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23 month old testing limits: HIts for kicks, Throws toys

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Hi Dr. Laura,
I'm having some issues with my 23 month old that I was hoping you could help me with! He has always been a very active (aka wild ) child, and some days I really feel like I have no control! Our 3 main issues lately are hitting, throwing things and doing things he knows he's not supposed to "just 'cause."

He does not hit when he's angry, but will just do so out of the blue. We will be happily playing together, reading a book, or I'll be carrying him around and he will just look at me and smack me right in the face or arm. If I tell him no, he laughs and does it again. I have taken his hand and gently rubbed it on my arm and said "We don't hit, we're gentle," but he seems to forget that. If, when he's not on a hitting spree, I ask him to "be gentle," he will rub my arm gently, so I know he knows what it means, but he still smacks just for kicks when the mood strikes! I've also tried putting him in time-out, but it doesn't seem to help. What should I do?

He is also a huge fan of throwing toys. I know part of it is he just thinks it's cool that he can use his own body to make something fly through the air, but I'm trying to teach him that throwing toys is not okay and he just doesn't understand. I tell him "we don't throw our toys, we take care of them so we'll have them to play with," but that doesn't phase him. He throws everything - down the stairs, across the room, everywhere. How can I teach him that throwing things is not okay?

Lastly, and I know this is normal behavior, but he does a lot of things just to see what he can get away with. For example, he loves to try to climb on the oven. He'll step onto the little space between the oven drawer and the oven, and pull himself up with the handle. I've explained to him that this isn't safe, etc etc, but he does it anyway and looks at me and grins. He knows he's not supposed to do it, but continues. I've tried putting him in time-out for this too, but it doesn't phase him. He does the same thing when climbing onto tables, throwing things down the stairs, grabbing things just within his reach, throwing his food on the floor - he'll look at me and grin and do it anyway. Help!

Sorry this is so long. Some days I feel like I'm at the end of my rope and I just have no idea what to do! I certainly don't expect him to behave perfectly at this age, but I just don't know what I should be doing when he does these things. Any help would be very greatly appreciated!
-- Laura


Dear Laura,
First off, what a spirited little guy you have! This is what makes toddlers both terrible and terrific. And what gives mothers migraines. Your mission is nothing less than teaching your son how to regulate himself without breaking his spirit. Not an easy task, especially for a child as exuberant as he is.

What makes your son behave this way? All toddlers respond to feeling helpless and pushed around – inevitable when you're so much smaller and not in charge of your own life – by developing a powerful psychological defense: grandiosity. They need to believe that they're secretly a Superhero, and don't have to obey the rules. As a result, they act out by testing, even to the point where they look straight at you and do exactly what you told them not to. Are they taunting you? No, actually. They're trying desperately to shore up their fragile sense of personal power.

So the best way to reduce the amount he tests you is to help your toddler feel powerful and competent, so he has less to prove. As kids become more competent in reality, they have less need for their grandiose fantasies. Of course you need to set limits. But as you set them, empathize with his feelings. That helps him see you as a partner in meeting his needs, rather than as his opponent.

And of course as kids get older, their frontal cortex develops, and they gain the brain power to manage their emotions with thought. Right now, he is all body and emotion. Within a year, he will have lots more brain control! That's when kids develop the ability to understand, label, verbally express and manage their feelings, which means they don't have to act them out. That's why preschoolers are better at holding it together than toddlers, especially if their parents have used empathy to help them learn to manage themselves, rather than fought with them.

How can you help him through this difficult developmental stage without losing your sanity?

1. Avoid power struggles. This will be hard, because he is already in the habit of one with you. Sidestep his challenges by redirecting him. Think through which rules you really need and get rid of the rest. This is not the time to worry about manners, for instance. Reduce your limits to the non-negotiables, primarily safety. Don't just drop your other limits, make a deal with him that acknowledges that you need him to keep himself safe. “You know we had the rule that you couldn't climb up to the top of the monkey-bars? Do you think you can be safe when you do it? Ok, then, I think you're big and strong enough now to do it. Show me how you can do it safely. I will stand right here under you to spot you and make sure you're safe."

2. Avoid discipline where you trump him with your superior size. That includes timeouts, which just create more power struggles. Instead, coax good behavior out of him with empathy and creativity. Instead of a timeout when he climbs on the oven, scoop him up as you admire his climbing ability (which is, after all, what he really wants), set a clear limit ("The oven is dangerous, not for climbing!") and find something else for him to climb on. When he won't get into the tub, fly him there, letting him pretend to be Superman. And you will be amazed at how empathizing with his feelings helps him move past them. “I know, you want a cookie. You love those cookies, don't you? But we have to wait until after dinner for a cookie. Before dinner, the rule is milk or fruit. Do you want a banana or a cup of milk?"

