In the following email exchange, I discuss with Lauren (mother to a toddler) some other common discipline missteps: 1) Yelling; 2) Not setting limits early enough (which often leads to yelling or at least feeling like yelling); and 3) Not following through (which can also lead to yelling).
I’ve been a reader for about a year, and I’ve found the tenets of Magda Gerber’s approach to be indispensable with my daughter. I’m a SAHM, and it’s incredible how much better our days go when I’m able to maintain a calm face and tone when setting limits.
My problem is that I’m not very good at it. Sometimes I just get so frustrated with the constant demands of a 2.5 year old that I end up yelling.
My question is whether you have any advice about how to stay calm and consistent. I’m already very much a believer, but I need something to help me manage my frustration level in the moment.
While I know it’s absolutely unreasonable to expect my daughter to know when she’s pushed enough, I can’t help wanting say something like,, “Come on, kid, I’ve nailed the respectful-but-firm tone here a few times already, and now I’m not screwing around!”
The thing is, when it works — which is a lot of the time — it WORKS. It seems like that would be enough incentive for me, but I still struggle. I’m sure if were to get this question from another parent, I’d know exactly what to tell them, yet putting it into practice consistently when the going gets tough is not easy for me. Any hot tips?
Thank you so much,
Two and half is a demanding age, but “constant demands” was a clue for me that there is something in the dynamic between you and your daughter that is unsettling her. There shouldn’t be constant demands. But if she senses that she is pushing your buttons and that there might be an explosion (yelling and frustration on your part, etc.) then she is going to be compelled to make more demands.
Have to go, but will try to write more later!
Thanks, Janet. She definitely can sense when she’s pushing my buttons, that’s very true. I don’t think I made a fair characterization of the situation by describing her demands as constant.
She really is wonderful at self-entertaining, and we do everything we can to foster her independence and follow her lead. For example, she has just learned to open the screen door herself. I think this is great, because we have a safe, fenced back yard, and she’s able to spend as much time as she likes playing out there.
As an example of something that pushes my buttons, now that she can open the screen door, she sometimes gets in a spell of throwing things outside, and she won’t stop until we lock the door. It doesn’t matter what we say, whether we do the calm “I won’t let you do that” or when she keeps doing it…she won’t stop. The thing is, I don’t WANT to lock the door as an artificial limit. I want her to just do what I say.
I guess my feeling is (and I know it’s a completely unreasonable expectation) that I want her to understand how hard we work to be respectful parents, to give her as much freedom and autonomy as she can handle, and to give us the benefit of the doubt and respect when we do say “no”. When she blatantly does something we’ve nicely told she may not do, it feels hurtful and disrespectful to me, and I have a lot of difficultly not taking it personally.
What I’d love to be better at is just saying, after one warning, “I’m going to lock the door now because you’re having a hard time keeping things in the house” and calmly getting up and doing it. I think my problem, now that I’m talking it out, is that I give her too many chances, more than I can handle, to comply on her own. In my effort to give her the opportunity to choose to do what I’m asking of her, I end up pushing myself farther than I can handle.
So what’s the best way to balance giving her a chance to decide and comply on her own with stepping in and enforcing the limit?
Yes! You answered your own question:
“What I’d love to be better at is just saying, after one warning, “I’m going to lock the door now because you’re having a hard time keeping things in the house” and calmly getting up and doing it. I think my problem, now that I’m talking it out, is that I give her too many chances, more than I can handle, to comply on her own. In my effort to give her the opportunity to choose to do what I’m asking of her, I end up pushing myself farther than I can handle.”
It seems that you are expecting too much of your toddler and misunderstanding why she is “misbehaving”. Yes, she can understand what you want, but no, she can’t just agree and quietly comply with your wishes out of respect. This isn’t personal — it’s developmental.
A vital part of her development right now is testing her power and her will, while also being assured that she has parents who are well-equipped to contain this power. Toddlers do this by resisting us. They can’t explore their will by saying “yes, mom, I’ll do what you ask.” So, defiance at this age is normal and healthy.
However, it is disconcerting and even scary for toddlers to feel too powerful – powerful enough to push parents’ buttons and rattle or anger them or powerful enough to make decisions they can’t easily make (like when to relinquish their will, follow a parent’s direction and stop throwing toys). Feeling too powerful means feeling uncared for, and toddlers are acutely aware of their need for our care.
Your daughter wants and needs you to follow through and lock the door. Then, if she has feelings about that, allow and acknowledge them. She needs you to calmly connect and “parent her” way before you get angry. If you are getting annoyed, that means you are giving her too many chances and choices. She’s clearly letting you know that she needs your help.
My thought is that she may also be communicating that she’s tired, hungry or in need of release for some pent up feelings. But one thing is certain: she is asking for a boundary from you, presented calmly and respectfully so that she can feel safe and secure in your love and care again.
I would get close enough to make eye contact and tell her once politely not to do it (“please keep your toys in the house”) and then say, “You are throwing toys outside when I asked you not to. I’m going to lock the door.” She may squawk in response, or even have a meltdown, but she will also breathe a huge inward sigh of relief. Mommy stopped me before she got mad. She seems confident about taking care of me.
Taking care of yourself and your child — prioritizing your relationship to this extent is the ultimate in great parenting and something to feel extremely proud of. Children don’t want to be considered bothersome, frustrating or annoying and they don’t deserve our resentment. But only we can set the limits necessary (and early enough) to prevent these feelings from cropping up and poisoning our relationship.
I hope this perspective helps give you the encouragement you need to remain calm and be consistent.
I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my new book:
I also recommend reading Stop! 5 Easy Steps To Effective Limit Setting With Toddlers by Lisa Sunbury, Regarding Baby.org
(Photo by Elizabeth/Table4Five on Flickr)