How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 1: Understanding your toddler

Understanding how a toddler sees the world is the first step in effective discipline. Below are the basics you need to know before you even begin attempting to correct your child’s behaviour.

Toddlers aren’t naughty per se

As an autistic guy, I’m told my Theory of Mind skills are fairly poor. This means that I struggle to read or understand the thoughts and feelings of others, so find it difficult to see things from another’s perspective, predict their behaviour, or put myself in their shoes.

However, I have to say that, as the father of a 33-month-old, I think most of society has poor Theory of Mind skills when it comes to toddlers. If anything, I think I understand toddlers better than most.

The important aspect of ToM – well, important to me, at least – is interpreting intent. If you can’t understand where people are coming from then you can’t understand why they do things and therefore you misinterpret their motives, their capabilities, and the fact that mostly another person’s behaviour has nothing to do with you.

My wife, for example, who is also on the autism spectrum, is unable to fathom that if somebody did something that upset her, they didn’t necessarily do it in order to upset her. She gets it into her head that the person has deliberately chosen to slight her, has selected a course of action designed to offend her, and is fully cognizant of the effects of their behaviour.

This seems to be the way most adults think of toddlers – that they deliberately misbehave, that they know when they’re being naughty, and that they have some sort of inbuilt moral compass that they choose to disregard just to annoy you.

I’ve heard it so many times – you did that on purpose, stop being naughty, you knew what would happen, what’s wrong with you, just behave!

I find myself doing it sometimes – ‘Be a good girl for Granny,’ I say, as though a toddler has any idea what being a ‘good girl’ actually means. She doesn’t – of course she doesn’t. Like a person with autism, she needs to be given specific instructions – ‘When Granny tells you to do something, you have to do it,’ is a far better lesson than the horribly arbitrary injunction to be ‘good’ or to ‘behave’. Being ‘good’ is a thousand different acceptable behaviours, and until a toddler has learnt them all, how can we possibly ascribe malicious intent to them?

So when your child is doing things that are naughty, try to get it out of your head that they’re aware they’re being naughty and doing it to be naughty. It’s nothing personal, it just is. As frustrating and upsetting as their behaviours can be, they don’t ‘mean it’.  Bear that in mind when they’re pushing every one of your buttons at the same time, as only toddler can.

Toddlers aren’t little adults

There’s been a trend in recent years to treat children as little adults – as rational beings that are capable of making informed choices. You simply have to explain things to them, so the logic goes, treat them with respect, ask for consent to change their nappies, trust them, and they will behave like great little people.

None of that is actually true, but people like to think it is.

The truth is that toddlers are aliens. They are totally unlike adults. You’d be better off trying to reason with a jellyfish. That’s not to say that they can’t learn and you can’t teach them to behave, but children are not moral beings and are unable to make moral judgements about right and wrong, and anyone who thinks they are hasn’t done their research.

I have. During my Psychology A-Level I experimented on children (nothing sinister). Adapting an experiment I found in a textbook, I wrote two stories. In the first, Sam was called down to dinner. Unbeknownst to Sam, behind the door on a chair were fifteen glasses, and when Sam opened the door, the chair was knocked over and all fifteen glasses smashed. In the second story, Jo wanted a cookie but Jo’s mother said no. When Jo’s mother went out, Jo climbed up onto the sideboard to get a cookie, in the process knocking one glass off the edge, which smashed on the floor. These were sent to various middle schools, to children aged 5-6 and 10-11, along with a questionnaire to ask which child was naughtiest.

I deliberately avoided using the words ‘accidentally’ and ‘on purpose’, since even very young kids are taught through tellings-off that accidental equals good and on purpose equals bad, and the results were pretty conclusive.

95% of the children aged 5-6 thought Sam was naughtiest because Sam broke fifteen glasses and Jo only broke one; how the glasses were broken, and what the child was doing at the time, didn’t factor into their thinking about morality. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the extent of the damage, not the intent.

95% of the children aged 10-11, on the other hand, thought Jo was naughtiest because while Sam’s was clearly an accident, Jo was being disobedient when he broke his glass. Right and wrong, to these kids, is based on the context and intent of the behaviour.

Clearly, then, unless you spell it out to them, children don’t have the cognitive ability to work out good and bad behaviour until they’re between the ages of 7-10. Expecting toddlers to make good moral judgements is the height of ignorance. The only right and wrong they understand is that which you drum into them. They’re not naughty because they’re bad; they’re naughty because they don’t understand the concept of naughtiness.

Toddlers haven’t yet learned to control their emotions

You can control your impulses because you’re an adult and have spent your whole life learning that feelings and actions are different things. You are aware that just because you have a feeling, that doesn’t mean you have to act on it.

Toddlers haven’t learnt that yet.

For the most part, they live in the present tense, with no concept of consequence. If they have an urge or a feeling, they want it gratified there and then. What’s worse, by the time they’re toddlers they know how to fulfil their wants and needs but haven’t yet developed the notion of whether they should.

Whether or not you believe in Freudian theory, it provides a useful illustration for this stage of development. The idea is that the human mind is divided into three parts that develop over time. We start with the id, that part of ourselves that is pure desire and lust. It is the part of the mind that says, ‘I am hungry!’

Then we develop the ego, the part of the mind that enables us to fulfill our wants. If the id says ‘I am hungry!’ then the ego says, ‘I will eat a biscuit!’

And lastly there’s the superego, which delves into morals and ethics. It’s the bit that says, ‘Well, I could have a biscuit, but I’m on a diet, and actually it’s not even my biscuit, so maybe I’d better not.’

Toddlers have ids and egos, but the superego is a work in progress. Thus if you expect them to ask themselves whether they should do something, you’ll be consistently disappointed.

Alongside this lack of impulse control is a lack of reasoning ability. If they want something, they want it there and then, and if they can’t, it seems unfair, arbitrary and painful. A toddler doesn’t care if you explain to them that the reason they can’t have a choc-choc bar is because the shop is closed: in that moment, all they can see is that they’re hungry, they want a choc-choc bar, and you are preventing them from having it. Thus toddlers have as poor Theory of Mind skills as many of their parents as they similarly believe that if something upsets them, it’s your fault and you’re doing it deliberately. Overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all, it’s no wonder they throw themselves on the floor and tantrum.

But we’re adults, and we have to be above it. They’re not having a tantrum to be naughty – they simply don’t understand and can’t process their emotions when their needs cannot be immediately fulfilled.

Setting boundaries and creating consequence

Taking into account all of the above, this is how it works in practice:

You’re sitting eating dinner with your child when she suddenly picks up a handful of potato and throws it right in your face. How do you react?

If you said, ‘Scream and shout and get angry,’ you’d be completely normal, because a handful of potato flung in your face isn’t exactly a pleasant experience. But why did your child do it? To be naughty? To annoy and upset you?

No, of course not. Probably, they did it because they thought, ‘I want to throw this.’ Or, ‘I wonder if I can throw this in daddy’s face?’ Or, if they’re slightly more advanced, ‘What would happen if I throw this in daddy’s face?’ So really, despite thinking you’re the centre of the universe, a toddler’s behaviour has very little to do with you.

Of course, they are capable of following instructions, so if they still throw potato in your face after you’ve specifically asked them not to, what’s happening there? Simple. Either they’re lost in the moment and have completely forgotten there might be consequences, or they’re testing boundaries.

Authority, consequence and the limits of acceptability are all things that need to be learnt. Your child is exploring who is in charge, what they can get away with, the effects of their actions, and the flexibility, or otherwise, of all these things.

Try to remember that just because something happened once in a specific context, that doesn’t mean a toddler understands right and wrong. In this example, she has learned once what happens when she throws potato in her daddy’s face. There’s still a whole world of possibilities out there to discover: is this what will happen every time or do the consequences change? What if I throw potato in mummy’s face instead? What if, instead of potato, I throw Spaghetti Bolognese? Does this rule only apply at the table? Does it only apply to food? What if I throw a plastic block in daddy’s face? If I keep doing it, will he eventually accept it?

That is why, when disciplining or instructing toddlers, you have to adopt the three Cs – be clear, consistent, and calm.

  • Clear – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is. ‘Don’t throw food at daddy!’ leaves them open to throw food at other people and throw other things. Far better to say, ‘Don’t throw things,’ and leave them in no doubt what is expected of them.
  • Consistent – because a toddler needs to know where the boundary is and what happens when it is crossed. It’s no good shouting when she throws food the first time, putting her on the naughty step the second time, and ignoring it the third time as this sends mixed messages and confuses your child. The same behaviour should receive the same consequence every time.
  • Calm – because that will help you achieve the other two.

Be prepared to repeat yourself again and again and again. It takes time for a toddler to understand consequence; it takes them a while to learn; and it takes a long time for them to accept that they cannot have their own way all the time. Unless you master the three Cs, you’re setting yourself up for a far longer, harder period.

Look out for How to Discipline a Toddler, Part 2: The Fundamentals

 

Betrayed by mine own kin!

You spend twenty months building a bond with your child – changing her nappy, cleaning up her sick, giving her cuddles all through the night, and letting her wipe her runny nose on your shirt – and you expect a certain amount of loyalty in return. You know, the way a dog follows you because you feed it or a cat because you let it sleep on your lap. At the very least, you assume there has developed between you a modicum of trust.

Don’t be fooled. Toddlers cannot be trusted.

Yesterday morning, my daughter wanted a gingerbread biscuit that she could see on the counter in the kitchen. I knew mummy wouldn’t approve, because it was just after breakfast, but little Izzie smiled at me, pointed and said, ‘Bease,’ in her adorably cute childish fashion, so how could I resist?

There was one proviso, however – as I placed it into her outstretched fingers, I whispered to her, ‘Shh, don’t tell mummy, it’s our secret. You’ll get daddy in trouble. Okay?’

She nodded emphatically. Yes. Our secret.

I have no doubt she understood.

The moment my fingers released the biscuit, she ran into the lounge waving it in the air and shouting, ‘Mummy, mummy!’ Look what I’ve got, mummy.

‘How did you get that?’ mummy asked.

Beaming from ear to ear, my daughter pointed right at me. ‘Daddy,’ she said, sat down and ate it.

Disloyal little bastard.

This morning her mummy gave her a piece of iced doughnut to eat. ‘Ooh,’ I said, kneeling before my daughter. ‘Can daddy have some?’

She shook her  head violently. ‘No.’

‘Please?’

‘No.’ And she crammed the entire piece into her mouth, so much she couldn’t even close her lips, just so I couldn’t have it.

Disloyal little bastard.

In fact, ‘no’ has become her favourite word, particularly when she knows how much hurt it can cause.

‘Can daddy have a kiss?’

‘No.’

‘Do you love daddy?’

‘No.’

Those times she does deign to allow me to kiss her, she turns her head and points to her cheek as if to say, ‘Oh, go on then, kiss my cheek if you must, peasant, then go refill my water bottle.’

Actually, it’s her second favourite word, the favourite being, ‘mummy.’ When she gets her own way, you see, it tends to involve mummy, so she figures that if she calls everyone mummy, she’s far more likely to get what she wants.

I’d develop a complex if I wasn’t so sure of my sex. Today, for example, my wife is out, but that hasn’t prevented the name ‘mummy’ being mentioned around a thousand times, mostly screamed at me because I won’t give the little one a biscuit. All day, ‘mummy, mummy, mummy, mummy.’ Not one ‘daddy’, no matter how many episodes of the pig I let her watch, no matter how much I colour with her, read to her, build towers with her, walk her round the block – ‘mummy, mummy, mummy.’ That’s loyalty for you.

And she’s using her mother’s tendency to be more indulgent than me to play her parents off against one another. If I say no, she starts to cry and toddles over to mummy to see if she can get what she wants, and lays it on really thick by pointing at me in the midst of her despair and sobbing, as if saying, ‘Daddy was mean to me, mummy, sort him out!’ Bloody tattle-tale. It’s amazing how quickly she’s learned that skill.

And to add insult to injury, when mummy asks, ‘What’s wrong? Why are you so upset?’ my darling, cherished daughter says the word she never says under any other circumstance: ‘daddy.’

Disloyal little bastard.

