A new independence and all that comes with it

I was feeling quite smug up until recently about having discipline sorted with my 2.5 year old. It was an area of bringing up children that I had not been looking forward to: as a teacher, classroom management was probably my weakest point and I was sure I’d be a terribly weak, inconsistent mother who would let her son run rings around her. But I surprised myself. In fact, having found behaviour management hard in my job, I had gone out of my way to educate myself in the tricks, techniques and philosophies of discipline, and so I started motherhood with a toolkit at the ready, fresh and in the forefront of my mind. Also, the element that I had been lacking in class, I found in myself quite naturally in this new situation: confidence in my own authority.

So after some initial start-up problems (when are they old enough to understand time-out?), I found my groove and things were going along swimmingly. I did ‘natural consequences’ (“if you abuse this toy, I am taking it away”), redirection (“no darling, you can’t play with that in here, but why don’t we play with it in the garden”) and for extremer cases there was the Time Out Chair. The Boy was often exuberant but rarely purposefully naughty; he was eager to please; he was easy to distract.

One of the ways in which I can tell that my little boy is no longer a toddler, is that his “naughtiness” has become more deliberate. The risky experimentation and exploration of the toddler days has been joined by a purposeful defiance: hearing Mummy say “Stop!” but seeing if it really matters if he chooses not to.

Over the past few weeks or so, he has started hitting and kicking. It is clear from his rather shoddy technique that the purpose behind the flailing arms and legs is not initially to hurt, but to keep people away. He starts kicking his legs when I try to change his nappy, wanting me to stay away and keep off him. He pushes or lashes out with his arm if I have thwarted his will and he wants me to leave him alone, or he wants to show how annoyed he is.

Hitting is not okay.

I have tried various things to sort it, but although they usually solve the issue at the time and result in apologies, none of them have so far resulted in preventing a repeat offence.  What gets me most of all, is that he finds it funny if I tell him he has hurt me, and he does it again. This I cannot abide. When I tell him that it is not a funny joke, he laughs all the more and says “funny joke!”, hitting me again.

As you can tell from how I started this post, I have not yet found the answers, but I thought I’d share my thoughts on the situation.

1. The brain does not process negatives. 
This is a bit of wisdom that I picked up from Derren Brown. When you give someone negative instructions, all you are really doing is planting the idea more firmly in their heads. My son is doing quite a lot of parrotting at the moment, and the way he does it shows that Derren Brown has a point. “We’re not going to Gran’s today,” I say. “Going Gran’s today!” the Boy sings gleefully from the back seat. Or perhaps he is holding a felt tip pen and considering it, his finger poised over it. “Don’t draw on your finger!” I say, trying to prevent the inevitable. “Draw finger!” he says, his mind now made up, and proceeds to paint all his finger nails.

So: “Don’t hit Mummy,” is probably the worst thing to say when he is cross. All that does is fix what he is doing more firmly in his mind. Better to make a positive statement that gives him an idea of what he could do instead. Perhaps: “Why don’t you calm down and we’ll talk in a minute.”

2. Why is he getting angry in the first place?
I also thought it was worth thinking about why we were having these temper tantrums in the first place and whether at least some of them could be avoidable. I started to notice that at least half of the incidents started with me trying to do something for or to the Boy: tooth brushing, nappy changing, putting on shoes, sunscreen, helping him into his car seat etc. The kicking and hitting of the past few weeks has gone hand in hand with a new quest for independence. The Boy puts on his t-shirt by himself. He wants to climb into the bath himself. Instead of just asking me for milk, he now opens the fridge, gets the milk out and brings it to me.

Of course, I can’t prevent all confrontations and it would be foolish to try. But it is worth giving him more of the independence he craves and seeing if that makes him feel a little less frustrated.

3. Take up time + distraction
Part of what frustrates me is his defiance. Previously, telling the Boy to stop doing something wrong would at least cause him to stop and think. Now, it makes him laugh and do it again. This shouldn’t surprise me, as part of the problem is that he is trying to become more independent and assert his will.

One of the tools I collected in my teaching days is called “take up time”. In a classroom full of teenage boys, the last thing you want to do is make things into a power struggle. If you pitch your will against a student’s in a room full of their peers, they are unlikely to do what you want. So if someone is playing with their mobile in class, you go up to them and say: “Joe, phone in your bag or on my desk. Thanks.” And then you walk away, assuming that they will comply. This gives them a chance to do as you ask while you’re not looking, without losing face.

I decided that perhaps the Boy needed an almost-3 year old equivalent. Instead of saying: “If you kick me again you will go into time out, you understand?” and then staring at him, daring him to do it again, I should perhaps follow the threat with a jolly: “Now, let’s go and build a really really long train track!”


Those are my thoughts of the moment. Hopefully, given enough time, I will catch up with my son and adjust my parenting to meet where he is at – just in time for him to hit the next developmental stage…


4 responses

  1. I found the phrase ‘That behaviour is not acceptable’ very useful – mostly because it sounded nice and strong (in my own head!) and gave me the impression that I WAS in control, and calm too! Kept consistently using the time out step and the phase passed really quickly. Car seat – I would pre-empt his eagerness to do his own straps as we were heading towards the car – if time allowed :”Today you can fasten your own straps if you like” – or else “Today we have to set off quickly so mummy is going to fasten your straps”. Any defiance and I’d guide/lift him out of the car and repeat -“Today we have to set off quickly so mummy is going to fasten your straps”. I’d always tell him to answer me with ok mummy’ or to repeat back to me what was going to happen “Say ‘mummy is going to fasten my straps today’.” Same would apply to nappy changing. Pre-empt maybe by saying ‘I love it when you lie nicely when I change your nappy and I’m going to give you a big cuddle for lying nice and still!” If kicking :”That behaviour is not acceptable”, lift him down. “You are going to lie nice and still for mummy so I can change your nappy” Tell him to answer you/repeat after you “Ok mummy, I will lie nice and still” Then reward with lots of cuddles.
    Good luck, I’m sure you’ll find something that works for you and despite receiving millions of suggestions it will probably be something that just comes to you naturally. Be consistent and he will pick up the message really quick – he’s a clever little soul xx

  2. I’m taking notes too! Really interesting to read about your teaching techniques and applying those to your toddler.

    I find my toddler (21 months) is a lot better when I tell her what will happen. She used to be a nightmare cleaning her teeth but I try and make her feel a bit more independent by telling her that mummy has to have a go first then she can brush them herself for a bit – the excitement of doing them herself after seems to make her compromise!

    I feel bad sometimes with the independence thing that I need to let her do it her way and not rush her because I want to go faster. I need to work on that a bit more – even if it will mean she has to spend 10 minutes buckling her high chair straps or washing her hands 🙂 L x

    • I know, they are SO SLOW!! Most of our arguments happen when I am in a rush – then he wants to do everything himself, then he gets mad, then he has to sit in time out, and then we are late anyway. I think perhaps things would go much quicker if I did let him do more things by himself. Your toddler is about a year younger, so you will probably still need to do more for her.

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