Q: My two year old can be so sweet, but in a drop of a hat he turns just out of control. He doesn't listen to any commands that are given to him, he screams yells and kicks, slams doors, you name it he'll do it to test you. His favorite is to do something that you've told him not to while he's looking at you dead in the eye. I've tried spankings, timeout, toys taken away,and talking to him. Were also trying potty training and just like everything else, there is defiance. I'm at my wits end. I'm clueless. Please help.
Hi there - thanks for writing. :)
Well, it sounds like he may be a little bit more of a strong willed child - but this is a good thing in terms of when he's older, as long as you can channel that energy and turn it into independence, not defiance.
The main thing I hear is that he's needing attention. By looking you in the eye and doing exactly what you told him not to do...he wants your attention. It can be negative or positive - doesn't matter - he just wants you to interact with him. So here's what you do:
1. Tell him what you WANT, not what you don't. Instead of, "Don't touch that!" say, "Hands to yourself." Instead of "no kicking" we say, "quiet feet". Does that make sense? It takes a complete change of thought process but we have to tell toddlers exactly what we want if we expect them to behave. As far as negatives, from his standpoint, all he hears is "touch that". They can't process those negatives like "Don't touch that". If I told you, "Don't think of what you had for dinner last night" - what's the first thing you do? You think of what you had for dinner. It's the same w/ kids. We have to get away from "don't, no, stop it, cut it out," etc., as much as possible. Think about what you WANT him to do, and tell him. Show him. Demonstrate. Teach him. Otherwise, he won't know and he'll continue to guess...which doesn't help anyone.
2. Time outs are tricky. You have to do them correctly or it's a waste of time. If he's acting bad for attention, time-outs give him a heck of a lot of attention - b/c people do them wrong. They'll talk, lecture, yell, keep chasing the kid to put him back in...it's useless.
You first have to determine why they act out. If it definitely boils down to attention, I will not say a word - I'll take the kid, put them in time out, and I don't talk, touch, or make eye contact. If they keep trying to get up, I do the minimum to put them back in. Cribs were great for me. I could put them in, remove any toys or blankets, and walk away until they calmed down. Once they regained control of themselves, I'd walk in and say, "Are you ready to be nice?" or "Are you calm now?" If the answer is yes, I say simply "We do not bite" (or whatever the infraction was). If we yell at them during the heat of the moment, emotions are too high and the point will be lost. Wait until they are calm and recovered, then state it simply and matter of fact. Try to keep it to what you want to see instead (ie, "we use a calm voice," instead of "we don not scream"), but if you can't, you can't. (How do you turn "no biting" into a positive? We have nice teeth???) Then give very specific instruction on what you want to see next time. "When you are upset, use your words to tell mommy."
3. Always think about what his goal is in acting out. Then give him the opposite. You really, really have to think about this. Most of the time, they keep acting that way because we are unknowingly reinforcing that when they act bad, they get what they want. We think we are telling them that it's not okay, but our actions tell them it works. Very tricky! If he starts screaming because he didn't get spaghetti for dinner, by golly, do NOT give him spaghetti...even if he calms down and acts nicely in 5 minutes. Make it super super clear that he does NOT get what he wants when he acts out. Short term, this may mean more tantrums, but it's only because it's what he's learned to get what he wants. Kids figure if they just turn it up a notch, it will eventually work. We just have to train them that the rules have changed. Long term, it makes for a MUCH happier kid b/c they have boundaries and feel secure. Giving in to kids' tantrums never, ever makes them any happier individuals. The opposite is true. :)
4. Intervene when he's getting violent. Stick your foot in the door if he tries to slam it, grab his legs and hold them if he's kicking (and turn your face the other way so you are not looking at him and giving any attention), and find a spot that is his "calming down" spot. It needs to have NO fun, no charm, and is only meant for him to calm down. Make him stay put. This can mean a 45 minute session of grabbing him and setting him back down in it, but make him stay put and still/quiet for a few minutes. Do not talk at all - b/c that's the attention he wants. And he'll think it's a funny game for a while - but he'll eventually get tired of it and figure out it's not so fun anymore.
5. Make sure you are recognizing him and giving him positive attention for what he does well that you like. Praise lets him know, "oh, she likes that". Tell him specifically, "I like the way you're sitting so still while I put your shoes on!"...things like that. Now, he may turn around and start kicking and confuse the tar out of you, thinking the positive attention thing is bunk, but think about it. He gets that positive attention from you, likes it, then immediately seeks more attention in the only way he knows how...by kicking...he doesn't realize it's negative attention...it's just attention. So you react to that by holding his legs, turn your head away, and wait until he stops....remember, give him the opposite of what he wants. By holding his legs and turning your head away, you've taken away the attention he's seeking. Over time, you will train him that the sitting quietly part is what you like, not the kicking.
As far as potty training, give the overall behavior time to improve before you start that. And make sure he's not teething, has an ear infection, or some other phsical issue. When they hurt, they act awful. :) And make sure he has a way to communicate with you. They get super frustrated when they can't communicate.
Hope this helps!
Michelle Smith, M.S., SLP
Author of Life With Toddlers and The Toddler ABC Guide©