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Terrible Twos: What to Do When Positive Discipline Doesn’t Work

Just two weeks past Owen’s birthday and I fear the terrible twos have come for a visit and plan to stay awhile. Though I wished that his 2nd year would not be so terrible as Rookie Mom recently shared, I’ve been preparing a long time for this. He’s that boy, the one with the impish twinkle in his eye and a sheepish grin on his face after being “naughty.”

In preparation for the inevitable, I’ve been re-educating myself on how to guide toddler behavior with positive discipline. And let me tell you, I thought I had this in the bag. Make sure he has enough sleep – check. Establish a routine – check. Be consistent – check. Have clear and specific rules – check. And, most importantly, I have experience from my spirited 7-year-old daughter, who gave her newbie parents a run for the money during the toddler stage. I thought that a simple refresher on the specific strategies for managing toddler behavior would be enough. After the other morning, however, I’m not feeling so sure anymore.

toddler boy

Let’s set the scene. It was a “no” morning: “NO get dressed.” “NO breakfast.” “NO coat.” “NO car seat.” By the time we got to daycare, my patience was running thin and I was already 20 minutes late. I let him press the door code buttons, pick his apple from the snack basket, and then we hit the roadblock: an easel with photos from a recent live music activity at the center.

Owen stops to look at the photos. He so engaged and excited when he finds himself. I take a deep breath, remind myself that a few more minutes is okay, stoop down to look at the photos with him, and ask him to point out his friends, his teachers, etc. Then the following exchange:

  • Mom: “Thanks for looking at the photos with me. Let’s go see Ms. Lauren.”
  • Owen: “No” (surprised, right?)
  • Mom (getting down to speak to him face-to-face): “I love these photos. Let’s go find a book to read in your classroom and look at some more photos.”
  • Owen: “No” (obviously he didn’t read up on redirecting behavior)
  • Mom: “We can go eat your apple or go read a book. What would you like to do?”
  • Owen: “No” (not going for the “two choice” scam either)
  • Mom: “We have 10 more seconds to look at photos and then we can go read a book.” Starts counting. We get to zero.
  • Owen: “No”

We’re now at that point when No-No-No-No can’t become a Yes or I’ll lose. I truly can’t remember what I’m supposed to do at this point. So, I just scoop him up and carry hiz screaming, wiggling self to the classroom. And now all of a sudden this positive discipline thing doesn’t feel so positive. I think I handled it okay but I still feel terrible and frustrated and worried. Worried that I’m not going to have the patience or energy to keep this up for another 1-2 years.

It’s only been two weeks and there have been a dozen instances where I could easily have thrown in the positive discipline towel. Luckily those moments are followed by the sweetest toddler hugs and kisses. But I still question (or according to my husband “over-analyze”) if I am making the best parenting decisions? And if so, why does positive discipline feel this crappy?

Please tell me how you survive the terrible twos, aside from wine and chocolate.

Bright Horizons Parent Podcast

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13 comments

  1. Mrs. Mullen November 16, 2013 at 3:59 am

    You did exactly the right thing. Remember developmentally he is supposed to be testing the waters. You are a responsible and caring,loving mother, based on the fact that you provide a loving, stable home. The worst thing parents do is say, “We’re going to go in the classroom now, okay?” What do you mean “okay”. Who’s the boss here? You can’t give a ‘second chance’ either, that leads to a third and fourth and well, YOU LOSE. You stopped and looked at the photos with him, you stated it was time to go in, and then you put him there, right where you said he was going to be. I used to play a little game with my son where I pretended I was so distraught about leaving him at school and he would ‘push’ me out of the classroom giggling. We rehearsed it a little at home. This gave HIM control and got the job done. However, when your issue an expectation, and you are ignored or get the ‘NO’, a child must know that he will be doing that thing when you say so. Of course, it goes without saying that these are reasonable things, like going to the classroom, putting on clothes, getting into the carseat, etc. I think for example, forcing a child to eat green beans when he doesn’t like them but he will eat other vegetables is not worth fighting over. So now my boys are 16 and 20 and for the most part, this strategy worked and NO they were ot angels but they knew that when I asked them to do something I ( and their Dad of course) expected compliance. As they got older, I remembered all my tricks as a child and a teenager and anticipated a lot of things and headed the off at the pass by having discussions ahead of time regarding expectations, and also giving them a way to comply. If we were going to an adult household with lots of breakable trinkets I would tell them what to expect and bring plenty of other ‘special’ toys to occupy them ( things we kept in a small travel box that they liked but were only used at times like these-i.e. grown-up restaurants, homes of friends, doctor’s waiting rooms, etc). As young teens I counc=seled them on how to recognize and head off potential danger zones, and now as young adults I find they often come to me or Dad for an opinion, and I’ve actually overheard them giving that exact opinion to a friend! I guess if our child has real behavioral issues that’s a different ballgame, but for most normal kids I think you are on the right track, and best keep it there or you’ll end up with spoiled whiney brats who are ungrateful and demanding, the ones who you see and say t yourself “If that was MY kid….”. Keep up the god work.

