I am 9 weeks pregnant with baby #2 and my son is now 14 months old. He is a very happy boy, but loves getting into EVERYTHING! When we say no, he has started throwing tantrums, crying, flailing himself as we try to pick him up, etc. He also pinches my face, scratches my arm, hits me and grabs my glasses. Lately we have had a lot of stress in our life due to circumstances out of our control, but my son has been acting this way for a while now. However, with being pregnant and feeling tired all the time, I’m losing it! My husband and I both come from families who spanked. And, although we know they meant good and well, we know behavior is a heart issue and we want to make sure we address the heart issues as our children grow up.
I’ve been really impressed with everything you have written and have actually started using your advice in the last 30 minutes and have seen a difference in how my son responds. However, do you have any advice as to his violent actions towards me, how to keep my cool, and how to teach him to stop? I love my son very much, but have had to leave him crying and walk away so as not to cause more harm to him. I know walking away isn’t the best for him emotionally, but it’s better than me losing it and yelling and spanking him out of anger. By the way, we are trying very hard to do gentle disciplining but are still learning how everything works. So any and all advice you can give would be much appreciated.
Thank you so much!
Your boy needs a safe place to play. I can understand your frustration and anger when he gets into things, but it is unfair to expect him to stifle his natural, precious and age-appropriate curiosity. He’s supposed to be “getting into everything”. That’s a big part of his job description as a 14-month-old active learner and it needs to be encouraged. Instead of hearing “no” all the time and sensing his parents anger, he needs a YES place that’s all his to explore. He needs his parents to spend time there with him watching what he does, appreciating him rather than being annoyed by him. So, for both of you, I strongly recommend making a gated-in play space furnished with some appropriate toys and play objects.
I’ve heard the arguments. I know some perceive this as “jail”, but I can assure you that this is an adult projection. To young children (especially when we establish these spaces early on) a safe space is freedom, comfort, theirs. At your boy’s age, you will have to take care to frame his new space very positively and include him in the “making of it”. For example, asking your boy, “Shall we keep your balls in this basket or on the shelf over here? Should your animals go in this box, or would you like them placed here on the floor in the corner? Please show me where the trucks should go.” Let him take the lead as much as possible.
Simple Toys Make Active Babies (Creating a brain-building play space for your baby or toddler – for under $100) is a wonderful booklet by Alexandra Curtis Boyer that will tell you everything you need to know about developing your son’s special play space.
When the new baby enters the picture, it will be even more important for your boy to have his small, protected play haven and for you to have a way to keep inappropriate toys away from your baby.
The play space, which must definitely include special time with you there, will help alleviate some of the tantrums and behavior issues (lots of “green lights” make the red ones easier to accept), but the outbursts won’t disappear completely. They are a healthy element of toddlerhood.
Also, he will sometimes be in places where everything is not available or appropriate for him to explore. Take care to intervene respectfully. Instead of taking something out of his hands or picking him up and moving him away, whenever possible talk to him first. Acknowledge his desire before setting a boundary, “I see you want to touch my glasses. I can’t let you. They are not safe.”
Gentleness and respect will work wonders, but there will still be episodes of crying and tantruming. They are par for the course with toddlers. Remember that tantrums and crying are entirely different from hitting, scratching, etc., and require a different response.
Tantrums and crying are healthy ways for your boy to release his feelings and offload stress. When he is doing those things he needs you to support, encourage, and stay engaged with him in a calm, empathetic, non-judgmental manner. These expressions of anger, frustration, worry, sadness, etc., are positive and healthy, not a result of something you are doing wrong or a problem that you have to fix. Understanding the value of your boy’s outbursts will help you to not “take on” the feelings and lose your temper.
It is also normal and common for an upset toddler to act out with you physically. This is another expression of the powerful feelings he’s having, but obviously not behavior you can allow or encourage. He doesn’t want to hurt you, but he feels upset way beyond his control. Gently, but firmly block him from doing those things to you. Hold his hands to stop him if you need to. Take a deep breath and stay calm. Put him down if you are holding him and he begins to hit, scratch or pinch. Stay nearby and acknowledge, “You are very mad because I stopped you from touching the dog’s food. I understand, but I won’t let you hurt me.” Give him free rein to express his feelings, but make it clear that you will not allow him to hurt you. Be available for hugs when his outburst has subsided.
Sometimes, your boy’s aggressive reactions and tantrums will seem completely unreasonable. Accept them as being exactly what he needs to do. Remember that toddlers are extremely sensitive, and if you are going through something, he is certain to be feeling it, too. If there are specific stressors in your life that you can share, consider sharing with him. Even just saying, “I’ve been upset all day today because of some problems with the house” (or whatever), “I’m sorry I’ve been grumpy.” Feeling your parent’s tension without any idea what it is about can be very stressful for small children.
Hopefully, the knowledge that his behavior is healthy and age-appropriate will help you to gain the perspective you need to remain calm and confident in the face of his storms. Instead of walking away, yelling or spanking, try distancing yourself emotionally, but remaining available (as a therapist would). If it is at all possible, I recommend speaking to a counselor about the emotional triggers you might be experiencing around your son’s outbursts. This is a common issue for adults who were spanked as children.
Take very good care and thanks for reaching out!
I offer a complete guide to non-punitive discipline in
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame