Q:When I ask him to do something, my two-year-old screams “No!” and then swings at me. When he hits me, I firmly reprimand him and try to put him in time-out, but that only makes matters worse. I’ve tried ignoring his screaming, but that doesn’t work. What should I do?
A:He must be your first child. Either that or your first child was the one in a hundred who wasn’t a “terrible” two. In either case, it’s behavior of the sort you describe—illogical, irrational, violent—that has given this age child such a bad reputation. It’s also why one of my graduate school psychology professors maintained that toddlers were psychotic.
Stories of this sort also belie the romantic notion that human nature is fundamentally good. I’ll just bet that your son has never seen anyone haul off and hit someone. Nonetheless, he tries to hit you. That’s because the tendency toward violence when he doesn’t get his way is in his DNA. It’s why God made sure that human children, unlike the offspring of other species, do not grow to full size in one or two years. It takes time to civilize them.
I could have told you that time-out wasn’t going to work. It works on the aforementioned one toddler in a hundred. And as for ignoring this sort of behavior, I don’t know anyone who has that sort of fortitude. Besides, the terrible two-year-old won’t tolerate being ignored. It drives him into a frenzy.
But I have the solution. At least, it’s worked for numerous other parents of equally psychotic toddlers.
Cut his bedroom door in half. Re-hang the lower half, creating a “Dutch” door. And just to be safe, turn the lock around. When your son screams, attempts to hit, or begins to show any other symptoms of imminent psychosis, pick him up, put him in his room, close the half-door, and lock it. Then walk away. Let him vent for as long as he needs to vent in order to realize that his bedroom is now his venting place—and that it’s his only venting place. When he is calm, or reasonably so, go back, unlock the door, pull it open, and walk away. Don’t say things like, “Are you ready to be good?” or anything equally counterproductive. Act as if nothing has happened between picking him up and opening his door again.
The key to the success of this tried-and- true method is to get him to his room as quickly as possible after an episode begins. In fact, if you even see him warming up to an episode, take him to his room. Do this for two weeks. If my experience serves me well, that’s how long it will take for him to begin “getting it.”
I also have two more suggestions. First, keep it simple. When it comes to giving instructions to your son, don’t ask; tell. There’s a world of difference between “It’s time for you to pick up your toys,” and, “How about being a good boy and picking these toys up for Mommy, OK?” Toddlers respond much more cooperatively to declarations than they do to requests. Second, make it easy. Don’t give a toddler more than two toys to play with at a time. That simplifies the job of picking them up—and it makes screaming a lot less likely.
Family psychologist John Rosemond is the director of the Center for Affirmative Parenting in Gastonia, North Carolina. For information about his talks and workshops, contact Tracy Owens-Jahn at firstname.lastname@example.org or (817) 295-1751.