectiveness anyway if they're done too much. Children can start to assume parents just naturally talk in a loud aggressive voice, and all the anger directed against them can make them feel angry and aggressive so they just get worse.
My younger sister once told me she was looking out her window one day and saw the two young children who lived next door climbing up the fence. Their mother came outside, lifted them down and smacked them. Then she went in again. Then they started climbing up the fence again. Their mother came out again, lifted them down and smacked them again, and then went back indoors. Then they started climbing up the fence again. Exactly the same thing happened about eight times - her coming out and smacking them, and them climbing back up the fence when she'd gone.
My sister said she told our mum that, and our mum said that at first, she used to smack her kids a lot, but she realised it didn't do any good; so when my younger sister came along, she tried something new; she would warn her she was going to smack her if she didn't do what our mum wanted her to do, and then very slowly count to three before smacking her, to give her a chance to start. She found that the threat of a smack was far more effective than a smack itself. It would give a child a chance to anticipate what was coming and choose to avoid it. Once the smack had happened, it had no deterrent effect because it was in the past, and if a child was made angry by it, they'd just want to be defiant.
I remember hearing her counting to three and telling my younger sister she was going to smack her if she hadn't started obeying by then. I must have been about seven at the time. I used to think it was exciting and fun, wondering if my sister would start obeying in time or whether she'd get that smack.
But it's best not to smack really, except when there's immediate danger and a child's unlikely to stop what they're doing any other way, for instance if they run into the road and you tell them not to and explain why but they do it again. Even then, it's best to give them a warning first. Giving them time to think about the smack they might get is a good incentive for them not to do it.
So the first time they do it, it's worth giving them a bit of explanation about why it's a bad idea when you tell them not to do it again. If they do it a second time, it can be best to tell them not to and sternly warn them they'll get a smack next time. If they try again, they might need the smack to get the message.
But if there isn't immediate danger, it's best to use other discipline techniques instead. That's especially because when smacks are given in anger, they're likely to be far harder than the toddler deserves; and also if a smack comes suddenly, the toddler simply might not understand what it's being given for. Even if the parent explains, the toddler might not take in what they say because their attention's totally taken up by the hurricane that's just come yelling at them and whacking them. If they're stressed out by it, they'll just behave worse. Toddlers will behave worse when they're tense and edgy.
And if parents are tense and edgy, the children will likely feel uncomfortable and misbehave, which is just what the parents don't want, especially if it was the children's behaviour that made them stressed in the first place. Trying to keep your voice down and stay calm even if you don't feel calm can help calm down the children, even if you feel you have to put on a calm act sometimes.
The book Little Angels says that in a lot of families the children wouldn't do what they were told no matter how often the parents shouted. But no matter how loud they shouted, their voices could still lack authority because they seemed out of control. They would shout and argue and say unkind things, but it would just provoke the children to anger and defiance, not make them obey, as if they saw life as one big argument where they were battling parents who could be mean, rather than thinking the parents were the bosses and they ought to obey.
But there is another way to get children to do what you want:
The Little Angels team said the key was not to shout, not to nag, and in fact never to ask more than twice. Yet there was a way that could have more effect than all the shouting and nagging the parents did. Some parents would shout all the time, or shout even from the very first time they asked their child to do something; but it just made the children used to it so they didn't think shouting meant anything significant. And because no matter how loud they shouted, their voices didn't carry a tone of authority, but just sounded like anger gone wild, the children didn't take them seriously. But a technique they were then taught worked a lot better:
They were told to ask the children once nicely. And why not? Parents often insist their children ask for things nicely. It's reasonable that parents should be just as polite at first when talking to children. For one thing, it'll help them learn by example. But if the child didn't obey, the parents were told to ask again, firmly this time.
They were given instructions on how to ask nicely. Here's what they are:
It's best to use a tone of voice that's calm and friendly but carries authority. Parents might have to concentrate on how they're making their voice sound, even practising on their own first. Lowering the pitch and slowing down a bit can make it sound more controlled and authoritative.
It's also important that you make sure your child hears you properly and that you're making eye contact with them when you ask.
Try and keep the message you give them short so they don't get distracted by detail and forget the main points.
If they do what you ask, praise and thank them for it. The Little Angels team even suggested parents act with the exaggerated enthusiasm of children's party entertainers to encourage their children to want to do what they were told.
But if a child refuses to obey or ignores a parent when they ask nicely, it's time to be firmer:
To ask firmly: the psychologists said It's best to move closer to the child, get down to their level and make clear eye contact with them. The tone of voice used should be calm, but it should convey a definite note of authority. The voice should be louder than before to get the attention of the child, but the parent shouldn't shout, since that gives the child the message that their parent's lost control and that the command has more to do with their own feelings than it does with whether it's a good idea to do the thing or not.
I heard Margaret Thatcher had voice training before she became prime minister. She was told to make her voice sound lower so it would sound more authoritative, and to put a deliberate note of firmness in it to signify she was in charge.
Try to convey the message that you're in charge with your body language as well as your tone of voice.
If they do what they're told, give them lots of praise and thanks, even though they didn't obey the first time. It'll give them the message that they've done a good thing it would be great to do more often, so if you praise them every time, it might not be long before they're obeying the first time they're asked.
Parents being advised by the Little Angels team tried that method of asking their children, children who'd always ignored them before when they'd shouted and nagged, and they were really pleased when they succeeded. They started getting on a lot better with their children.
But if they still don't do what they're told:
You need to impose a consequence, to show them you're really not happy with their behaviour. That could include ignoring them, not giving them something they would have got if they'd obeyed, or isolating them from the rest of the family and making them spend time alone for a few minutes. Little children can really dislike that, but it can give them a clear message they ought to change their behaviour so it doesn't happen again. When they do change their behaviour, they can end up a lot happier.
First though, think about what kinds of things you don't think it's worth making a fuss about. Although they need to get a clear message that there will be a consequence every time they disobey certain requests, some kinds of requests aren't worth taking a stand on, because to do so would either take too long, or the offence has been so trivial as to be not deserving of a consequence. The book Toddler Taming gives an example: If a child's playing in the paddling pool, and you ask them to get out and get dressed because in ten minutes, you've got to take them with you when you go to collect your older child from school, and they refuse to get out, it can be best to take them out not long before you have to go and put them in the car wrapped in a towel, rather than struggling with them over getting dressed that might take some time.
Or if you're used to fighting with your child over everything, giving them a bit more leeway when you're in a hurry might help the new calmer approach you're trying to cultivate.
It's best if that's combined with praise for good behaviour. Then the child gets a clearer impression of how they should be behaving.
Children can behave badly because they hope it'll get them something. For instance, if a parent has always given in to them when they have a tantrum, they'll think having a tantrum is what gets them their way. Ignoring the tantrum, maybe going into another room if you're sure the child's safe, can make them think there isn't any point in it after all, so after a while they learn to stop bothering.
It certainly isn't easy to ignore a screeching toddler; but it's sometimes possible to pretend to ignore them, putting on an act. So long as they're in a safe place, it's possible to pretend you can't see and hear what's happening and to try going about your business with an appearance of being unflustered. Don't argue with or talk to them; it just gives them attention so they have an incentive to carry on. You could go to another room and get on with things that need doing there, such as the washing up or peeling carrots and so on, or even outside for a breath of fresh air or perhaps to hang the washing out and so on.
It's important for a toddler throwing a tantrum that they have an audience, someone who'll be influenced to do what they want. If the audience disappears, it ruins the show. Some toddlers will give up at that point, quietening down and going to the parent for comfort. If that happens, parents should forgive and be gentle and soothing, rather than telling the toddler off, which would just inflame the situation again and make another tantrum soon afterwards more likely. It's best not to over-indulge them for stopping the tantrum though; it shouldn't feel as if the toddler's being rewarded for having the tantrum, or they'll be more likely to repeat the performance because they want more of that love and attention.
Some toddlers won't be pacified by their parent walking out the room and ignoring them. They'll be annoyed at being ignored and will come after the parent and have the tantrum at their heels, with twice the anger and energy, possibly kicking out at the parent's legs. It can be very easy for a parent to lose their cool and start yelling or worse. To prevent anything bad from happening, it's best if parents pick them up, carry them to another room, put them in and walk out, shutting the door, till the toddler's calmed down. It should be done as gently as possible, which means the parents will have to make a conscious effort to be gentle, because they won't be feeling like doing that. It shouldn't be done in a display of anger that scares the toddler because they can sense you're losing control of your temper.
When you put them in the room, try to have an authoritative air, as if you want to convey the message that you're in charge. Say as calmly as you can, but with a definite tone of firmness and decisiveness, that they're going to stay in their room till they've calmed down. Either that, or some people prefer it if it's for a set few minutes. If the child can sense you're being absolutely serious, they're more likely to obey.
As soon as you've put them in their room and commanded them to stay there till they're back in control of themselves, get out as quickly as you can. Don't argue with them. Just get out, shut the door and get away to a distant part of the house if you can. Once they've calmed down, they'll be happy again, as if nothing had happened. You're helping teach them to calm themselves down by leaving them to practise and not giving in to them. It'll be a useful skill for them later.
If the toddler's quite a bit calmer when they come out, even if it hasn't taken long, again, don't tell them off for what they did, which could just make them angry all over again, or discourage them and make them grumpy. Don't hold a grudge and bring their behaviour up to belittle them later. Try to forgive and forget. Behave almost as if it never happened and show them they'll be rewarded with praise and attention if they behave better. Get them moving on to some interesting thing they'll enjoy doing and leave the tantrum in the past. It's the best way to keep the peace till their next tantrum.
