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Unruly Tot

Pediatrics Expert Advice from Shari Nethersole, M.D.

Q: I have a 27-month-old who has always been very active and fairly easy. Recently, I have become concerned because she will not obey me, and seems to have an attitude toward me sometimes, just out of the blue. She obeys my husband very well, or her tantrums with him are short-lived. He has a very deep and loud voice, and believes in telling her what to do, not giving her a choice of doing something or being punished, and not warning of consequences. I read parenting books, but I just can't seem to teach her and help her understand the rules. I almost feel she is at a stage when she is wanting approval from her father and only wants me on her terms. Help -- I don't know how to deal with her! I don't want to lose control of her, or it will be a struggle for the next 20 years. Thanks for any advice you can give.

A: This is a very complex topic, and I can only touch the surface here. There is a reason why they call this time the "terrible twos". The two to3 1/2 age is an emotional time for children as they struggle between dependence and independence. They are learning at a phenomenal rate, are curious about everything, and want to test their limits. This includes testing limits with parents. It is not uncommon for children to do this more with one parent than the other, particularly if they are with only one parent during the day. It is very important that you set limits for her, and be consistent in enforcing them. Rules about safety (e.g. not going into the street), hurting someone, and destroying property are the important ones that always need to be enforced. At this age time-out should be used for these behaviors, and when used properly, it works quite well.

With a four or five year old, you can have specific consequences for bad behavior(like the loss of TV time) and good behavior (a special treat), and it works quite well. A two-year-old, however, cannot see the relationship between this behavior now and a reward or punishment later. They also do not have much self control, and you cannot reason with them to get their cooperation. When they have tantrums, you need to ignore it, and not give in, even if the tantrum is in a very public place. Also, I would absolutely avoid any type of physical punishment.

The key to disciplining children at this age is to give them a little bit of control about behaviors or decisions that are of no importance, while clearly and consistently enforcing the rules that are important. You truly need to pick your battles. Does it really matter that your two-year-old wants to wear one red sock and one green sock to go out to the supermarket? Probably not. Does it matter that she doesn't want to get into her car seat to drive there? Absolutely, and you have to put her into that car seat even if she screams the entire way to the store.

It is not easy to manage young children's behavior, and some the techniques that you read about in books are not always easy to enforce when you are at home alone. Many parents need some support with this. I would recommend that you contact a local parenting group in your town, and see if there are workshops or support groups available. Your pediatrician may know of other resources as well.

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Shari Nethersole is a physician at Children's Hospital, Boston, and an instructor in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. She graduated from Yale University and Harvard Medical School, and did her internship and residency at Children's Hospital, Boston. As a pediatrician, she tries to work with parents to identify and address their concerns.


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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