Information adapted from Kathleen Berger’s The Developing Person Through the Lifespan; Faber & Mazlish, (1980), How To Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk; and Edward Cristophersen, Parenting That Works: Building Skills that Last a Lifetime.
Setting limits and disciplining your child is not optional. Children need boundaries-- it shows them how to act appropriately, find their way in the world, and gives them the security that someone is watching out for them, giving them choices but not too many. The best parents, as difficult as it is, strike a balance between discipline and nurturing—knowing when each is appropriate. Think of it this way, your toddler’s job is to test limits and your job is to set them. Setting limits is your job.
Toddlers repeat annoying or destructive behavior to make sure they understand the rules. Their thinking goes something along the lines of: "I threw my food and Mommy yelled. But will she always yell? Let me try again and see if she responds the same way."
The purpose and goals of limit setting includes:
- To insure a safe, secure and comfortable environment where there are reasonable and clear-cut guidelines and expectations.
- To help them develop self-discipline or self-control (how to regulate their emotions), so that even if we are not present they will make sound judgments and think before they act.
Developing self-discipline is an important aspect of being optimistic, happy and successful.
- Maintain a sense of humor. Remember that your child is a work in progress and you can't expect him to always act the way you want him to. It is your children’s developmental job to test the boundaries and your job to set and enforce them.
- Set expectations.Toddlers are anxious when they can't predict what's coming next. Give him a five-minute warning that you have to leave; the more upset he gets the more important it is for you to stay calm. This is not easy. If you’ve given him warnings and he is screaming, calmly pick him up and carry him to the car. Don’t worry we have all had to do it.
- In situations that are stressful for him, be proactive and firm, redirect him when you can. Even if you think he’s too young try to explain the situation in simple terms and let him know what’s coming next.
- Be clear and consistent. If naptime is always after lunch and your child puts up a fuss, be firm and confident as you enforce his rest period. He needs consistency. If videos aren't allowed after dinner but you let him watch "just this one" tonight so you can make a phone call, he'll test you and demand one — forcefully — every night for the rest of the week. If you threaten a consequence to a behavior, do it each and every time. If not, your child will learn that you will cave and escalate his behavior in an effort to make you.
- Provide Routine. Tantrums often happen because your child doesn’t like change—toddlers like predictable routine. They are more likely to have tantrums if they are hungry, tired, or off their schedule. Look for ways to reduce stress.
- Know when to stay close and when to give him space. As your child wants more independence, he will vacillate between wanting to be close and demanding his independence. It can be frustrating to deal with a fickle youngster but this is part of his developmental job he isn’t trying to be difficult.
- If you child is prone to biting or hitting (it is normal at this age) stay close and try to redirect or intervene when you see him getting frustrated. If he can’t help himself, leave! I know it’s a bummer to leave social situations but sometimes you have to (the other mothers will respect you for it).
- If your child does bite or hit, respond to the victim first. Move your child away (no cuddling) and hug the victim. Yelling at your child may be giving him the attention he is seeking. Calmly say, "Don’t bite. Biting hurts." You made Billy sad.
- During tantrums it is especially hard to stay neutral and affectionate. If he doesn’t want to be held leave him alone until he calms down. It may be safer to put him in his room where he can kick and yell. Whatever you do try to stay calm and reassuring. Getting angry or shutting down will only escalate his frustration.
- Create a "yes" environment. Let your child pour his own juice out of a little pitcher, use a fork at dinner, put on his own shoes. Even if everything is a little messier and takes a little longer, his increased independence and cooperation are worth it. Also, look at how your house is organized. Is there a low cupboard in the kitchen filled with pots or Tupperware that he can play with? Are his toys and books easy to reach?
- Soothe his senses. If your child gets over-stimulated, help him wind down by cuddling and reading a book, or taking a bath. Take note of which situations seem to over-stimulate your child and try to cut them off at the pass.
- Acknowledge feelings. When he gets upset, let him know he's not the only one who is sometimes overcome by difficult emotions. Try saying: "You don't like to be around a lot of people and commotion. I don't either. We'll leave the mall as soon as we've paid for these shoes." Even if he doesn't seem to learn much from it at this age, always explain. Eventually he'll learn to recognize what winds him up before he goes over the edge.
- Positive Reinforcement. Don't worry that your child will get a big head if you praise him. Reinforce his efforts with positive messages: "Good job getting out of the tub when I asked you to. Good job sharing that toy with Bobby." Use praise—when your child collects himself after a tantrum pick him up and hold him. Tell him you are proud of him for calming himself down.
- Set realistic expectations. If your highly energetic child can't sit still at the table, don't risk taking him to a restaurant — plan a family picnic in the park instead. If he's slow to adapt to new people, don't take him to see Santa when he's 2 — wait until he's 5 or 6. And if you find yourself in an over-stimulating situation, such as a playmate's big birthday party, don't be shy about leaving early, before your toddler loses it.
- Try not to label. Be conscious of the way you describe your child. The "wild child" who is "stubborn," "exhausting," and a "crybaby" is also a spirited child who is persistent, energetic, and sensitive — all traits that are admired in adults. Use positive labels when discussing your child with relatives and teachers, and they'll come to see his wonderful attributes too.
Escalated Punishment: Individualized Discipline
The Concept: Escalated punishment means that the parents take away whatever their child most covets. This is individualized discipline.
Some children do not mind being put in time-out; they may enjoy reading quietly in their room. For this child, escalated punishment requires the parent to take away coveted books or deny "reading time" before bed.
Other children dislike being separated from mom/dad (the group) and for this child, a time-out or separation from the group will likely deter unwanted behavior.
Although it may sound cruel, escalated punishment involves figuring out what your child most craves and taking it away (or withholding it) when he/she misbehaves.
Parents will know they are on the right track if the child protests (and sheds a few tears) to the punishment.
Discussion and Understanding
After the punishment period is over it is very important to discuss the situation with him. Ask him if he knows why he was punished and explain what he did wrong AND what you expect him to do next time.
For example, "you were sent to your room because you kept interrupting mommy while I was on the phone. I asked you to wait until I got off the phone but you didn't listen. Next time I am on the phone, if you really need something, silently tap me on the leg like this and I will get it for you when I am off the phone." If he taps you on the leg next time you are on the phone try to take a break in the conversation after a few minutes and attend to him so he knows you are still there for him. Over time he will be able to wait longer to have his needs met.