That technique can be used not only with tantrums but with other behaviour it's difficult to tolerate, such as arguing and defiance.
It should be a last resort though. It's best to try ignoring a tantrum first.
A lot of parents think ignoring their children doesn't work, but that's because after ignoring them for a few minutes, they can't stand the noise and crying any more and give in to their children. That gives children the message that they will get what they want if they just keep up the tantrum for a few minutes. So it will encourage them to have longer tantrums. So parents will have a worse problem than they began with. But if they stick to their resolve and ignore their children till they calm down, their children will learn that tantrums don't get them what they want after all.
It can work with some other types of bad behaviour as well. One mother being advised by the Little Angels team was trying to get her four-year-old son to put his toys away but he didn't want to and became aggressive and started throwing them around. She was told to ignore him and make it clear she was unhappy with his behaviour by saying, "I will not talk to you till you tidy up". The boy wasn't used to being ignored and didn't like it. He became more aggressive, hitting his mother to try to make her talk to him. She walked away from him, just saying, "I'll talk to you when you do what I've asked you to do."
It did take a while, but eventually he calmed down. He was learning that getting aggressive didn't get him the attention he was trying to get.
In another family, the parents had been used to trying to reason with their older child when she had a tantrum. But it never calmed her down. Instead, she liked it because she enjoyed the attention she was getting. So it encouraged her to have longer tantrums.
The family were shown how to ignore the little girl when she had a tantrum. One day they went shopping with her, with a psychologist advising the parents through earpieces. The child soon began to have a tantrum when her mother was looking for a pair of trousers and the girl was asked to stop running around and take her father's hand. She protested that she wanted to hold her mother's hand instead. But the father was told not to give into her and to keep holding her hand firmly. He was tempted to bend down and talk to her as he would have done before, but he was advised not to say anything to her while she was still screaming. She carried on her tantrum as they walked out of the shop, but he had to just keep going and not let her behaviour dictate what he did. He walked with her crying and resisting all the way up the street and into a pizza restaurant. The parents managed to carry on ignoring the girl as she went on screaming in the restaurant. That was especially hard because they had to brave the looks of the other customers. They also had to brave any feelings of self-consciousness, embarrassment and shame they had. But they managed it. Another reason it was hard was because they were sitting close to her, so the noise was especially loud, and also she could pull at her father's sleeves and reach out to her mother. But they managed to ignore her, and after ten minutes she stopped and started eating her meal as if nothing had happened. That was a long time, but things wouldn't have been over any more quickly if they'd tried talking to the child, trying to reason with her or argue with her and shouting and yelling. And being ignored was showing her she wouldn't be rewarded with anything for her tantrum so there wasn't any point having them any more.
Some parents don't like ignoring their children's tantrums because it can be tiring and stressful, the bad behaviour can just go on for longer, and in public, people stare and they can feel ashamed and embarrassed. But though not a quick fix, it's like training a child. When they've got the message, their behaviour will change for the better so the problem will go away. You could use the maxim, Short-term pain for long-term gain.
When toddlers have got the message that tantrums won't get them what they want, they won't have so many and they won't be so bad, and child and parents will start getting on better and having more fun.
Ignoring may be tiring and stressful, but yelling at them is just as stressful and tiring, and it tends to make children's behaviour worse, as they just want to yell back and then they get agitated and aggressive so they'll yell some more.
And some of the people staring might well have had children of their own or brothers and sisters who've done the same thing as your child, so they know how you feel and are quietly sympathising or feeling glad it's not just them who has to deal with that kind of thing. Other people simply might not have been in that position so they don't know what it's like to have a child whose behaviour they're trying to control.
Remember children's behaviour often gets worse when they're testing new limits their parents have imposed on them, because they feel sure their parents will give in again if only they try hard enough. It can take time to teach them they're wrong, even weeks; but eventually after several tries of behaving worse to make their parents give in, they'll learn it doesn't work if you keep on ignoring them, and then their behaviour will improve, because they'll realise it makes them a lot happier when they behave differently. Then their behaviour will be much better than it would have been if you'd carried on giving in to them.
Tantrums in public with so many people watching and possibly judging your parenting skills are bound to be more stressful than tantrums at home. But once you learn a few techniques for dealing with them, they might not seem so bad. A lot of parents feel like failures who can't control their children when they throw tantrums in a crowded place, but they don't realise that there are lots of children who behave just as badly who are being left at home with other family members or with a baby-sitter because their parents don't dare take them shopping. So they haven't got those children to compare theirs with, so they can get the impression theirs are far worse than anyone else's when they aren't really.
Supermarkets are designed purposely to make customers want things. For instance, chocolates are put where everyone will have to walk past them, because a lot of people find it hard to resist the temptation to buy them. Toddlers are no exception and will be bound to want them, which is just bound to make things difficult for parents who want to try and get them to eat healthily.
The atmosphere in a supermarket may well stir up a toddler with excitement. Even before parents get in there, there might be coin-operated rides a lot of toddlers will always insist on going on if they've been on them once and liked them. Then if they grab something in the supermarket like a chocolate bar and the parent tells them to put it back, they might argue and then throw a full-scale tantrum. Giving in to them will mean the mother will have to buy them a chocolate bar or risk a tantrum designed to get one from then on; but ignoring them can make some people thoroughly disapprove.
Still, a lot of people will sympathise instead.
Once the child starts learning not to have tantrums at home, they'll probably have less in the supermarket. Till then, there are a few things that can be tried:
Sometimes it can be easiest to leave the child with other family members or neighbours while going shopping. But some supermarkets are at least more toddler-friendly than others. If you know of one with less temptations at toddler-height, it can be better to use it, even if it's a bit further away.
Late night shopping can sometimes be resorted to when the toddler's in bed, or shopping at times when another adult or teenager can go as well to entertain the toddler.
But on your own, you can try distracting the toddler, especially when you're coming up to the bit where they usually have the tantrum. You can try saying things like, "Do you think a bird might have flown in here? Have a look around and see if you can see one. Listen out to see if you can hear chirping. Is there a noise that sounds like chirping? What about on the ceiling? Can you see a bird up there?" Or you could point out things you really can see, such as saying something like, "Look at that man. Poor man, he hasn't got much hair, has he!" You could use your imagination to entertain and distract the toddler.
They might end up having a tantrum anyway. Turning it into a game where you try to sing over the top of them can sometimes help, or if you just sing at whatever volume you feel comfortable with to distract yourself. Although ignoring and letting the tantrum carry on is embarrassing in the short term, it'll mean fewer tantrums overall, because eventually the child will know they don't work to get them what they want. And if the shop is made more entertaining for them by the parent turning shopping into a bit of a game, they'll end up happier going shopping and won't feel like having so many tantrums anyway.
Alternatively, the mother can do her best to whiz around the shops as quickly as she can, grabbing things from the shelves, having decided exactly what to buy beforehand, and doing her best to get out before the toddler has time to think about working themselves into a tantrum.
A lot of parents can find it difficult not to give in to their children. If you tell them they can't have something and they start crying and screaming, it's easy to start feeling sorry for them, thinking you've upset them, or to be desperate for them to shut up so you can have some peace. The thing is that if you give in to them, they'll know making lots of noise and fuss gets them what they want so they'll be encouraged to do it some more. So while you've succeeded in cheering them up that one time, you're heading for several repeat performances.
Also, you don't have to worry you're deeply upsetting your child by not letting them have everything they want. It's good for them to learn they won't get everything they want in life. And the biggest tantrum can just mean they're frustrated at not getting something. They need to learn that everyone has to put up with some annoyance and frustration and sadness in life, so they'll learn to stop making such a fuss about it. Not giving in to them helps teach them that.
It might be scary not to give in to children having a tantrum sometimes because some parents are worried their children will get more aggressive the longer they're allowed to carry on. The trouble is that the more children realise they're being successful in getting what they want by being aggressive and yelling, the more often they'll do it. So though it can be scary to brave out tantrums and aggression and not give in, when children have tried several times to make you with no success, they'll begin to realise such tactics don't work any more and stop them.
Some parents make threats to do things without intending to really do them. If a threat is made time and time again but not carried out, or if it's a big threat that even a toddler will have trouble believing you'd ever carry out, such as never letting them go and see the grandparents again, they won't take it seriously and they'll carry on misbehaving. Either that, or they'll be upset and angered by the threat and won't think it's fair, so they'll get defiant and angry and behave worse.
But denying a child a little reward or privilege you've told them in advance they'll get if they behave well can help change their behaviour. It can't be something they've been told about some time before they behave badly though, or they might have forgotten about it by the time their parent says they won't get it.
With older children, it's possible to discuss with them in advance what privileges they'll lose for certain kinds of bad behaviour and come to some agreement. For instance, one mother who was being taught about parenting skills by the Little Angels team discussed with her nine-year-old and seven-year-old children what privileges they would lose for various kinds of misbehaviour from then on. They would lose time on their play station. They were allowed half an hour on it a day. The time was divided into five-minute slots, and one of these would be forfeited for bad behaviour. A cross would be written on the chart to signify that the time slot had been lost. Both children tried to behave well from then on, because neither wanted to lose more time on the play station than the other one. The competitive spirit kept them trying to behave well.
Agreeing penalties in advance and then always carrying them through so the children know to expect them is a good way of reducing arguments about consequences for misbehaviour, and also changing the behaviour. On the other hand, the technique shows children that behaving well is more likely to get them what they want.
