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Discipline for Defiant, Spirited Toddler

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Dear Dr. Laura,

My 26 month old's behaviors somehow seem familiar to me. I think they may be common. But I want to know if it they are due to my approach to discipline or lack-there-of, or are developmental. I used to work with children and was really interested in approaches to discipline but now I am sort of flailing around unsure and afraid that any direction I take will have a negative effect in the long run.

1. When DD is stopped from doing something, often physically by picking her up, occasionally grabbing her (gently but, well, sometimes a but rough. This is when she is doing things like sitting on our small dogs or throwing something etc). She gets this droopy eyed look and goes a bit floppy when I sit with her and talk ( simple talk) about what she did.

2. When she takes/grabs etc something she shouldn't have she will run like being chased. She is both having fun but also knows she is doing something she shouldn't.

3. She will often seem to do something because I asked her not to--this has become a problem because the worst of it is that she swallows things when I ask her to take something out of her mouth. It used to be I could say it fun "oh, wow what is in your mouth" or pretend to ignore and she would tale it out but now she is more likely to swallow. This is not just swallowing things though. She will pretty much DO everything I ask her not to do ( I ask when it looks like she is about to do something.)

Thoughts? Suggestions? Thanks! -- Katharine


I've noticed that many of us who parent using attachment principles become unsure when our little ones become toddlers. I think that's because responsive parenting with an infant means we listen to what she wants/needs and give it to her. But responsive parenting with a toddler is much more complicated because their wants are no longer equivalent to their needs, at least not when we think long-term. We listen to what she wants (to sit on the dog), think about what she and we need, both short term (not to get bitten, a safe, happy dog) and long term (to learn that sitting on the dog will hurt him), make a decision for her highest good, and then respond to the new situation our limit has created -- when she will probably need some help with her big emotional response to not getting what she wants!

26 month olds are working hard to figure out the rules. They never need discipline (in the sense of punishment) at this age or any age, because it does not help them learn. They do need your guidance, fairly constantly, about what is appropriate to live a healthy, responsible life.

They will often resist that guidance, which is natural. Why should they share our priorities? But we still need to insist on our guidance, often, and they will naturally have big feelings about that. I find parents often get confused about this. They assume they have to show anger at their child to "teach" the lesson. But anger always scares our child, and kids can't learn when they're in "fight, flight, freeze." Patiently setting the limit and empathizing with our child's unhappiness is always more effective in teaching. Eventually, our child learns that she doesn't always get what she wants, but she gets something better: someone who loves and accepts her, no matter what, including all of her angry and unhappy feelings.

When we consistently model and guide with empathy, little ones get that we are on their side, and they don't resist our guidance so much. Of course, two year olds are experimenting with power, and with independence, so they want to make their own decisions. That's why they often DO whatever we ask them not to. Sometimes they are reacting to feeling overly controlled or pushed around. But often it's nothing personal against us or our wishes. They just want to be in charge of their own lives. That's a healthy impulse – the beginning of taking responsibility for themselves. But it's a challenge for us as parents!

So on to your specific questions:

1. She gets this droopy eyed look and goes a bit floppy. This sounds to me like she might be in "freeze" mode, as in "fight, flight or freeze." That would be a natural response to being frightened. Imagine being 26 months old and happily experimenting with sitting on the dog, or seeing whether you can get equal velocity in hurling the sippy cup versus the dump truck. Suddenly a giant -- reminiscent of your loving mother, but somehow transformed into someone rough and scary, grabs you and drops you onto the couch. Would you really hear anything she said, or would you go a bit floppy?

Yes, of course you have to stop her when she is being destructive to creatures or things. But remember that when you see this behavior, your alarm bells immediately go off. You think there is an emergency and you go into fight or flight mode. Your toddler looks like the enemy. It would be hard, when you grab her, not to be rough and scare her.

If, instead, you can take a deep breath and say a little mantra (“There's no emergency”), you might be able to be a bit measured in your intervention. You might be able to move in close and scoop her off the dog and onto your lap. You might be able to put one hand on the dump truck and one hand on her arm, to stop the missile before takeoff.

Then what? Obviously, your goal is to teach her not to do these things. That's why you “talk” to her on the couch. But I would bet that when she's floppy, she's not listening or learning. If she's really in “flight” mode, then we know the learning centers of the brain shut down. But what if she isn't really frightened? What if she's just “floppy” because she can't bear another lecture (even a short one), and she knows she did something “wrong” again, and she just wants to get out of there? We all know what that feels like, and how little learning goes on then. Talking to her about her behavior isn't going to teach her much, at least not yet.

Instead, let's attend to the feelings that are causing the floppiness. Either she is frightened, or she is mad that her experiments in physics or dog domination were interrupted, or she is embarrassed and humiliated that you caught her doing something she knows is off-limits, or she was actually taunting you with her off-limits behavior, trying to get you to intervene and help her with some big feelings she can't manage. In all of these cases, talking with her won't help her. What WILL help is attending to her emotions. How?

