Taming Your Out of Control Toddler

Laura Markham's picture

Read More of Dr. Laura's Parenting Tips

Ok, so he's a wonderful little guy, affectionate and charming, and angelic when he's asleep. But he never stops moving, he grabs whatever he wants from other kids, he regularly hauls off and socks you in the face, and then laughs. He throws toys and purposely breaks things. He looks straight at you and does exactly what you just told him not to do. How can you possibly make it through toddlerhood without succumbing to your natural homicidal responses?

First, give yourself a pat on the back. 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, the more powerless they feel, the more 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.

And of course as kids get older they also 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 or becoming a police statistic?

  1. Avoid power struggles. This will be hard, because he may well be initiating them by challenging you, especially if you were raised with a lot of rules and expect him to follow yours. 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 monkeybars? 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."

  2. Avoid discipline where you trump him with your superior size. That includes timeouts, which don't work well with toddlers. Instead, coax good behavior out of him with empathy and creativity. Instead of a timeout when he climbs on the oven, admire his climbing ability (which is, after all, what he really wants) 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.

  3. You will be amazed at how empathizing with his feelings helps him move past them when you need to set a limit. "I know, you want a cookie. You love those cookies, don't you? Yum, yum, we could eat them all up right now. 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?"

  4. Give him choices whenever possible (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.)

  5. 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!"

  6. Admire her physical prowess at every opportunity. "Look at you climbing up all by yourself!"

  7. Consider play equipment in close proximity to the kitchen, since that is where you most often are. He desperately wants to show off for you, 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?

  8. 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."

  9. 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."

  10. When you do need to set limits, go ahead, but do it empathically and let "the rule" be the bad guy, not you, and give her the hopeful image that she will be able to control herself someday. "Toys are not for throwing. When you throw a toy, the rule is that it goes in the closet for the rest of the day. 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."

  11. 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.

  12. Give her language for her feelings so she 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." or "You are so frustrated. You want to cut with the scissors and it was so hard to make it come out right."

  13. Redirect the expression of feelings. "You are so mad. Show me how mad you are by roaring like a lion."

  14. 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're overwhelmed by their feelings. They need our help to learn to manage themselves, and walking away doesn't give them any help at all, just makes them feel abandoned. 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 her hitting you when you've been having a nice time together? All toddlers desperately need their parents, without whom they sense they would die. This dependency is often uncomfortable for them, and they sometimes respond to that discomfort by hitting. Never let her hit you, but don't react harshly either. Unfortunately, the "Gentle touch" correction doesn't work very well, because when she feels that anguish, the last thing she can do is be gentle. Instead, redirect her. "Ouch. That hurt. People are not for hitting. Here, show me how you can hit the drum when you feel like hitting. Can you make a really big noise?"

Don't worry, your little hellion will someday be a responsible, considerate, respectful person. The more you can keep your patience, the more quickly this stage will pass. And in the meantime? It wouldn't hurt to get some of this on tape. Otherwise, your kid will never believe your stories when he's a father himself!

Dr. Laura Markham
Aha! Parenting.com