Question: I am the proud grandparent of a 20 month old little boy who has been a biter since his first teeth arrived at the age of 4 months. At first we thought it was due to teething, but then simple excitement triggered episodes too. Hitting has also been going on for quite some time - Mommy, Daddy, me, Grandfather, other little ones ... absolutely no rhyme or reason. The biting has subsided a bit but now we are dealing with screaming "wanting his way" & seemingly frustrated "don't touch me" episodes. His Mom & Dad have no other children. The baby is a very active little boy and thankfully his mother has a lot of patience. The parents come from very different backgrounds with different values and are struggling to get along and going to marriage counseling, but both love the boy very dearly. Mom stays home with the child and tries "time out" for behavior issues (3 minutes watching the clock). And he can't fall asleep on his own at nap time or bedtime. What suggestions can you give for how can we help this baby??
Answer: Wow. Sounds like there's a lot going on here! Overall, it seems to me like the little guy needs more consistency, balance (from caregivers), and guidance on what you want to see. This starts with my Five Basics of Structure, Communication, Limits, Consistency, and Guidance. Structure is a biggie - he needs the same consistent routine, everyday, especially for nap and bedtime. When toddlers don't fall asleep on their own it's because they don't feel secure and the negative behavior is reinforced - for example, cuddling up with them to help them to sleep. The intention of the parent is absolute love, but what it actually serves is to teach the child that we only get to sleep with Mommy cuddling. We parents reinforce behavior we don't want to see all the time, and have NO idea we are doing it!
So - let's break this down:
Screaming, hitting, and wanting his way: If the behavior is getting worse - or even staying consistent - then whatever it is that is being done to address this behavior is actually reinforcing it. You have to step back and figure out WHY the child is acting that way. What is he getting out of it? Does he get attention? Remember, to a toddler, negative attention is still attention. You have to key in on their goal and deny them that. If he is hitting to get a cookie, by golly, do NOT give him a cookie. If he is hitting for attention, guess what? He gets NO attention. My books talk about how to address these behaviors without reinforcing.
Time-Out: It sounds like mom is doing her best to be patient and trying to address the negative behavior with time outs...but they are tricky. If you don't do them correctly, it's a waste of time and just reinforces the behavior - or at best, does not give the child guidance on what you WANT to see - it only focuses on what you DON'T want. Sometimes Time Out is a total problem solver, but most of the time you have to pair it with the proper guidance on what you want to see next time. Time Out how-to's are in my books (there is too much information for a quick email) - but you have to take everything as a whole: the structure of their environment, WHY they are acting out, addressing it correctly, and above all, we have to stop reinforcing the behavior we don't want to see.
Sleep issues: As I said earlier, he needs serious structure and routine - the little babies just thrive on knowing what will come next and what to expect. It's their job to push and push - just to make sure we haven't changed our minds! But they get security from knowing we hold our ground and stick to the routine. So, an example bedtime routine:
1. 7:00 bath
2. 7:20 brush teeth (again, strict routine on the steps) & put on pajamas
3. 7:30 two books with parent
4. 7:40 kiss, bedtime song, and lights out.
You cannot muddy these waters - two books means two books. Crying or hitting for one more book should NEVER result in one more book. Routine screaming for Mommy to stay in the room should never result in Mommy caving in and staying...it only reinforces that "Hey, cool! When I scream, she stays!" I know it stinks, but unless they are taught how to comfort themselves to sleep from infancy, there will be a lot of screaming involved until they can re-learn how to get to sleep peacefully. My books also talk about daytime behavior and routines...setting up the entire environment for trust, security, and control. Kids that do well during the day sleep well at night.
As a Grandmother, you are put in a difficult position. You can be the perfect provider and do everything right, and still run into problems. The parents are the ones who must carry through with the strategies to decrease the behavior - and they must be on the same page. Kids know when there is strain, stress, hurt, and frustration. And they absolutely know when there is imbalance between mom and dad. That can rock their world and set off a ton of behaviors strictly for attention. Raising toddlers is insanely difficult even under the best of circumstances - so when mom and dad are not balanced, it compounds the issues. It’s wonderful that they’re seeking help.
The most important aspect of creating positive behavior is setting up the entire environment so the child feels secure and safe.
It sounds like you are a wonderful Grandma – that little guy is quite the lucky fellow to have you around!!
Best of luck -
Michelle Smith, M.S., SLP
Author of Life With Toddlers and The Toddler ABC Guide