“We Don’t Want To Spank”

Hi Janet,

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!

Blessings,

Amanda

Hi Amanda,

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!

Warmly,

Janet

I offer a complete guide to non-punitive discipline in 
No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

17 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I really feel for this mama who has a pregnancy just as her son is beginning this very active, emotionally tough and turbulent age. I think that she needs to remember that her son is not responsible for her emotional responses. Pregnancy alters hormones and moods and then exhaustion makes things worse. It is hard to keep a handle on those things making you feel out of control and be loving and calm to a whirlgig of a toddler, its important to separate your own emotions from what your child is actually doing. Repeating “I’m unable to deal with this behavior because I’m nauseous, not because he’s actually doing anything awful.” or “I’m not handling this well because I’m tired and can’t begin to think creatively” or other effective reminders can help keep some of the pressure off _the child_ and where it belongs, on mom and dad’s responsibility for their own emotional well being and state of mind. That being said, kids can forgive, you just have to show them genuine apology and try to let them know your mood is better now. This is the best time for mom to elicit help from other people in her life! Grandmas, neighbors, babysitters, a day or two a week at a loving childcare situation can do wonders for helping mom get some rest. We weren’t meant to endure back to back pregnancies and young-child rearing all alone!

  2. I teach special ed, and have found that even with children who have very little expressive OR receptive language skills, letting them know that YOU KNOW HOW THEY ARE FEELING helps tremendously. Just saying ” I know you are mad” (adding “because…..” if the reason is apparent) validates their feelings. I do feel, however, that in this and similar situations as the writer described, walking away from a child while he is tantruming is appropriate and healthy. Give them time to work through their feelings, but don’t give them any attention while they are doing it. If you have to stay near, keep your facial expression neutral and look down or away; don’t give them your attention at all. When they are done, be there. If they really just need to vent those feelings, they are able to do it; if they are doing it to control you (especially if that has worked in the past) or for attention, they are not getting it. Once he/she has calmed, (and every day!) be sure to give him lots of attention for- and while he- is displaying GOOD/appropriate behavior

    1. Personally I am not a big fan of ‘neutral’ facial expressions if it is in the sense of a blank expression – perhaps as I never enjoy someone treating me that way when I’m in a rotten mood or ‘acting badly’. I prefer to stay loving (of course that precludes I’m able to not get emotionally involved – as in angry – in the situation).

      A while back I came across a video that exemplified the impact a blank expression can have on infants, and as an adult even I can totally relate to that terrible feeling of disconnectedness etc: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMPUxi7eCTg

      1. Donna, I agree with you about affecting a “blank” expression (or faking any expression). The mother in the video was looking at her baby blankly and being deliberately unresponsive to the baby’s cues. No, I definitely don’t recommend doing that! (I even worry that those few minutes of experimenting might have affected that baby.) My advice is not to get emotionally involved, as in angry or upset, but be available, which means being completely “there” and responsive. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to clarify!

        1. Hi Janet,

          my comment was more in dialogue with shel’s “keep your facial expression neutral” – though I was not meaning to say neutral is the same as blank, it just brought this video and those thoughts to mind 🙂

          And I agree, it is most definitely a very uncomfortable video to watch in terms of what the little girl had to experience.

          1. Thanks, Donna! Ooops, I just realized that you were replying to Shel earlier.

        2. I have actually met and been trained by Ed Tronick, the man in the video. His experiment is the still face paradigm, and he has spent probably thousands of hours studying parent/baby interactions. We use the videos when training in “Touchpoints.” It is hard to watch, I agree. The point of the video, is that it shows the “disconnect” that happens for many people hundreds of times in “normal” interactions with their children. For most parents, as in tune as they try to be, life happens. People must grocery shop, talk on the phone, work, etc and children do the same things to try to entice caregivers back to them. For every child, if the parent does not reconnect, the child falls apart, which is heartbreaking to see. When the parent does reconnect, you can see the reaction of the child. Securely attached children take a moment and then recover. His research shows that growth can occur in the reconnecting, and the relationship can be strengthened. He generalizes this to all human interactions, that in the disconnect, the opportunity to reconnect is amazing. I have also seen a “still face” video of an interaction of a severely depressed mother and her infant. The infant never changes, whether mom is interacting with her or not. His research shows that children of depressed caregivers see a “still face” no matter what. How sad, and yet how important to identify mothers who may need help! I enjoyed this thread, and wanted to elaborate on the video link. Sorry for writing so much! Here is another link for Dr. Tronick’s research.

          http://mindinthemaking.org/article/trusting_relationships_are_central_to_childrens_learninglessons_from_e/

  3. Janet, I love the way you recommend sharing the adult’s real feelings with the child. When I was studying childcare I had a supervisor pull me up for doing this with an 8-month-old because I was ‘using words and concepts she can’t understand’, but the reaction of the baby spoke louder than the supervisor’s words; even if she couldn’t understand my exact meaning, she gained enough from my tone of voice to feel included and safe. This is such an important concept. Children pick up so much from our body language and understand more language than we give them credit for.