The trouble with arguing and negotiating with young children about their behaviour is that they might not understand what you say but they'll want you to carry on because they'll like the attention. Also, just as where with adults, if someone says something that sounds insulting to them they'll want to argue back, and if the one who was insulting responds, an argument can start that can go on a long time, arguing with a toddler, even if it started over something trivial, can go on a long time, and in the end they might never get to do what you wanted them to do in the first place. So it's best to show them how you want them to behave where possible.
So, for instance, if a child starts playing with something you don't want them to have, instead of arguing with them about it and trying to reason with them, it's best to simply tell them calmly but firmly they can't have it, and then take it from them.
A mother of a five-year-old boy was taking him shopping when he ran away and she had to chase him around the shop to get him back. Once she had, she was told by a psychologist in the [i]Little Angels[/i] team to show him he'd behaved badly with actions rather than words. She marched him firmly and without any discussion out of the shop; and then she sat on a bench and held him on her lap without talking to him till he calmed down. That would have helped teach him that his mother wasn't happy with his behaviour, that there was no reward for running away, and that his mother was in charge.
If parents and children are losing control of their tempers, the best thing is if they separate to cool off. The child can be put in a room by themselves for a few minutes and told to calm down. The time away from the child may also give the parent a chance to cool off, so they'll be less stressed and less likely to do something they regret.
It's also an option when a child simply won't do what they're told and they need something to happen to show them they can't get away with disobeying. That'll help them learn to do what they're told. They should be asked once nicely, once calmly but firmly, and then if they still disobey, be put on their own for a few minutes.
It should always be a last resort though when other discipline techniques have failed, apart from when the child's being aggressive. Then they can be removed from the scene straightaway. But it must be explained to them why it's happening. For instance, before carrying or leading them away, a parent might say something like, "No! It's not nice to hit your brother. Hitting hurts." Then with no further conversation apart from to explain to them what's going to happen, they can be put on their own. It's important that the parent doesn't get into an argument with them, because it could go on for ages with them just enjoying the attention or getting more agitated. Having nothing to do will help them calm down.
While carrying them to the room, if they kick or punch or bite you, try to ignore it as best you can rather than letting it provoke you into an argument that might last a while and reward them by giving them attention. Try and sound as firm and yet as calm as you can when you put them in the room you've chosen, so your voice has a definite ring of authority about it.
If they've been aggressive so they're likely to be a real handful if they come out of the room before the time's up, you can hold the door very firmly closed, but explain to them why you're doing it so they'll know why they can't get out, otherwise it'll frighten them, not calm them.
Even if you're right outside the door, don't say a single word, no matter how hard they try to argue with you or no matter what they say. The idea is that they're being disciplined by being deprived of attention for a short time, so they'll get to learn bad behaviour gets ignored and not rewarded with attention and that it doesn't get them whatever else they want.
Hold tight to the door handle so they can't open it at all and try to make you give in. If they kick the door, try to stay unmoved, saying nothing.
At the end of the time, go into the room and explain to them calmly and briefly why they were put there, and that they'll be put there again if they repeat the misbehaviour. Then try to get them interested in something else so an argument doesn't start over it that keeps child and parents unhappy.
If the child's still having a tantrum when the time's up, ask them once nicely to stop and then once firmly, and then explain briefly that they'll go into time-out again if they carry on.
If they don't stop, isolate them again for the same amount of time.
If they come out of the room calmer, briefly explain why they went in, have a cuddle with them and then get on with the day.
Don't mention the time-out again or hold a grudge. That could just start an argument. Instead, give the child a cuddle and praise them at the first opportunity you can after the time-out to show them they're still approved of, especially when their behaviour gets better.
The best room for them to be isolated in is one where not much is going on so it's boring, perhaps a hallway. It should be somewhere where there's nothing or very little that can be broken, and of course where they'll be safe. Ideally it should be far enough away from the family so the child can't hear what's going on. That might not be possible, so the next best thing can be tried.
The idea is that a parent takes a child gently by the hand or picks them up, and takes them to the time-out room, and tells them in a calm but authoritative voice that they're being given a few minutes to calm down and decide to behave, and that the parent isn't going to argue about it. It's recommended that they're given one minute for every one year of their life, though it's best if it doesn't go on longer than five minutes even if the child's older than five. A kitchen timer with an alarm that goes off when the time's up can be used, so the child will know when their time's finished.
It's unlikely to work with children under two years old, because they might well not understand what it's all about. But it can work with children as old as ten.
Parents may well find that the more firm and authoritative they sound when they put the child in the time-out area, the more likely the child will be to take them seriously and stay there. Sounding angry when you tell them to calm down might just trigger off their defiance instincts. But making an effort to sound firm and authoritative but calm will convey to them the idea that you really mean business.
It's important that the parent doesn't give the child attention while they're in there though, whatever they say, or even if they're throwing things around, provided the parents have made it child-proof so no real damage can be done. If the child gets attention while they're there, or even if they feel sure the parent's listening on the outside and will be likely to change their mind if they cry a lot or come out of the room, they'll think the parent wasn't being serious about them being there on their own so they might push the limits in the hope that the parent will give up the idea altogether.
Some children will kick and scream in their rooms till parents feel sorry for them or decide it just isn't working and let them out. But if they know they get let out when they scream and kick, they'll just do it more. It's bound to be hard on the emotions of a parent to have to hear them. But sometimes if the parent goes away to another part of the house the child will give up because they know no one's listening. Or if the parent keeps absolutely quiet, they can realise they're not getting anywhere and calm down. It might not happen at first, but children who don't enjoy the experience will want to start behaving better so they don't get put in the room in the first place. Sometimes the improvement happens quickly if the parents don't give in.
If the child escapes, they may need to be put back, even more firmly, but still calmly, rather than in a fit of temper that'll give the child the impression you're not in control of your emotions. They can be told the time starts all over again. If they escape yet again, they can be put back, and the parent can do something to stop the door opening, telling the child they're going to do that, but then not saying a word no matter what the child does. That might sound harsh, but the technique is like a safety valve to allow parents and child to cool off so nothing worse happens. And it won't be for long.
Parents can hold the door handle to stop it opening right from the start, but if they do they need to hold it very firmly, because the toddler will likely try to open the door from the other side, and if they can open it a bit, they might start to think of it as a game to see how far they can pull it open, like a tug of war.
Some children will kick the closed door in protest and in the hope the parent lets them out of the room. But they'll do it more the more they know their parent is becoming agitated by it. If the parent is absolutely silent, the child may well eventually give up, and be less likely to try it again. Even if they take a bit of paint off the door, it might still be better than the parent having to deal with the disobedient noisy child under their feet during that time.
Some toddlers do calm down, but then they wreck the room in protest at being there. It's less likely to happen if the parent was calm but authoritative when they put them there, telling them they were going to calm down there in a voice that conveys the impression that the parent is in charge of the toddler and of their own emotions and that this is absolutely how it is going to be. But it can still happen.
So it's important that parents put the toddler somewhere where there aren't things around that could be harmful to them in any way. Also, it's best not to put them somewhere where there are things that could be messy. If the plan is to put them in their bedroom, paints and play-doh and so on should have been put away. Think in advance about the room they can cause the least havoc in. Sometimes parents resort to putting their children in the bathroom. But it's best not to do that if there's a risk of them turning on the hot taps and getting burned.
If they do wreck the room, being made to tidy it up will show them it isn't a good idea. They won't want that to happen too many times. Or sometimes saying nothing has an impact, since the reason they wrecked the room will have been to show you how annoyed they are with you for putting them there; if you don't seem to notice they're annoyed, their tactic doesn't have the impact it was meant to have.
The book Toddler Taming tells of one mother who had a four-year-old daughter who would cool off as soon as she was put in her bedroom, but then she would wreck it. The author of the book first advised the parents to clear it of all breakable things and all things that could be used to make the place especially messy, paints, pens and other things. The next time she was put in her room, she didn't bother crying, since she knew she could get back at her mum more by rearranging her things. Ten minutes later she came out of the room calm and looking very pleased with herself. Her mother calmed herself as she looked in. She saw the bed completely messed up and clothes out of every drawer on the floor. But she had decided not to get upset about it this time. She kept herself calm, and just walked past and commented, "Oh dear; that looks a bit of a mess."
The daughter was taken aback. She had expected the mother to show she was agitated by what had happened so she'd know she'd done something to get her mother back for putting her there. Since her mother didn't seem to mind, it seemed it just hadn't worked. It seems she had a feeling her mother was going to start acting with more control to things, because she had no more tantrums for the rest of the day.
At bedtime, she was sent in to get her pyjamas, but came back complaining that she couldn't find them. Her mother said in a helpful tone of voice, "I think they might be under that pile of clothes."
The daughter then asked how she was going to be able to sleep in her unmade bed. "No problem," said the mum. She plonked one blanket from a corner and another from somewhere else in the room over her.
The next morning, the child had the same difficulty when looking for clean clothes. The mother just pointed out the untidy pile of clothes and said they must be in there.
A clear message was coming across to the daughter: Wrecking the room had no impact on the mother but was a total nuisance to the wrecker.
The author spoke to the mother later that day and they decided that mother and daughter would tidy the room together in an enthusiastic and positive way. It turned out to be a good experience. All the clothes were gone through, and the ones that were too small were set aside to be sent to 'needy children'. The toys were tidied up and mother and daughter made out a list of possible presents for Christmas, which was coming up.