 

A Heart Made of Iron

When I was a kid, walking to middle school each day, the teenagers I passed on their way to the upper school seemed like giants. Tall, stubbled, confident and proud, their uniforms modified to reflect their unique personalities, there was nothing they couldn’t achieve. They were gorgeous, the closest I ever got to movie stars or comic-book heroes. At least, that was the impression of an insecure, anxiety-ridden social outcast with four eyes, goofy teeth and chronic asthma.

One day, I thought, when I’m that age, it’ll all come together, it’ll all make sense. I’ll be strong, I’ll be capable, I’ll be able to cope. Teenagers are made of iron.

A few years later I became a teenager, and lived as a pimply-faced, hormonal, anxiety-ridden social outcast. I saw adults with their jobs and pensions and mortgages and I thought that when I became an adult, it would all come together, it would all make sense, and I’d finally be able to cope. Adults, I thought, are made of iron.

By the time I was twenty-five, with many years of work and study behind me, I was very much aware that growing older wasn’t actually making me feel any stronger or more capable or better able to cope. As a depressive, anxiety-ridden social outcast, I looked at people with children and I thought, wow, look at them – they’re so strong, and capable and able to cope. And I figured that when I had kids, it would all come together, it would all make sense. Parents, after all, are made of iron.

As the father of a nineteen-month old, I can tell you for a fact that I am not made of iron. Quite the contrary, actually. I might give off the impression of competence, might fool people into thinking that I’m coping perfectly well, but the truth is that I’m just very good at faking it.

In reality, I’m a little tender at the moment. A couple of weeks ago, my precious little darling discovered how to scream, and the tantrums I thought we’d experienced before were actually mild disagreements because they are nothing like what she does now.

What was hitherto a very well-behaved child has turned into a monster. Half the time, I don’t know whether to give her a hug or call a freaking exorcist.

She screams and kicks and fights every time I try to change her nappy. At breakfast she screams because she wants my food, not hers, my coffee, not her water. She screams because I won’t take her for a walk every time she wants, she screams because we won’t have dawn-to-dusk Peppa Pig, she screams because I want to go to the toilet, she screams because she steals my nose and I’m not really fussed about getting it back, she screams because I make her wear a coat to go out in the cold, she screams because I put her in a seatbelt in the car, she screams because her hands and face are dirty but she screams when I wipe them clean, she screams when I make dinner, she screams because she can’t feed her dinner to the dog, she screams because I wash behind her ears, she screams because I get her out of the bath, she screams because I dry her hair, she screams because I kiss her goodnight and she screams because I turn out the light. Phew. It’s a lot of screaming.

What’s worse is that she has an upset stomach at the moment, precipitating a greater number of nappy changes than usual, each resulting in me getting kicked in the chin, stomach and testicles; she has a nappy rash, meaning nappy changes are even more violent as I fight what seems like a wild animal in order to put on the cream; and she has developed a severe aversion to bedtime that provokes at least three hours of screaming every night.

The nightly ritual was so easy just over a week ago. Night night mummy, night night doggy, up the stairs, brush teeth, into pyjamas, read a story, pick a book for bed, into the grow bag, big kiss, lights out, silence. Bliss.

The nightly ritual for the past eight days: ‘It’s bedtime, say goodnight to mummy.’ Huge screaming fit, tears, purple face, stamping feet, I go to pick her up and she runs away and then hisses and struggles and lashes out as I catch her, screams all the way up the stairs, mega-violence at the nappy change/pyjamas, very quiet when I read her the bedtime story, then mega screams and struggles as I put her to bed. Lights out causes a guttural, alien, hacking snarl-growl, like two demons having a fight, which goes on for around ten minutes, accompanied by thuds as she thrashes about in the cot, before descending into choking, spluttering, dying sounds that mean I have to go calm her down or else I’m afraid she’ll die. It takes a long time to calm her down once she’s worked herself up into that state, and as soon as I’ve got her quiet and breathing properly again, I go to put her down and the whole ordeal starts again.

I’ve sung to her, rocked her, read to her, let her come downstairs, ignored her, and always the same result – screaming that devolves into a choking, coughing total loss of all control, which stretches from her usual bedtime at seven until gone ten o’clock. And that’s before I mention the two or three times she’s up in the night nowadays. Where before, bedtime was a blessing, it has become a nightmare.