  4. Hi Janet! This post reminds me of the email I sent you a couple months ago. 🙂 your advice is wonderfully real and extremely helpful!! Thank you! (by the way, I never took thechance to email you back, but things are a lot better! Complete one-eighty!) Everyday I draw strength from your articles. On behalf of my husband, my son, baby number two on the way, and myself, tHANk YOU!!!!!!!! Dena

    1. Hi Dena! Great news about baby #2! And, Dena, you are so welcome. I’m thrilled to hear that things are going better for you and your family. 🙂

  5. I agree with Shel. The most effective way to curb tantrums is to give them very little attention. Expressing emotions is a healthy, natural thing. It is appropriate for a toddler to tantrum. It is fair to give children the time and space to work through their feelings. In my experience it is best to allow the child all the space and time that they need, then when they are finished pick up right where you left off (playing, etc.)

  6. avatar Mitchell Wells says:

    I am currently in a debate with my significant other in how we want to discipline our child when the situation calls for it. She is currently 10 weeks pregnant and its kinda early, I know, to be talking about this but its just something that keeps comming up and we can’t seem to come into an agreement on anything. She doesn’t like the idea of negative reinforcement but I, on the other hand, feel it is important. Maybe not all the time but sometimes its necessary. I don’t want to spank my child but what I do want to do is make him do some manuel labor as I talk to him about what he did wrong and why. When I say manuel labor I mean take away the luxuries we share in life and make him/her do it with his/her own two hands such as; Rather than do the dishes with a dish washer, make him/her do it by hand. So while I help him/her work through the mistake he/she made, he also realizes not to take for granted the luxuries we have today due to technology. Which in turn, will allow him/her to appreciate life more and be a more productive member of society. She disagree’s and I think that this would be an acceptable and effective way to handle a situation that required us disciplining the child. I would appreciate it if you could shed some light on the argument and either let me kno if I’m wrong and need to revise my idea a bit or if I indeed am on the right path here. We don’t even know the gender of our child yet but this is a topic that keeps occuring in our conversations and we both would like to put it to rest so we are turning to an expert, who we believe to be you.

    Thank you,

    Mitchell Wells

  7. I’m interesing in reading Janet’s response to Mitchell’s question.

    (Mitchell, you explained your side but we don’t have a clear understanding of how your wife wants to discipline. Can you elaborate on her position?)

  8. Hi Janet, I’ve just recently come across your site and the concepts you are sharing, this sounds like something I need. I’ve been having a very difficult time with my almost 21 m old daughter (I also have a 5 m old son). I was spanked as a child and teen, and thought I turned out fine, but after reading this and as you said ‘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.’ I’m not so sure.

    My DD has been getting more ‘out-of-control’ (as I was brought up saying) having tantrums whenever we have to leave somewhere, or she trips, and so on. Now she has started biting herself which freaks me out as I am recovered from an eating disorder and self harm. My mother was abused and I know she tried her best to break the cycle with her own kids but she suffered from depression, OCD, anxiety, control issues and I’m sure some of that must have rubbed off on me.

    We have been spanking our daughter b/c I just don’t know what else to do, timeouts have no effect. My husband says if we don’t spank our kids they will turn out to be spoiled brats like most kids we know. (he was spanked and treated somewhat harshly, comes from a messed up blended family)

    But my main concern is that I find it really hard (impossible) to maintain control when my DD is having these fits, or just any crying in general. I feel so horrible, I always lose it on her and end up yelling or insulting her or even spanking or pinching her. It’s like something takes over me and I can’t control myself, I don’t know why. I feel so horrible and have been crying about this all afternoon, I love her so much and I don’t know what to do. I probably should have never had children- I’ve always wanted a big family and to be a great mom but I am such a failure. I have no support, all of our family is far away and have their own issues and no interest in helping us. My DH works long hours at the moment so it is just me and the little ones home all day and evening.

    Sorry I didn’t mean to write so much, if you have any suggestions I would appreciate your time. Thanks.

    1. I have no idea how old this comment is but I will reply anyways. You say you were spanked as a child and teen and that you turned out fine. You then say you have recovered from self-harm and an eating disorder. I would venture a gentle suggestion that you didn’t turn out “fine”. Perhaps how you were treated as a child has contributed to the two problems you’ve had to overcome as an adult. Also, when teens are spanked, I would actually call that abuse. I was hit as a teen and I don’t consider that to have been normal discipline. I would encourage you to follow the advice on this website (it works!) and break the cycle of spanking that you and your husband have endured.

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