The daughter never wrecked her room again. Not only that, but she had far fewer tantrums after that, and the relationship between mother and daughter became closer.
Naturally, if you only leave the child in their room for a few minutes, it limits the amount of damage they could do to the room if they wreck it.
Parents can think the time-out has failed, when actually they're expecting it to do things it's unlikely to do. It may calm the child, but it's the rare child who's going to feel humbled and apologetic because of the experience and say sorry as if they mean it afterwards. But that's not what time-outs are for; they're just meant as a cooling-off period and to show the child they won't get a reward for behaving badly such as attention.
And it won't guarantee good behaviour for the rest of the day, or even for the coming hour. If they have a tantrum again ten minutes after the time-out, or even just five or two, it should be considered a fresh incident, and they can go in time-out again. Even if they get put in their room lots of times one day, it doesn't mean the technique isn't working, because maybe the next day, they'll have to be put in there fewer times, and the day after that, fewer still, and so on. Sometimes children learn slowly but steadily. And if each time they're put outside the door or in another room they come back calmer than they were when they went there, it's proved its worth.
Don't remind the child of how naughty he's been. When the time-out finishes, act as if it's totally over-and-done-with and forgotten. If you keep reminding the child they were naughty enough to be put there, it'll provoke them and create a tense atmosphere that'll just fuel arguments and more bad behaviour and ruin everyone's happiness. The discipline used on them was the time-out; it shouldn't be the time-out plus a lot of unpleasant words afterwards. Try and move on and get them involved in something they'll enjoy or at least something that takes their mind off what's just happened so moods improve.
Some parents think the method isn't doing what it should if the child stops their tantrum but then remains happily in their room playing. But the main purpose of a time-out is to get the child to calm down rather than to punish them, so it doesn't really matter if they start to enjoy themselves. Besides, sometimes they might want to be with the family more than others so it'll be harder on them. If the child's in their room for a long time though, the technique can lose its effectiveness if the child simply forgets why they're in the room and starts playing. That's one reason why only isolating them for a short time is best. Long time-outs can be less effective than short ones because the child can just learn to amuse themselves and forgets they're being punished.
In any case, the time parents get to calm down a bit while the child is in time-out can be valuable, so it's worth doing for the parents as well as to discipline the child.
Time-out is a teaching tool that shows the toddler what's expected of them. As they learn, they can change their behaviour, and then parents and child can become much closer and have more fun together. That's especially because it can take the place of a lot of fierce arguments and shouting that can just ruin the peace of the home.
Some parents think putting the child on their own for a few minutes is cruel, because they seem so unhappy when they go there, screaming and crying. But tears aren't always a sign of real distress, but can be the equivalent of an older child's protest, "Hey, this just isn't fair!" when you tell them they have to stop watching television and go to bed. The emotion the child might be feeling could just be annoyance at being put there. That would be the same emotion they would be feeling if instead of excluding them from the family for a few minutes you shouted and yelled at them and they got heated and angry and started yelling back, and you ended up smacking them in anger. Since that would be what would usually happen in a lot of families, excluding the child for a few minutes won't put extra strain on the children, and in fact will be kinder. Besides, if they really don't like it, they'll learn all the sooner not to disobey, and then it won't have to be used any more. Some children learn quickly, and within weeks or even sometimes days their behaviour is a lot better.
The author of the book Little Angels says one woman they helped was in floods of tears the first time she put one of her three-year-old triplets into a room on her own, because the girl was screaming and crying with indignation and the mother was upset by it, feeling guilty and sorry for the girl. But she was surprised at how quickly the method helped change the girl's behaviour and showed her that it wasn't acceptable to run around the kitchen throwing food at mealtimes instead of sitting still and eating. And not only did her behaviour change but so did that of the other two triplets when she tried it on them. Then she said she was pleased, saying she no longer shouted and smacked the triplets like she used to. She had said the neighbours were fed up of hearing her shouting things at them like, "Don't do this, don't do that. Right, I've had enough. All of you just go away!"
The mother of a four-year-old girl was also surprised at how effective the time-out method was. The girl had often had tantrums where she had even hit her mother if she didn't do what she wanted. The arguments were often over the girl's insistence that she was still allowed to breast-feed. Her mother would say no at first, but give in when her daughter got aggressive, and even cuddle her while she was feeding, which accidentally gave her the confusing message that it was allright to carry on that way really. The girl would have tantrums and try to get her mother to breast-feed her most when she was on the phone so it was least convenient for her to discipline her.
The mother learned to cope better though. She started putting the girl in her room for four minutes when she became aggressive and holding the door firmly shut. At first, doing that upset the mother. But she was amazed at how quickly it changed the girl's behaviour. Within a very short time, the tantrums and hitting stopped. The mother was feeling a lot better. She said she could feel herself being calm, and would no longer lose her temper. Behaviour of both mother and child changed for the better.
The girl was also told that she would be excluded from company for a few minutes if she tried to force her mother to breast-feed her. For the first time she was getting a clear message that no really meant no. Just a warning that she'd be put in time-out would be enough to stop her. The mother was happy because she'd begun to feel in control.
It is important not to over-use exclusion. It should be the last resort after they've been asked to behave better. One woman being helped by the Little Angels team had used it for so often and for so long each time that it had lost its power as a deterrent to future bad behaviour, especially because the mother would order her boy to sit on a step, and would continue rowing with him all through the time-out. So it wasn't much different to what was happening at other times.
Some children are big and strong and could actually hurt parents who try to pick them up and put them into time-out. It's best in that case to go into another room yourself and shut the door. Make sure the child's safe first though.
Using time-out too quickly can actually make things worse rather than better. Other techniques should be tried first, such as trying to turn what you're asking the child to do into a game so they'll enjoy it more, for instance asking them to put knives and forks on the table and suggesting they pretend they're preparing a king's banquet, or any number of other ideas you might come up with. Or you could help them and jolly them along. Not forgetting to ask nicely first and then firmly but calmly. Shouting from the beginning will mean they learn to stop taking any notice, whereas if you're normally nice but just resort to unpleasant things when you've done a few things to try to get them to behave well in nice ways, the unpleasant things will be a contrast so they may well have more impact.
Using time-out too quickly can lead to the same kind of defiance shouting and yelling can bring on.
Using it when other approaches have failed though can be surprisingly effective.
Disciplining a child for every single offence can be tiring for parents and put them on edge all the time, constantly on the lookout for what their children are doing wrong and saying "No!" constantly. That'll in turn put children on edge so they might behave worse. There's also the problem that children can misbehave in certain ways just to get attention. Arguing with them gives them more, so they'll carry on. That just makes things more stressful for the parents. Sometimes ignoring the bad behaviour will mean they stop bothering to do it. Even when it doesn't, the parents might well end up more relaxed if they decide it isn't worth bothering about. Kids just naturally grow out of a lot of bad behaviour. Parents need to think about what really matters and needs discipline, and what they can brush off.
Also, sometimes a toddler will repeat something they've heard, not realising it's an insult or that it might have some kind of emotional impact on a parent. The parent will make a big fuss about it, and from then on, if ever the toddler's fed up of being ignored because the parent's busy doing other things, they'll say it again, so long as they remember, to get attention focused on them again.
It's best not to make a big fuss when a toddler uses offensive language, but to try and stay calm, even if they're swearing in front of a church gathering or somewhere equally embarrassing. Giving the behaviour a lot of attention will mean toddlers will know they can say that word again if things get boring and there will be some drama again. Instead, it's best to simply tell them calmly that that's not a nice word to use so they shouldn't use it, and then try and divert the toddler's attention onto something else.
And be careful the word isn't used in the family, at least when the toddler can hear it, because they'll simply imitate it, sometimes in inconvenient places.
It can also be that toddlers say something their parents think they mean when they're just repeating what they've heard, not really realising how seriously it's likely to be taken. For instance, a toddler might say to a parent telling them off, "I hate you!" The parent might assume they're really feeling hatred and try their best to assure them that they love them and want the best for them. The toddler will think saying what they said gets them nice attention. So they might well get the idea to do it again when they want some more. The parent can get far more worried than they need to. So it's best if they just respond with a calm matter-of-fact little sentence. For instance, if their toddler says, "I hate you!", they could just say something like, "Really? Well I love you", and leave it there. If the toddler really does have an issue to talk through, they'll carry on.
Toddlers can get to be more fun once you understand how they tick.
Some children are just born more anxious than others, and need longer than usual to pluck up the courage to go into new situations or situations where other children are boisterous around them. They can be unusually disturbed by noise, bright lights and other stimulation they think is too much. They can also be unusually quick to get angry or frustrated. They need to be gently coaxed into things, not pushed into them. If they feel under pressure to do things, they can end up crying inconsolably or screaming in a tantrum. Parents need to think especially about the feelings of such children and be patient. That doesn't mean pacifying them by giving into them all the time, since after all, then they won't learn they can't have everything in life; it just means making special efforts to take things slowly with them. It'll save time in the long run, because then they won't need cheering up or dealing with when they're crying and yelling.
Some children are placid, being happy to play on their own. They can be a bit nervous among other children if some are more aggressive than they are though, so they too will need to be introduced to new activities gently. It's good that they have the skills to play on their own; it doesn't need to be seen as an aversion to other children; but introducing them to one new child at a time can be best, and it's best if the children they're introduced to are also easy-going types. Such children can become more confident and assertive with a bit of coaxing.
Some children are more grumpy than usual from birth. It takes less to annoy or upset them than it would most children, even from their first day of life.
Some children just naturally seem to have more energy than others, wanting to be more boisterous and adventurous. Giving them activities where they can use up a lot of energy can keep them happy and make it less likely their energy will turn into aggression and tantrums. All children need activities where they can let off steam and release energy. But some especially benefit from and enjoy them. They can be more than usually prone to being aggressive with other children or parents, and can get reputations as bullies in play groups. A lot of toddlers seem to think everything belongs to them; but these children are more than usually determined to get what they want, like other children's toys. Trying to force them to share can end in a tantrum. Giving them high-energy activities to do can help calm them. Also, parents can get to recognise signs that a tantrum's coming on and distract the child before one starts.
These and other children can often change their behaviour for the better if parents guide them, showing them what good behaviour is by giving them rewards like extra hugs and praise when they're behaving well. They'll want more of that, so they'll have an incentive to behave better, till they learn that behaving well is the decent thing to do and want to behave well.
Those things apply to all children to some extent. All children need to use up energy, and their behaviour can often be better when they do. Even in the winter, if there's a safe place outdoors, wrapping up warm and going for a play outside sometimes can help everyone let off steam a bit, parents and children alike.
All children will need extra patience and reassurance in some situations. If there are a lot of arguments in the house or an unexpected change in routine such as one of the family being ill, toddlers naturally won't know exactly what's going on, but they will pick up on the tense emotions of those around them and can become more easily agitated or upset.
Also, even babies under a year old have personal preferences for people and things. If there's a certain family member the baby seems to feel uncomfortable around, such as a grandparent, it's best not to make them stay in their presence for that long at any one time. Also, if the toddler always ends up being bullied by or bullying another child, it's best if those children don't spend much time together, even if the parents are best friends. Experiences like that don't just stop affecting the victimised child when the fighting stops; they can become more aggressive or easily upset or clingy for a while afterwards.
There are naturally lots of other situations that will make most children frustrated and angry or upset. One situation that can gradually work little children into a big temper is if the home isn't very child-proof so parents are running around after the children shouting, "No!" or, "Don't touch that. Don't do this!" all the time. Children can become frustrated with the restrictions and at constantly being told off. So it's best if parents put away breakable things where young children can't get to them, and maybe leave a few unbreakable less valuable items of theirs out and try to teach the children there are some things it's best if they learn to touch with parents' help. A good way of stopping toddlers being curious enough about them that they want to touch them is if parents take them round the house showing them things and allowing them to touch and hold things, as long as they're not easily damaged or could hurt the toddler. A parent could say something like, "You can touch it when Mummy's holding you." Toddlers can get easily bored, so when they've got used to a thing and had their curiosity satisfied, they can stop wanting to touch it.
That reminds me. I heard about some parents who found out their babies were blind, and they went for the day to meet with other parents in the same situation and to hear someone talk about the best ways of treating them, such as what kinds of toys to give them. One mother said she'd put a fruit bowl in front of her baby, and the baby had taken some time feeling each piece of fruit, finding out what it felt like all the way around. The baby did that with all the bits of fruit in the bowl. The next day, the mother put the fruit bowl in front of the baby again, but that day the baby didn't want to play with it, as if to say, "I know all about that now; I don't need to examine them any more."
The woman who organised the group said that good toys to give their children would be things they could make a noise with or that they could do active things with, like toy buses that made a noise when they wheeled them along.
The book The Baby Whisperer says all children like toys they can fiddle with and make do interesting things, and things they can bang around with parts that move and cause different things to happen.
It says toddlers do need protecting, and the house has to be protected from toddlers, since especially when they're just learning about new things just after they've learned to crawl, they won't have developed enough impulse control to stop themselves doing things; they'll have short memories so they can easily forget you told them not to do something; and they'll be curious about what's around them so will want to touch it to find out more about it. So anything precious ought to be removed.
Then again, no matter how hard parents try to make a home child-proof, children can do unexpected things. Someone said that once she found her baby playing with a pair of tights. The baby had wrapped them around her neck. She realised she'd have to take child-proofing to a whole new level!
Another thing parents can do to prevent toddlers becoming frustrated and having angry outbursts is updating their toys and other things. When they grow out of baby toys, they'll want new and more challenging things to play with. It can be good to play new games with them where they can use the abilities they've recently learned like walking and beginning to talk. Also, they'll enjoy it if there are things they can explore and experiment with safely.
Another thing that can help children find alternatives to having tantrums is if parents put their best efforts into trying to teach them to express their feelings in words. Naturally parents have to wait till they're reasonably good at picking up new words and talking.
But then before that, they can help familiarise children with the words by saying them out loud when a child seems to be feeling a certain thing. For instance, when a child's working themselves into a tantrum, they can say, "You're angry aren't you. Angry!" Or, "This is making you frustrated, isn't it! You're frustrated!" Put emphasis on the important word.
When children can talk, parents can help them learn the words for feelings, get them to repeat them back and ask them to use them in future rather than throwing tantrums or crying and so on. And before they can talk, it's still useful to help get them used to the words so when they can, they'll be more familiar with them so they'll come more naturally.
Not only feelings, but things. Toddlers will go through a phase of knowing what they want but not having the words to say what they mean. That can be very frustrating for a toddler as well as for the parents, and that can be the cause of some tantrums, as the frustration builds up and the anger has to be released. Children usually grow out of tantrums when they get good at talking.
In the meantime, if the toddler seems to want something, it can be good to ask them to point it out and say the word to try to teach them what it is. For instance, if they're pointing to a cupboard and whining, you could pick them up and say, "Show me what you want." If they reach out for a raisin, for instance, you could say, "Oh, you want a raisin? Can you say 'raisin'?" They might not be able to, but you'll be helping them learn and get used to word sounds. It all helps in their eventual development to the point where they'll talk instead of resorting to a tantrum.
Don't wait till their emotions are quite strong before you say anything; in fact, it'll get them more familiar with words for emotions if you use them as soon as you spot an emotion in yourself or someone else, and more used to words for things if you talk to them while you're going about your day and say the words for things as you pick them up.
So, for instance, if another child at a playgroup starts crying, you could comment to your child that they're upset. If you're enjoying playing with your child, you could maybe say, "I like this game. It's making me happy."
Even when someone shows an emotion on television, you could point it out. For instance you could say things like, "He's sad now because his friends don't want to play with him."
Or when another child does something your toddler doesn't like, you could say things like, "You're angry because he took your toy, aren't you."
If your child's emotions go out of control though and they start screaming and yelling or showing some other extreme form of emotion, take them away from the action to cool down for a while. If it's a public place, you could try holding them on your lap with their back to you. You could even suggest they take a slow deep breath to help calm down. If they refuse to sit still but squirm and struggle, put them down, still with their back to you. You could try talking about their feelings, ... a bit more loudly than normal perhaps, for instance saying things like, "I can tell you're angry about what happened", or "I can see you were getting very excited in there". But then tell them they need to behave before going back, for instance saying something like, "But you mustn't go back in there till you've calmed down."
As soon as they've calmed down, you could hug them and congratulate them on being able to calm down.
Teaching children there are behaviours that just aren't acceptable does them a favour, because it helps them learn the difference between right and wrong, good and bad. Also, when they learn there are things they just aren't going to be allowed to do or have, it helps them get their emotions under control. When they start a tantrum and it becomes a battle between parents and children to get something, children aren't happy and can get so carried away they end up frightening themselves because they don't know how to stop. If they eventually learn there's no point starting a tantrum, it'll help them keep their emotions in check so they'll really be happier, even though you're denying them something they want.
It's normal for toddlers to go through a phase where they're anxious about separating from their parents or mother. It can last from when they're seven months old, to when they're 18 months old and sometimes older. They might well make a fuss when a parent leaves them with someone else or when left at day care. They haven't got the words to communicate what to say, but what they mean will be something like, "You're important to me Mummy and I'd far rather be with you than left there." Also they might be worried that you won't come back.
Naturally they're most helped by gentle understanding and reassurance, not scolding.
Some people think that when toddlers call out for their parents in the night and ask them for things, it's really because of separation anxiety, as if they're saying, "You're important to me Mummy and I want to make sure you're still there." But even if that is the case, parents need their sleep, so they simply can't keep getting up in the night to make sure their toddler's happy. A sleep-deprived parent won't be in a fit state to be patient and playful with their toddler during the day when they most need to!
Though it's usual for young toddlers to get clingy and anxious about their main care-giver leaving them, some get a lot more anxious than others, and some get over it quite a bit sooner than others.
An anxious child needs to be handled with a bit of care and patience. Parents shouldn't try to talk them out of their feelings or hope that by pretending their feelings don't exist they'll go away.
For instance, if a few toddlers are playing on the floor but another one seems keen to stay on mother's lap, the mother shouldn't push them off in the hope they'll just get used to the others. If she does, she might have an inconsolably crying baby on her hands before long. Coaxing gently and expecting them to join in gradually is better. Or if one of the toddlers is particularly spirited or aggressive, it might be best for a while to only put the child down when they're around gentle placid children instead.
Sometimes babies have growth spurts, and they can start waking up in the night even if they've been sleeping through it for a while, because they're hungrier. Also, when they start to walk or crawl, it can disrupt their sleep as they get more restless. If a toddler hasn't had enough sleep, they're likely to be irritable and aggressive, or grumpy or more easily upset the next day.
So the day after a toddler's had a bad sleep, it's best not to put pressure on them to do energetic or challenging things. It's best not to introduce difficult things when the toddler isn't at their best.
Toddlers and babies can become more easily upset when they're teething. But though it's good to show them care and sympathy, it's best not to let them get away with what they want because you feel sorry for them, because they'll start thinking that whining and crying and tantrums can get them what they want so they'll do those things more.
That being said, naturally when they're ill or teething, it's best to try to be more patient with grumpy or bad-tempered behaviour than normal, because they'll feel uncomfortable and miserable, and will be almost bound to show it by making more fuss about things. It might be worth you making a special effort to keep the voice down, for example, and to be more willing to go to them when they wake in the night.
Toddlers can be unsettled by unexpected things, especially if they think there are unpleasant things about them. If they get stressed they can start screaming and crying. Talking to them about what's coming up can help them stay calmer.
Even things parents assume will be enjoyable like birthday parties or meeting up with other parents who bring their toddlers can be unsettling for a toddler if they didn't know what was coming and don't know what's going to happen when it starts.
The author of the book The Baby Whisperer tells of a birthday party she went to for an anxious little boy who was just turning two. A friend of the author offered to hold the party for the boy; she was the boy's grandmother. The author arrived early in the day and watched the preparations. A castle was set up, and what looked like 500 helium balloons were strung up overhead. To an adult it looked magical, but to a toddler, who'd be going into the garden expecting a nice peaceful place the way it had always been, it was a bit of a shock. No one told him what was going to happen. When his parents brought him out later, he was scared out of his wits. There was a pirate in full rigalia, and the garden was packed with other people - lots of children, most of them older, and about 30 adults. The poor little boy started crying inconsolably. He obviously didn't know what on earth was going on.
The next day, the grandmother remarked that she didn't know if kids could be ungrateful at that age, but the boy had spent the whole afternoon in her bedroom with her.
It would hardly have been ingratitude that was making him want to hide! No one had even told him he was having a birthday party, let alone prepared him for what to expect. He wouldn't have understood why things were so different from usual, and to him they would have looked frightening.
The author asked the grandmother, "Honestly, who was the party really for?"
The grandmother looked at her sheepishly and said, "I get your point; it was really more for the grown-ups and the older children."
It's important to try to see things from the toddler's point of view. For instance, balloons might be fun party things for older children; for two-year-olds they might be fun until they burst, and then they can be downright frightening. Swings can be a lot of fun for older children; but for some one-year-olds, even being pushed in a baby swing might seem like a horrifying loss of control, with their body suddenly being propelled in directions they just didn't expect it to go in without them knowing how to stop it. They might cry, and that could be the reason. And so on.
So it's best to try and think about how things feel from a toddler's point of view.
There are several reasons toddlers can bite, either with deliberate intent or not meaning any harm.
Sometimes babies will bite their mother on the breast while feeding once they've got teeth, probably either accidentally or because they think it might be nice, not realising it'll hurt their mum. Babies are often dissuaded from doing that when their mother pulls them away suddenly and says "Ouch", which can frighten them.
Some toddlers can bite more when they feel grumpy and irritable or they need some sleep. Some of that can be stopped if you watch out for the signs that they're becoming grumpy or tired and take them somewhere calming, perhaps putting them down for a nap as soon as you see they're tired if possible, and taking them away from other children to calm down when they're irritable or showing signs of getting aggressive.
Sometimes little children think it's a game when they bite someone who pulls away and makes a fus, so they do it again. It might be because someone laughed at them once when they did it, or because they think the person who tells them off is really playing.
The author of the book Toddler Taming, a doctor, says he was once examining a little boy who was lying on his mother's knee. When he felt his tummy, the boy involuntarily straightened one leg and kicked him. Just for a bit of fun, the doctor jumped back holding his knee, making a big fuss. The boy obviously found it funny and wanted more fun, because a few seconds later he kicked him hard on the other knee, and that time it really did hurt. The doctor jumped again, and by the end of the interview, the little boy was tramping on his toes, kicking his shins and loving it. A week later the doctor was working quietly at his desk, when his office door burst open and before he knew it the boy dashed in and kicked him.
He thinks that if the first time the boy kicked him he'd ignored it, nothing else would have happened.
Sometimes biting and other kinds of aggression are also a way to get attention, since toddlers often think they'll prefer the attention they get than being ignored, even if it starts with shouting. Being given more attention when they're being good and less when they're being bad can help change their ways. They'll prefer the nice kind of attention so they'll want more of it.
If their aggression is a serious problem, putting them on their own for a couple of minutes every time it happens so they're deprived of attention can give them the message that it's not in their interests to do that , especially if it's coupled with behaviour on your part that'll make them feel a warm sense of approval when they're good so they get ideas about what it's nice to do instead.
Sometimes biting can be an urge they get when they're teething.
And sometimes before they can talk, they can bite out of frustration because they can't express themselves and want something but can't make themselves understood.
Or sometimes they'll bite to stop you doing something they don't want you to do. For instance, if you're washing their face after dinner, perhaps especially if they've grown a bit irritable sitting still waiting for everyone else to finish, they might get angry and bite you to stop you. If you think something like that might be happening, you might be able to avoid some of the things that irritate them. For instance, if staying in the high chair too long makes them frustrated, they could be taken out earlier.
So parents need to observe and think about what might be triggering off the biting behaviour before deciding what to do about it. When they think they can make good guesses, they can take the action that seems most appropriate: to make sure the child gets rest as soon as they see signs of tiredness if possible; to warn your child to calm down and distract them if they're beginning to get aggressive with another child and that often leads to biting; to never make a joke of it; to know what they look like when they're about to bite so you can distract them or warn them not to, and so on.
Each time the child bites, whatever they've done it for, it helps if the parents put them down immediately, and tell them they shouldn't bite, and briefly say why, for instance: "No biting! That hurts!" Then they shouldn't look at the child for a few moments or communicate with them in any way, but just walk away. Biting often makes parents angry, and walking away for a moment or two will give them a chance to cool down as well as their child. It probably won't take the child long to work out that if they want a cuddle or to be close to their parents, biting isn't a good idea.
If the child bites a brother or sister or a neighbour's child, the way you react can depend on how serious the bite is. A little nip when the child's over-excited can be responded to with a firm "No" to let them know they need to calm down a bit. Deliberate, repeated or more major aggression can be responded to by you putting the child on their own in another room for a few minutes.
But try to recognise situations that tend to end up with your child biting and divert their attention before it happens.
If you're at playgroup where you can't really put your child alone in another room for a few minutes and the place is crowded so it's not easy to separate them from other children for a while, it can help change their behaviour if you tell them off in an authoritative tone of voice and then give a lot of attention to the child they bit while ignoring them. If they get to realise that anyone they bite will get all the affection and attention they would like to have themselves but won't get for a few minutes after they've bitten someone, they'll work out that they need to change if they want some.
But then, if they might be a risk to other children as well as the one they've just bitten, it's far better to take them away from the action altogether, even if it's just to the corner of the room, and hold them on your lap till they've calmed down.
And if they get put on their own for a few minutes every time they bite at home, and their behaviour starts changing as a result of that, chances are that it'll begin to change at playgroup as well.
If a child's been picked on by another child, they might bite them to try to ward them off, and that might be the reason they're doing it even if they start doing it before the other child does anything to them.
Also, they might bite if another child takes something of theirs that's very precious, such as the teddy they cuddle as they go to sleep or use to comfort themselves if they're feeling a bit upset. If it's not just an ordinary toy of theirs but something special, it should perhaps be kept somewhere where other children won't spot it and want to play with it if your child gets upset when they do; or other kids should be asked to treat it gently because it's special.
Toddlers need to be told firmly that biting isn't OK. Some parents don't seem to mind their children doing it. But if the children get the impression that one form of aggression is allright, they'll likely go on to other forms and worse ones, assuming those are OK too.
If toddlers do sense that their parents are getting nervous when they look as if they might bite, they can also think of it as a tool to get something they want. Parents need to be firm in telling them it's wrong, not shouting and getting into an argument with the toddler that might just make them angry and defiant, but being business-like, just saying it won't be tolerated and walking away and ignoring the child for a moment if they can.
Toddlers can also enjoy the sensation of biting down onto soft flesh. They can think it's just like a game. Parents could perhaps try to think of something their toddler can bite without doing any damage, and give it to them to use as a plaything instead, or keep it in your pocket and quickly give it to them when you notice them coming towards you with the look that says they feel like biting. Teething rings could do.
The book The Baby Whisperer says one mother the author knew would keep a supply of teething rings handy on the kitchen counter within easy reach, after having put up with her little boy coming into the kitchen when she was cooking and things and biting her calves. After she got them, whenever she saw him coming, looking as if he was going to bite, she would pick one up and offer it to him, saying, "No biting Mummy. Here, you can bite this."
When he bit it, she would clap and cheer for him, which would encourage him to choose the teething ring over her to bite some more.
Some parents think biting the child back to show them it hurts or tapping them hard on the mouth stops them. But it often doesn't work, and it can give children a confusing message. Rather than teaching them biting's wrong, it could be teaching them their parents do it so it must be allright, or that parents are allowed to do it, but for some strange reason children aren't.
When a young toddler first starts hitting and slapping, there's unlikely to be much malicious intent; they'll often just be curious about what will happen if they do, and then can think it's a game if they get a reaction. They need to be taught to touch other people and animals gently. So when a mother sees her little child slapping or hitting another child or being aggressive with a pet, it can be good if she takes their hand and shows them how to stroke or pat gently instead of hitting, by patting or stroking their hand over the animal, or the other person's face if that's what they hit. The parent can say something like, "No, don't hit. That hurts. Be gentle. Gentle", as they show their child how.
