Hi there, Annie.
My two-year-old is out of control, so I’m seeking help for my boy, who will be 3 in April. I feel like he’s totally out of control, and I have tried everything I can possibly think of to get him to change. It seems as though he spends most of his day in time out for things I’m constantly asking him not to do! The biggest issue we are having is him screeching at the top of his lungs, whether it be chasing the cat, responding to something we said, or just out of nowhere in the car.
The other major issue is his behaviour toward his sister. She is 7 months old, and most of the time I’m terrified to turn my back on them in the same room for one minute. He plows her over. He jumps on her head. He tries to body slam her. He takes everything she touches away from her, hits her over the head with hockey sticks, kicks her in the face with boots on, tries to run over her with his tricycle, and throws things at her.
We put him in a 2 minute timeout in the hallway, have him apologize, and go about our business. We’ve tried screaming, asking nicely, redirecting him, and finally spanking him because we’ve had enough. He doesn’t listen to anything we say to him, and everything is a constant battle.
I’ll put things out as clearly as I can for you, and although this is blunt, I hope it will provide significant help. First, children do things for a reason. Whatever that reason is, it provides them with a compelling payback, which further encourages that same kind of behaviour. You have lots of things going on here, and although a problem as complex as this is best dealt with through my behaviour intervention service, I’m going to try my best to answer piece by piece.
My two-year-old is out of control: First, look for the source.
Firstly, there’s the aggression your son shows toward his sister. For obvious reasons, this cannot continue. This is not a stage or something that will get better with time. So, how do you deal with it? First, you have to find out why he’s doing it. What happens when he hurts his sister? My guess, even though I don’t know your family, is that he’s getting a massive reaction from you (and his sister to boot). I’d react if someone tried to run me over! That reaction is providing him with negative attention. After all, you will no doubt get mad, as will his sister. Look what’s happening here. He does something that upsets you, whereupon you get upset, which in turn gives him the payback he’s looking for, which in turn spurs him on to behave in a less than favourable way. In other words, you’re caught in a typical negative cycle. That’s problem number one.
Then comes the way you’re dealing with it. “We tried screaming, asking nicely, redirecting him, and now spanking because we’re at our wits’ end,” you explained. In other words, you’ve tried all of them, and none of them have worked. Every time you react to something as a parent, you send a message. Let’s look at the messages you’re sending with each one of those responses.
My two year old is out of control: What messages are you really sending?
Screaming: “You’re really getting to me.”
Asking nicely: I am asking for your cooperation. Please be nice and do what I ask.
Redirecting: I’m going to nag you to get you to comply. All moms nag a bit, but you want the motivation to do things to come from your child, not you, even at this early stage.
Spanking: Now, you’re really getting to me, and I’ve run out of options.
Other than the obvious one, there are one or two things about the above that I’d like to point out. Two-year-old children are funny little people. Their behaviour is a direct consequence of how safe and secure they feel. What do I mean by “safe”? Well, safety to a two-year old means that life is predictable and stable, and he knows where his boundaries lie. How does that relate to the above? Now let’s look at those messages again in that light.
Screaming: “You’re driving me crazy. I don’t know what to do with you!” This says to your child that you are no longer in control of your actions and gives your child the feeling that he is running things.
Asking nicely: I’m trying to be respectful of you and get you to cooperate. This is good, but it has some drawbacks. We must be careful that this does not devolve into “Will you please, please be good?”
Redirecting: I expect you not to listen to me the first time. This sends a message to your son of, “Why should I bother to listen to the boundaries as they’ll always be someone to tell me again?”
Spanking: You’re out of control! I don’t know what to do with you! Oops, there goes that boundary again.
My two-year-old is out of control: Resume leadership!
Most of the messages you are sending put your son in the driver’s seat, where he is not equipped to be. This affects how safe and secure he feels, which, in turn, dictates the behaviour you are getting.
You also need to be careful about how you ask a two-year-old to do something. You can get rid of much of the defiance by changing how you phrase things. Instead of saying, “Please come to the table.” Say, “It’s time to come to the table.” Why? Because although the difference between the two is very subtle, it introduces the option to be defiant with regard to doing as asked. If you phrase it as it being time to come to the table, simply because the food is there, it takes “you” out of the equation. There will be plenty of times as a mom that you need to make a stand, but you can reduce those times simply by the way you talk to a little person.
Having said all that, the following are the messages you want to send.
I love you and will do what’s best for you.
I expect that you will cooperate.
I expect that you will listen.
You can trust me.
I will make the decisions, as I’m the grownup.
My two-year-old is out of control: They don’t want to run the family.
Two-year-old children think they know what they want, but they don’t. What they want more than anything is to feel safe and secure in a predictable routine. They want you to be the captain of the ship. They need to know how they can gain positive attention, and you need to give them lots of opportunities to do that. Find them doing what you want, and pay attention to them. Give them opportunities to assist you and earn your genuine gratitude. Everyone likes to be appreciated. Then, at the same time, make sure that the consequences of misbehaviour are the same each and every time they’re naughty. Mean what you say or don’t say it. For precise instructions for dealing with time outs, look at my other letters. It’s there in detail.
I would really encourage you to get help in tackling this, as it’s easy to fall back into old habits. You mentioned “we” in your letter, so I’m assuming you have a husband or partner. That’s all well and good, and if you’re both on the same page, you’ll be able to help each other. You might also want to think about asking a friend or other relative to help too, so that you have a better chance of staying calm while the behaviour is at its peak.
What I’ve tried to do here is give you an understanding of why these things are taking place and how to deal with them. To get more of your parenting questions answered, please visit my parenting services page.
Best of luck,
Is there a secret to parenting?
Would you like to know how to get your kids to listen to you the first time?
Did you know that Annie the Nanny was on CTV mornings in Calgary for years? Here’s a clip of her talking about how much choice to give your toddler.