She's on your lap, or you are next to her on the floor with one hand on her arm and one on the object she is about to hurl. Or she just hurled it, and you are still on the floor next to her. You look her in the eye. You say something like:

“That's not for throwing. We can throw a ball outside.”

“The dog doesn't like that. It hurts him. OUCH!”

She might cry, because she is frustrated, or frightened, or because your eye contact and kind voice and limit have put her in touch with those big feelings that were trying to find their way out. In that case, hold her and say “You don't like it when I stop you….You like to throw things…..You were trying to play with the dog…..I'm right here….You're safe.”

She might look at you defiantly and try to throw again or grab at the dog. In that case, she is testing both to see if your limit is serious, and to see if it is safe to assert her independence with you. You want her to know the answer to both questions is Yes. So you restrain her physically only as much as is necessary, and kindly, compassionately, repeat your limits regarding throwing or dogs, adding that you see her perspective and that there is a solution:

“That's not for throwing. I see you WANT to throw right now. We can throw a ball outside. Let's go out.”

“The dog doesn't like that. It hurts him. You WANT to play with the dog, don't you, Sweetie? Here's how: GENTLE, GENTLE.”

At that point, she will have learned that this is the rule and you will insist on it. She will have also learned that you see her perspective and care so much about her that you are trying to make her happy. She also learns the beginning of Win-Win problem solving. And by your modeling, she learns that we can stay calm even when we have big feelings, and that all feelings are acceptable but some actions have to be limited. All by attending to her feelings, without lectures about right and wrong.

AND while she may cry – which is good, to process all those big feelings – she won't be floppy, which is a way of hiding from life.

2. When she takes/grabs etc something she shouldn't have she will run like being chased. She is both having fun but also knows she is doing something she shouldn't.

This is another way of exercising her power. I suggest that you start playing Chase games with her daily. Just try to catch her and trip or fall down or bemoan how fast and uncatchable she is. Anything that gets her giggling shows you are on the right track. That way she gets the experience of out-running you without having to “misbehave” to do it.

Won't this reinforce her behavior? No, it diverts it. It meets her need, so she doesn't have to grab the scissors and run with it to get you to play this game.

What if she still grabs the scissors and runs away with it? Stop chasing so she stops running. Say calmly, “You have the scissors. Can you show me?”

When she brings them to you, resist the impulse to snatch them. Instead, have her hold them and show her the sharp edge. Then take her with you to get a piece of paper and show her how it cuts. Then let her cut, under your supervision. Then tell her that she can use the scissors with you again later, but right now it is time to put them away “safely” because you are going to go do X now, so the scissors need to go where they live. Then put them away out of her reach.

What does this get you? She learns safety. You give her mastery, which is a higher form of power than running away with a forbidden object. She learns that coming back to show it to you gives her something better than running away with it.

What if she doesn't come back to you? That is when it stops being a game and becomes defiance, which always signals that she needs you to connect with her. Why? Because all children want to just do what they want. But more than that, they want to stay positively connected with you. Defiance is saying she no longer cares about the connection. So your job is to put connection at the top of your list. Do a lot of roughhousing and laughing, and a lot of snuggling, and a lot of sharing her interests, and you will find that the defiance will fade. But for now, you will have to go to her, put a hand on the forbidden object, and repeat the scenario from #1 above that you use when she is about to throw something.

3. She will often seem to do something because I asked her not to.

This is very similar to #2, above. Your daughter is proving that she CAN do what she wants. The truth is, she can. Our goal is to help her WANT to cooperate with you. But she won't be able to do that unless her needs for power and autonomy are being met.

Again, I would PLAY with her to work on this issue. At a time when you have time to play, make a game out of “reverse psychology” where you instruct her to do the opposite of what you want, making a big deal about how she doesn't obey you. Make it a jokey, fun, game, so she understands that it is indeed a game, and she will love playing it.

“Let's play the game NO, DON”T DO THAT!!.....Ok, don't drink that juice….Oh, no, she's drinking that juice…..Ok, don't sit down….Oh,no, you're sitting down!....Ok, whatever you do, DON”T give me a hug….”

As long as she's giggling, you're on the right track. Say “Ok, that's it, that means you get a huge snuggle!” Then grab her gently and give her a big snuggle and say, “When you do what I tell you not to, you must need a huge snuggle!”

Won't she think that defying you is a 24/7 game? No. When you are not playing the game and the limit is serious, your attitude and tone change, and she sees that immediately. 80% of communication is tone and body language. At that point, you set your limit just like you did in #1 a above, and help her with the resulting feelings. You can even say, "This is not a game. We don't hurt the dog."

But when you do announce the game and get her giggling -- often -- it will defuse her need to oppose you, and the tension between you. That makes her more likely to cooperate with your requests at other times.

At the same time, you will want to give some thought to increasing her sense of mastery and control in other ways so that she doesn't NEED to test you by defying you. Have you read the Aha! Parenting section on Toddlers?

Also, I think you will find this article very helpful: Parenting Your Strong Willed Child

Best wishes, and enjoy your spirited daughter! She sounds wonderful.
Dr. Laura

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