Then again, I know someone who taught her toddler to stroke their rabbit gently. She was fascinated with the rabbit and loved to watch him and touch him. But one day, she saw a wood louse. She was fascinated by that as well. Her mother didn't want her to accidentally squash it, since it could be squashed so easily. So she said, "Be gentle." The little girl thought she meant stroke it, since when the mother said be gentle with the rabbit she always meant stroke him gently. Of course, stroking a wood louse would squash it.
Still, naturally toddlers do need to be shown they need to be gentle with other people, pets and things around the house.
If the child continues to slap after they've been told to be gentle, a good strategy is to put them down away from the person they've just slapped and say, firmly but with a definite tone of authority in the voice, rather than shouting, "No, we don't slap!"
Young toddlers who've just learned to crawl or walk don't have self-control, so it might take a few months before the message really sinks in. But it's best to keep trying.
When a child throws a toy from their cot or their dinner from their high chair onto the floor, it can be best to just calmly remark as you go about your day, "Oh, you threw your toy (or dinner) on the floor. I suppose you must want it to be there." If you keep picking it up for them or giving them more, they'll think it's a fun game and throw it some more.
If they make a big fuss, you could give it back and tell them firmly not to throw. That doesn't mean they won't do it again; but if they do and you give it back again immediately, they'll think there's no cost when they throw something so they'll want to do it again to see how good they are at throwing and have fun.
If it's food, after the first time they throw it, when they know what'll happen when they do but keep doing it, not giving them replacement food but making them go without for the rest of the meal won't hurt them. If they haven't learned by you telling them off, they might learn by having less food than usual that meal. Eating much less food for the odd meal now and again doesn't hurt anyone, certainly if they're fairly healthy.
Or the child might throw their toys at other people. Parents have to tell them firmly not to. If they carry on, it can be good if the parent puts them in a part of the house where they haven't got any toys and where they'll be a bit bored for a few moments if possible.
As well as that though, try and give them an opportunity to use their newfound throwing abilities when they can, since they'll be throwing to test out their new skills, not because they want to annoy you, at least at first. They'll be more satisfied about not being allowed to throw food and toys indoors if there's a place where they can throw things. If there's a place outside where you can play ball games with them, you can tell them that's a place where they are allowed to throw, and have some nice games with them. It's best if you do that in a place very different from where they're not allowed to throw, so they don't get confused.
When they throw a ball in an appropriate way, praise and cheer them, so they'll know they're doing the right thing and will want to do it more.
It's actually fairly common for toddlers to deliberately bang their head, as well as do other things like pull their hair and bite their nails. Doing such things can be a way of soothing themselves, or a way of venting frustration. In rare cases those things can be a sign of a more serious problem, but mostly they're just temporary things, which are more worrying to the parents than harmful to the children. They can often disappear as quickly as they started.
One thing that can keep them going though is if the parents give a child a lot of attention when they do something like that. They'll enjoy all the nice attention, so they'll do it more, to get more of it.
So it's best not to take much notice of head banging and things like that, except to make sure the child can't hurt themselves, such as by putting a cushion under their head if they're banging it.
The author of the book The Baby Whisperer says she went to see the family of an eighteen-month-old boy called Max who would bang his head whenever he was frustrated. At least, that's why he'd done it at first, but his parents had always rushed to fuss over him when he did, because they were worried he might hurt himself, so he'd discovered it got him a lot of nice attention. So he partly did it to get more, and also to get his own way, because when his parents wouldn't let him have something, he would bang his head on any hard surface available - wood, concrete, glass, whatever was around, till his parents gave in. He carried on even though his forehead was covered in bruises. His parents were very worried. They were scared he might do lasting damage.
Part of the problem was that he was at the stage where he understood a lot, but he only had a few words; so he couldn't explain what he wanted. So he was often frustrated. He would likely grow out of the head-banging behaviour when he had more words, but it would have been stressful for his parents and possibly harmful for him to wait that long; so something needed to be done then.
As it was, he was by his natural temperament a spirited lively boy, who was bound to show displeasure in more extreme ways than some other babies.
He had learned he could get what he wanted by banging his head; but also, because his parents were so soft on him for fear of what he might do to himself, his other behaviour had got out of control; he was often hitting others and yelling, and refused any food other than his favourite things like biscuits. He didn't sleep well either.
The author of the book gave them help and advice about what to do. First, they dealt with the safety problem. They bought a little bean bag seat, and every time he started banging his head, they would lift him onto it, so it didn't matter if he carried on because he'd be banging it on something soft. That meant his parents could feel free to be stricter with him, because they were no longer worried about him hurting himself. It meant that instead of giving into his every whim, they could just ignore him till his tantrum finished, so he would learn that wasn't the way to get attention any more and he couldn't use the technique to get his own way all the time any more. He did resist being put on the bean bag at first; he kicked more forcefully than usual. But they carried on. They would tell him, "No, you may not leave your chair till you've calmed down."
Then they moved onto dealing with other problems. It was as if he'd ruled the house with his behaviour, making his parents and older brother obey. He ate mostly junk food, instead of what his parents and older brother ate, because he refused to eat anything else. He would also still wake up in the middle of the night and demand his parents'attention. He needed to be shown he wasn't in charge any more for the peace of the household.
The author of the book told the parents not to give in to him any more when he wanted something that wouldn't be good for him or them. And every time he tried to get his way by aggression, they were to be firm with him. She demonstrated what she meant herself on a visit to the family. At lunchtime, as usual he refused to eat his food. He pushed it away and said, "Biscuit ... biscuit ... biscuit" over and over again. She looked him in the eye and said, "No, you can't have a biscuit until you've eaten some pasta."
He didn't like that! And he certainly wasn't used to being firmly told he couldn't have something. He was shocked, and started crying. She tried to coax him to at least eat a bit. She kept insisting, "Just one piece of pasta." The idea was that they could start off with one and then over the coming days, encourage him to eat more and more.
It took a whole hour, but eventually he gave in and did eat just one. She gave him a biscuit in return.
He resisted going to sleep for his nap as usual, but she lay him down whenever he stood up, and soon he realised he wasn't going to win that one either with her and gave in. He might also have been a bit tired from the battle of wills at lunch.
The boy's parents watched the author, and realised it would be possible to get their son to behave after all. They tried the techniques she was using.
A mere four days later, it was as if the boy was a different child! His parents kept putting him on the bean bag when he had tantrums, and were always firm with him at sleep times and mealtimes, making sure he did what they asked. He was old enough to realise there were now new rules. Soon he started going to the bean bag on his own when he was frustrated.
Within a few months, he only banged his head rarely, and the whole family felt calm, because the parents were in charge now, not the toddler.
Some parents who realise that a lot of their child's bad behaviour is triggered off by things they themselves do, often things they do to try and solve the problem like shouting and smacking and getting aggressive, or things like giving in to their child's wishes when they have tantrums that they haven't learned how to stop any other way, won't be confident they can get to be good at responding in completely different ways so as to influence their children's behaviour to change. After all, for one thing, the way they're used to behaving will be automatic. And they might think changing a child's behaviour so it's completely different might be such a daunting task they don't see how they could ever manage to achieve it.
One belief stopping parents attempting to try to change things is that things are hopeless; the children are in control and there's nothing they can do to stop them. If you're not confident there's anything you can do to change things, you won't bother trying very hard because you won't really believe you can succeed. The thing is that because you're not trying hard, you won't succeed very well; and if you don't realise you're not succeeding because you're not putting enough effort into trying, you'll likely assume that the reason you're not succeeding despite the effort you are putting in is because just as you thought, you're powerless to change things; the children are in control and there's nothing you can do about it. But if you were wholehearted about trying, you might well have found you managed to change things after all.
Sometimes, parents realise things aren't quite the way they thought they were when they realise how things they've been doing have been triggering off bad behaviour in their children when that wasn't their intention at all. The author of the book Little Angels says one woman was totally discouraged by the way her four-year-old argued and was so defiant and domineering. She felt sure he thought he was the boss, and trying to control him left her unhappy and exhausted. They recorded what was going on in her home for a few days. When the recordings were played back to her, she was horrified to realise how much she nagged the little boy. She just hadn't realised how much she was doing it before. She was upset to think it might turn him into a negative person like she said she was, who wouldn't have any confidence. She became increasingly upset as they watched more and she realised how her arguing with him and nagging him was contributing to his problems. But one thing it did do was to show her that there were things about her own behaviour that she could change, and when she did, there would be some likelihood that the boy's behaviour would change a bit too; after all, if she wasn't arguing with him so much, he wouldn't be able to argue himself; it takes two to argue.
But to build up her confidence in her ability to change things, they encouraged her to start off by doing small things. For instance, she took the boy out to the park and played with him. She wouldn't normally do that because she was scared she wouldn't be able to control him. But she did, with the child psychologists in the background giving her guidance. She discovered that when she played with him in the park and instead of making a fuss about the things that annoyed her, she played with him and praised him for things she liked, she enjoyed being with him in a way she had never done before. She noticed how he responded to her better as she gave him positive encouragement. As she played with him, she began to realise it was making them closer and improving his behaviour more than shouting at him ever had.