3. Give him choices whenever possible so he doesn't feel so powerless. But don't overwhelm him. “Do you want red or blue?" is perfect. “Do you want red, blue, yellow, green or purple?" is anxiety producing.

4. Give him plenty of opportunities for physical expression and mastery. Spend as much time at the playground as possible. Spot him, but don't over-protect him – let him climb and experiment to his heart's content without any cautions from you to “Be careful!"

5. Take pleasure in HIS pleasure at his physical prowess at every opportunity. “Look at you climbing up all by yourself!"

6. Consider play equipment in close proximity to the kitchen, since that is where you most often are. He desperately needs to move and climb, and he wants to be close to you, and to show you his skills, but kitchens are not playrooms. Can you put fit a temporary play corner nearby that includes either a mattress or trampoline for jumping or a plastic climbing structure? How about a chinning bar or climbing rope that can be put onto hooks in the kitchen doorway, and taken down at your convenience?

7. When he expresses his grandiosity to you, don't challenge it unless necessary, just redirect him to where it's safe. “Yes, I know you are faster than Batman. Show me how you can fly like Batman on the lawn, not in the house."

8. When he breaks the rules, avoid a power struggle by redirecting him: “The oven is not for climbing. It's dangerous. Show me how you can climb on the chinning bar." "Do you want to throw? That is not safe to throw, it could break. Let's throw your stuffed animals! Want to throw them over the railing? Show me how you can throw!"

9. When you do need to set limits, go ahead, but do it empathically and let “the rule" be the bad guy, not you. Give him the hopeful image that he will be able to control himself someday. “Toys are not for throwing. When you throw a toy, the rule is that it goes in the closet for now. I know that makes you sad, I'm so sorry. Someday soon you'll be able to remember not to throw toys. Let's find a ball and go outside where we can throw all we want."

10. Give him opportunities for his physical feats to be helpful to the family: “Will you show me how strong you are by helping me carry this package?" As he feels more competent, he will feel good about making positive contributions instead of testing you with negative behavior.

11. Give him language for his feelings so he understands them better and feels less overwhelmed. Keep it simple. “You are so mad. You love the playground and you didn't want to leave."... “You are so frustrated. You want to cut with the scissors and it was so hard to make it come out right."

12. Welcome his expression of feelings rather than making him wrong. If he tantrums, don't ignore him. Kids don't tantrum because they want our attention (unless the parents are starving their child for attention.) They tantrum because they are overwhelmed by their feelings. They need our help to learn to manage themselves, and walking away doesn't give them any help at all; it just makes them feel abandoned, left all alone with those scary feelings. Don't try to reason with him, either, just stay calm yourself, and stay nearby. Reflect his feelings: “You are SO MAD!" When he calms down, scoop him up for some cuddling and make sure he knows you love him no matter what. Your “loaning" him your strength this way gives him the message that feelings can be contained and managed, and that he is lovable as he is, with all his complicated big feelings. That will make him feel good about himself and closer to you, both of which translate into better behavior.

But what about his hitting you when you've been having a nice time together? This is very common in toddlers and babies. Some psychologists think this happens because all toddlers desperately need their parents, without whom they know they would die. This dependency is often uncomfortable for them, and they sometimes respond to that discomfort by hitting. This may be true, but I personally agree with other experts, who say that all little ones have many experiences of fear. When humans are able to feel and express their emotions, those emotions evaporate and vanish. So little ones need to "show" us their feelings, express those emotions. When we are having a nice time with our baby or toddler and he feels safe, often his feelings of fear surface. Why doesn't he just act afraid? Because it's too uncomfortable to feel the fear. When mammals feel fear, they often express it, at least initially, as aggression.

So when your baby or toddler lashes out at you, or when he looks right at you and breaks a rule, that's often a sign that he's picking a fight because he doesn't want to feel some big upsets he's carrying around. Lashing out is his defense. Hold his hands and stop him from hitting you, but stay kind and calm. Your goal is to help him get to the fear and express it so he can let it go. Look him in the eye (that gets him in touch with the emotion driving his aggression) and say kindly but firmly “Ouch! People are not for hitting." If you can stay compassionate, hopefully he will crumple and begin to cry. There's more info on how to do this here: Toddler Hits Mom.

Why shouldn't you just punish him when he hits or throws? Because it will make his rebellious behavior worse. I encourage you to read the section on this website on Discipline for more info and ideas about this: Discipline That Works.

And I think you'd also like the Toddler section, especially the Toddler Gameplan.

Good luck with your little hellion. I promise you that things get better from here.
Dr. Laura

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