Eight days, three hours a night, is 24 solid hours of screaming tantrums in a week. It might not sound like a lot, but when those three hours of screaming follow a twelve-hour day of regular screaming fits, trust me, your whole world shrinks down to tears, red faces and an ever present sense of drowning.

My wife’s means of coping is to ignore it, to go out and forget about it and leave me to deal with it – after six pm, and for much of the day, I’m a single parent. I could switch off from it too, I suppose, but hours and hours and hours of my daughter screaming and crying and getting herself so upset that she’s choking is not something I can just rationalise away and get over. I feel horribly sensitive, bruised inside and out. I feel like I want to burst into tears. When I’m holding my screaming, struggling child I have to fight with every fibre of my being not to run away and hide. Just five minutes, I think to myself. Dear God, five minutes surely isn’t too much to ask?

I’m still waiting for the day it’ll all come together, it’ll all make sense, and I’ll be able to cope. Until then, I’ll just have to fake it. Until then I’ll use what little strength I have to pretend I’m made of iron. Unless someone could recommend a cheap nanny?

The Terrible Ten-Months

New parents hear so much about ‘the terrible twos’ that it’s very easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. You sit there with your incredibly well-behaved baby and think with smug complacency that you have two years of parenting practice before having to face the horrors of unstoppable tantrums and a wilful refusal to behave.

And then you discover that’s a load of total crap.

For the past couple of months Izzie’s known what ‘No’ means, but played a little game called ‘how far can I push it?’ That’s normal and natural and the sign of a confident baby with an active mind and growing sense of independence, and I welcomed it.

The door to the hallway, for example –  it doesn’t close properly, and Izzie’s aware that if she rolls the doorstop out of the way, slips her fingers into the crack and pulls, she can wrench it open and escape into the magical and dangerous world that is the rest of the house. So whenever she tries this, I give her a stern ‘No,’ with a pointed finger and a glare.

In the past, she looked back, her hands dropping into her lap. Then, slowly, without breaking eye contact, she’d lift her hand and start to stroke the door jamb – ‘not touching it, daddy, see? Quarter of an inch away, but my fingers aren’t in the crack. Not doing anything wrong.’

Same with the plug sockets. ‘I’m just stroking the wall, daddy, millimetres from the plug you told me not to touch. You could barely get a sheet of paper between my fingers and the socket, but I’m not touching it, so you can’t punish me.’

And if she ever did get the door open and I told her ‘No’ a moment too late, she’d hover on the threshold, hold my stare, tentatively ease a toe into the hallway, listen to me tell her ‘No’ again, and then slowly and deliberately shift her whole foot across the line – just to see what she can get away with, just to see how far she can go.

Provocative, sure, but entertainingly so. She was intelligently exploring the limits of my authority and the consequences of her actions; I was showing her where the boundaries are while she pushed against them to see how flexible they might be. Normal and natural. How I miss it.

In the past fortnight, Izzie has learned to clap, developed her first mole (on her forehead), and yesterday cut her first tooth (lower left incisor). And since she’s now so clearly an adult, she thinks she doesn’t have to listen to a word I say anymore.

It doesn’t matter how many times I tell her ‘No’, if she wants to open the hall door she’s damned well going to open it. And if she wants to touch the plug socket, hell, she’ll touch it just to show me that she can. And if she wants to crawl into the magical and dangerous world that is the rest of the house, nobody is going to stop her.

She forgets that I’m bigger and stronger than her and actually can stop her simply by picking her up and moving her somewhere else. But alongside the wilful disobedience comes the other symptom of the terrible twos – the tantrum.

Boy, does Izzie know how to tantrum. You wouldn’t think a ten-month-old could do it, but she’s got it down pat. She can’t even walk yet, but she knows how to stamp her feet. She’s as uncoordinated as the next baby, but she can ball her hands into fists and thrash them about in a temper.

A couple of nights back I was bathing her and she was playing with her plastic stacking pots, one in each hand. She took great delight in filling them with water and throwing it over me, before hitting me in the forehead with them and repeating it. After six or seven goes, I decided that enough was enough and tried to take them off her.

It was as if I had just declared World War III.

Getting the pots off her was no mean feet as she has the grip strength of an Amazon, but once I was done, the angry, screaming, thrashing, leg-kicking, arm-flailing, fist-waving tear monster sending tsunamis of water out of the tub and over the bathroom floor bore no resemblance to my cute little well-behaved daughter. It was like being caged with a wild animal with a toothache.

This stroppy self-righteousness has spread to all areas of her daily life. Don’t get me wrong, she’s a very good baby, hardly ever cries, and is a delight to be around most of the time. But she’s decided she can do what she wants, when she wants, and woe betide anybody who tries to stop her.

Terrible twos? If only they’d wait that long!

Good Dad / Bad Dad

For nine months, Izzie only ever encountered Good Dad. He’s a nice guy, a caring guy. He hugs her when she’s sad, feeds her when she’s hungry, kisses her when she smiles. He sings her songs at bedtime, acts like a loon to make her laugh, and gives her everything she wants. He’s a big, cuddly bundle of fun.

The past few weeks, there’s been a new guy on the scene: Bad Dad. And Izzie doesn’t like him nearly as much.

‘Ba-da,’ she cries. ‘Ba-da!’

She’s reached the age where she’s increasingly mobile, increasingly opinionated, and increasingly capable. She watches everything you do, and you can almost hear the cogs whirring inside her skull as she works things out. Like the velociraptors from Jurassic Park, it’s a problem-solving intelligence that is scary when combined with her baby-Superman-lifting-a-car strength.

Mostly, it’s small stuff. She can take off her nappy, help herself to her biscuits by swiping them out the pocket of the changing bag, and yesterday proved she can stand without any support (though when she realised we were watching her she grabbed onto the sofa). And if she gets her hands on the baby wipes, she opens the packet and pulls them out one by one, creating a big wet mess in the middle of the carpet.

Far more alarming are her attempts at overcoming safety features. She’s figured out where she has to grab to open the stair gate keeping her out of the kitchen, but luckily doesn’t have the strength or dexterity to do it yet. When you strap her into the car seat or high chair, her fingers move to the buckle the second you move yours away as she struggles to press the release button. And when you change her nappy, she knows the exact moment you’ll be looking to the left (to pick up the clean nappy) and uses that split second to roll to the right, crawl past your thigh and make a break for the door – which she’s figured out how to open.

Into this repertoire of experimental behaviours she’s recently introduced a number that could be categorised as ‘How to manipulate mummy and daddy’. They are, from mildest to I-want-to-die-est:

  1. The throw-your-bottle-on-the-floor-for-attention.
  2. The pouty bottom lip.
  3. The fake cry.
  4. The angry shout.
  5. The lose-all-control-and-scream-like-a-wild-animal-that’s-being-poked-with-a-red-hot-poker-until-you-start-to-choke-and-then-turn-purple-in-order-to-get-your-own-way.

This last one is used every time she’s put in the play pen, every nappy change, every costume change, every time I take her out of the bath, and every time I take something off her.

And so, in response, I have had to break out Bad Dad.

Bad Dad is tough but fair. Bad Dad tells her no when she’s pulling hair, or trying to open the door to the hall, or going into mummy’s handbag. Bad Dad takes car keys off her, and TV controllers, and the dog’s toys. And Bad Dad doesn’t take any shit.

No matter how much Izzie cries, screams and pitches a fit, Bad Dad doesn’t let her get her own way. She completely understands the word ‘No,’ but it’s a battleground right now as she tests the boundaries to see what she can get away with.

‘Daddy says No? I’ll reach for it again. Oh, he still says No. In that case, I’ll stick out my bottom lip and – wow, it’s still No. Maybe if I cry a bit, real tears even, now I’ll just reach out – nope, that didn’t work. I’ll shout as I reach for it – damn it, I’ll just throw a full-blown tantrum, then he’ll have to give it to me.’

To be honest, I don’t like Bad Dad either. He’s nowhere near as fun or as happy as Good Dad. He’s mean and unkind and strict and severe. He hardens his heart to his daughter’s tears and holds her while she sobs, even though he was the cause of it all, and it would be so easy to make her happy by giving her what she wants.

But Bad Dad doesn’t give in, no matter how hard it gets, and how much it upsets him, because he’s as good a dad as Good Dad. And it takes both personas to be the father of a happy, well-adjusted daughter.

But I know which one I prefer.