Another single mother of a four-year-old son was convinced he was dominating her in a power play, ruling the house. She said he would even say, "I'm the boss." She thought he just loved to do things deliberately to provoke her. What she didn't understand was that her own behaviour was triggering off his all the time; the more she responded to his swearing and arguing, the more he'd do it. She said she dreaded going to town with him because she knew for a fact he'd play her up. But if you expect a child to behave in a certain way and you're on edge about it, if they do things you interpret as the first signs of them misbehaving, it's easy to start shouting angrily and getting hyped up, and that'll get them all excited and angry, so they really will be more likely to misbehave. But they might not have done if you'd kept calm. Or if they did, keeping calm would stop things getting as bad as they would if both toddler and adult were angrily shouting and yelling.
Part of the reason the mother had got into such a negative pattern of behaviour with her son was because his dad had left her when the boy was only a year old, and she'd been very angry. What she didn't realise was that the boy argued with her all the time to get her attention, because she wasn't giving him attention when he behaved well. Arguments were better than nothing, as far as he was concerned. When she started to give him more of a loving kind of attention and do things with him that he enjoyed, he began to calm down, and behaved very well when they eventually did go into town together.
Another parent who had to change his belief that he wouldn't be able to get something to work before he'd try it was the father of three badly-behaved children who stayed in their room watching videos till half past ten at night. The parents were told they'd need to get the children to sleep longer before they'd stop having tantrums. The parents were surprised, the father said he didn't believe it would be possible to get them to sleep longer. It took some persuasion, but eventually they were willing to try. They were talked through what to do, and surprised themselves by succeeding. The children's protests weren't as strong as they'd thought they would be, and they got them in bed hours earlier than normal.
Only then did they really become convinced they could manage to get their children in bed earlier.
The children's behaviour did improve. It began to improve a lot within days. And the oldest one also started doing much better in school.
The father's belief that it simply wouldn't be possible to get the kids to bed earlier would otherwise have led to the family not doing very well. If you believe it'll be impossible to change your children's behaviour, you won't be motivated to try hard because you won't really see the point. So if you do try at all, you won't put that much effort into it. Then their continued bad behaviour will confirm you in your belief that they won't change, and you'll think you must have been right all along, not realising you might have achieved better results if you had tried hard.
When people feel anxious, they have a natural instinct to want to avoid the person or thing that brings on the anxiety feelings. The trouble is that then, worrying over it just makes them more and more anxious about it, because they're not proving to themselves that they can cope with it after all by going into that situation and managing allright. So they become all the more convinced they can't cope.
One woman who contacted the television programme Little Angels for help had two children aged 9 and 3. She got so stressed by the younger one's tantrums that she would run away into another room or burst into tears when they started. She was especially scared of taking the younger one out shopping, because she would always have a tantrum in the supermarket, and the mother would end up crying in there as well, stressed by her daughter's behaviour and embarrassed by the stares of shoppers. She would never dare go out with both girls at once for fear things would be even worse.
The younger daughter had learned she could get her own way by having tantrums, so she thought it was in her interests to keep having them. But it wasn't really, partly because the parents were scared to take her out. This wasn't doing the child any good, because the more she was cooped up indoors, the more frustrated she got, so she had more tantrums. The older one was also frustrated by being kept indoors and so was more likely to misbehave.
If the mother had felt able to get out and have some fun times with the girls, it would have increased her confidence that she could cope so they could have got out more. But because she had no confidence she could cope, things were working the opposite way around; she was unwittingly doing something that made the problem worse, that made her even less confident she could cope.
The Little Angels team helped her break the pattern by giving her suggestions on how to cope better. They talked her through going shopping, giving her ideas on what to do. Next time she went to the supermarket with her little daughter, she first tried to distract her from having a tantrum, and then when she eventually had one, she ignored it, singing as they went around the shop. She refused to give the child anything the child could perceive as an incentive to carry on the tantrum, such as attention or her own way. She realised that most of the shoppers who looked at her were giving her looks of sympathy. She ignored the rest.
At the end of the trip, the mother was really pleased! She was triumphant! Despite the fact her daughter had screamed all the way around the supermarket, she hadn't let it stress her out at all. She'd kept in control, holding her head up. So she'd conquered her fear of going out with the girls, realising she could cope now.
Her beliefs about being a bad parent who couldn't cope had been a big block to her coping, because whenever the little girl had started screaming, she'd been convinced she was losing control. Because she thought she was, she'd behave in a way that someone sure they're losing control might behave in, crying or walking out of the supermarket. Then because she hadn't coped, it would convince her all the more that she couldn't. But when she went around the supermarket determined to do what she could to cope, she had different thoughts when her daughter started having the tantrum, thoughts that she wasn't going to let it get to her and that there were things she could do to stop it bothering her. Then she found she kept in control, and was very pleased at her success.
As soon as she began to get over her anxiety and feel as if she could control things after all, she started enjoying her relationship with her children a lot more.
People who are fearful about taking their children out or anything else can benefit from starting out by doing little things and gradually increasing their confidence, since doing something big at first can seem too daunting.
So, for instance, it can seem more manageable to go out first for short trips to the shops or wherever else you're afraid to go. If you just intend to buy a few things, you'll know that when the child does have a tantrum, at least you won't have to be in the shop for a long time after they start.
Walk in thinking positive thoughts to yourself, about how you're determined to cope and how you don't have to let tantrums get to you. Be determined not to give into thoughts that make you think you can't cope or that you'll lose control or that people will all think you're a bad mother. After all, the more you let those beliefs control you, the more they're likely to seem true, because at the very first sign the child's causing trouble, you'll start to fear you're losing control again, so you'll get anxious and you might behave in the way you'll behave if you feel sure you're losing control. Then you'll be even more convinced you can't manage. If instead of letting the fear of losing control dominate you, you feel determined to stay in control, when they start having a tantrum, you'll be determined to take charge of the situation. It'll mean planning beforehand though so you don't unwittingly try things to stop them that make them worse, such as agitating them by yelling and smacking. If you're not sure you can manage well, working up to doing a full weekly shop slowly will give you practice. If something goes wrong, you can use it as a learning experience to refine your technique.
You could try distracting yourself from the fearful thoughts, which might push them into the background. You could try doing that by singing, or thinking of a relaxing image, or maybe counting backwards in threes from 100, - anything you feel will help. If you manage to keep the thoughts about not being able to cope in the background, you're more likely to be able to brave it out. When you've succeeded, you might feel very pleased that you did stay in control, and if you did, it'll help you change your belief about not being able to control things to one where you feel sure you can.
At first, perhaps try to leave while the behaviour's still going well so you don't have to brave a tantrum straightaway. The first trips could maybe even be limited to just a few minutes, while you get used to going around the shop with your child. You could see them as experiments to try to prove to yourself that you can control things.
All that being said, you don't have to feel as if you need to force yourself to go out shopping with screaming toddlers all the time. Leaving them with relatives or friends if you can can make shopping easier. Failing that, knowing exactly what you want before you go in and then zooming around the supermarket grabbing and moving on before the child has time to comment can help, though it is made more difficult by the way supermarkets design things, putting chocolates where you just have to go past them to entice people.
One woman who asked for help had three-year-old twin girls. They often had tantrums and refused to do what they were told, and their mother often felt helpless to cope. One day, for instance, she took them to have their hair cut, but they played up, and she left, upset and frustrated, without their hair having been cut.
She woke up every morning dreading the day. It seemed like a never-ending series of difficult challenges. She felt miserable, and was sure she must be doing something wrong for the children to be the way they were.
Her problems had started after she'd become stressed and depressed because the twins were premature and she couldn't breast-feed them, and she was anxious because she felt as if she hadn't bonded with them because of that. She felt isolated and depressed.
Because she was anxious and depressed, there was an atmosphere of tension in the home. Children tend to get agitated when there's tension in the air. It can make them nervous about what's going to happen. And if parents don't feel confident about looking after them, children can pick up on that and get anxious, since they'll know they need their parents to look after them and need them to be sure they know what they're doing. It can be unsettling to be unsure they really do. Before they're skilled at using language, having tantrums is one of the few ways they can express their discomfort and anxiety.
After she saw the recording of herself and the twins, the woman realised that her being miserable was making the twins miserable. She'd suspected that before, but watching herself and the children really brought it home to her.
Because she wasn't confident she could cope with the twins and their bad behaviour, and every time something went wrong that she thought she was handling badly it strengthened her belief that she was a bad mother who couldn't cope, the mother was helped to build up her confidence slowly. She was talked through situations she'd found it difficult to cope with earlier, and handled them better, which increased her confidence.
She went to the hairdresser's again with her twins, with a psychologist there to give her advice. At first, it went badly. The twins picked up on her lack of confidence when she asked them to choose who went first. They started crying, and that made her feel more helpless. The psychologist told her to be authoritative and decide which twin was going to go first. She did, but the twin she chose was upset about it and struggled. But she held her in a body hug and gave her a lot of encouragement till she calmed down. To the mother's great surprise, when the other twin saw her sister being hugged and praised, she wanted the same treatment and started clamouring to have a turn herself. The mother really hadn't expected they might want that.
The trip to the hairdresser's turned out to be a success after all. And the mother began to feel more confident. She felt a real sense of achievement at having handled things.
Her confidence increased from there, and she started feeling less afraid of the twins' behaviour and more able to enjoy being with them. Within weeks, she felt much closer to them and they were having more fun. And she'd stopped thinking of herself as a bad mother.
Note that if you choose to try out some or all of the recovery techniques described in this article, they may take practice before they begin to work.
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