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Disciplining a Two-Year-Old

Toddler and Teenager Expert Advice from Carleton Kendrick, Ed.M., LCSW

Q: We're having discipline problems with our two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. When she doesn't get what she wants she throws herself on the floor. She is a sweet, happy little girl as long as we don't tell her "No." I don't know what to do with her. I believe she is ADD/ADHD but I won't put her on medicine this young. Please tell me what I should be enforcing and what I should ignore.

A: My guess is that you're experiencing the typical, often frequent tantrum-like behavior of a toddler. At this particular age and stage of development, your daughter is feeling more of a need to assert her own will and independence.

Even though knowing this developmental reality may not remove your aggravation, you should be heartened that her oppositional behavior (yes, even her throwing herself on the floor) is a healthy part of her growth. She doesn't have the language skills to match her intense emotions and this causes her to act in these dramatic ways.

During these moments when she does not want to hear "No" from you, her contrary reactions are not really manipulative, she is genuinely overwhelmed by her feelings and falls apart. Please try not to ascribe ADHD to her or consider giving her drugs -- she is a normal two year-old, and you are first-time parents are searching for explanations for your "sweet, happy little girl's" explosive outbursts at being told "no" or being disciplined.

Your child needs to know rules, limits, and boundaries. Her testing these out is a way for her to grow and understand the reasons behind these guidelines and restrictions. She can learn them without being punished or rewarded, spanked or shamed. She can be given more choices in her everyday life to make her feel more powerful and independent -- even asking her what color pants she wants to wear will make her feel more in charge.

Tantrums can often be headed off by paying attention to the cues that she gives right before she would normally throw herself on the floor. Respond to these signals with empathy and redirect her attention and energy.

Here are three fine books that will give you practical tips for parenting your toddler and for disciplining her with love:

Setting Limits: How to Raise Responsible, Independent Children by Providing CLEAR Boundaries by Robert J. MacKenzie

First Aid for Tantrums by Kathy Levinson

Parenting your Toddler by Patricia Henderson Shimm

More on: Expert Advice

Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.


Please note: This "Expert Advice" area of FamilyEducation.com should be used for general information purposes only. Advice given here is not intended to provide a basis for action in particular circumstances without consideration by a competent professional. Before using this Expert Advice area, please review our General and Medical Disclaimers.

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