  2. Suzan Merridy November 16, 2013 at 9:33 am

    Your failing was to try more than three times. A two year old is looking for boundaries. Although they say “no” in ever-so-determined voices, they really don’t know. So next time offer him a little time (as you did), offer him an alternative (as you did), explain the importance (as you did), then scoop him up. He’ll quickly learn he get’s three times to equivocate and that’t IT. Kids need discipline and boundaries, despite the new “positive” parenting paradigm.

  3. Cheri November 16, 2013 at 9:39 am

    As frustrating as it is, it seems you are attempting to still control his choices and answers, by using a “positive” approach.. and are frustrated that he is not doing as you think he would with your agenda.. he is developing a sense of himself, and learning that there are choices, and feeling empowered that he is able to have them.. many things are not worth fighting for or about with a two year old, and it is wise to choose your battles, as to just how extremely important it is to want him to comply. I think the reason it does not feel like ‘positive’ anymore to you, is that you are not getting what you want. That is not what being a parent of a two year old is necessarily about. It is about developing his sense of making decisions that appeal to his most inner needs, and so you need to help him see that it is his idea, and not “yours”.. one way that often helps with intelligent 2 yr olds that are more indepedent thinking, rather than wanting to please grown ups (I was one of them).. is to ask questions (not compulsively), that would help him see that it was to his benefit (if it’s truly worth fighting for by you).. otherwise, let things go through this stage, as he works towards what is truly important for his safety and well being.. and respectful of his level of development at this age, for his independent type of personality.. it is not going to be all about a parents getting what they want from a child of this nature.. as this child is not about pleasing others people’s wishes.. he wants neither of your choices at this age (stage), and he needs to know that unless it is a matter of true safety, it does not need to be expected.. often times with a child of this nature, if it is not about safety, or absolute need, it must be about negotiation, and helping him to see his need to follow your direction, rather than his innate inner direction.. it usually needs to appeal to a higher part in this type of child’s mind.. it is about relating and understanding a child of this nature, who makes decisions not based necessarily on your suggestions, or particular choices you are offering him..

  4. Cheri November 16, 2013 at 9:41 am

    As frustrating as it is, it seems you are attempting to still control his choices and answers, by using a “positive” approach.. and are frustrated that he is not doing as you think he would with your agenda.. he is developing a sense of himself, and learning that there are choices, and feeling empowered that he is able to have them.. many things are not worth fighting for or about with a two year old, and it is wise to choose your battles, as to just how extremely important it is to want him to comply. I think the reason it does not feel like ‘positive’ anymore to you, is that you are not getting what you want. That is not what being a parent of a two year old is necessarily about. It is about developing his sense of making decisions that appeal to his most inner needs, and so you need to help him see that it is his idea, and not “yours”.. one way that often helps with intelligent 2 yr olds that are more independent thinking, rather than wanting to please grown ups (I was one of them).. is to ask questions (not compulsively), that would help him see that it was to his benefit (if it’s truly worth fighting for by you).. otherwise, let things go through this stage, as he works towards what is truly important for his safety and well being.. and respectful of his level of development at this age, for his independent type of personality.. it is not going to be all about a parents getting what they want from a child of this nature.. as this child is not about pleasing others people’s wishes.. he wants neither of your choices at this age (stage), and he needs to know that unless it is a matter of true safety, it does not need to be expected.. often times with a child of this nature, if it is not about safety, or absolute need, it must be about negotiation, and helping him to see his need to follow your direction, rather than his innate inner direction.. it usually needs to appeal to a higher part in this type of child’s mind.. it is about relating and understanding a child of this nature, who makes decisions not based necessarily on your suggestions, or particular choices you are offering him..

  5. Donna November 16, 2013 at 9:51 am

    Since when is it okay to continue to negotiate with a toddler? While I never once spanked my daughter, I was firm and consistent. SHE was not the parent, I was. Discipline is not punishing, it’s teaching. A toddler has to learn that they can’t control their world with tantrums. I allowed one ‘no’ and one alternative choice. After that it was, “I’m sorry, dear, but we have to get to school/daycare/the babysitter, just like we do every day.” If she pouted or carried on in the car it was, “I’m very sorry you feel angry at me right now, but it’s not fair for the other kids to have to wait for us to get there. You wouldn’t like it if another kid kept you from having fun because they didn’t want to get there with everyone else.” I stressed the importance of how her actions affected the people around her. Once she had to think of someone else’s feelings, she got off the me, me, me train.
    My daughter is now a beautiful 18-year-old college student who graduated high school with both a diploma and a 2-year college degree, who intends to attend medical school to be a surgeon. She is respectful, reasonably obedient, empathetic, and has a lot of friends. I did my best to instill in her the values and morals she will need for her adult life. Too many kids are growing up with that same “it’s all about me” mentality and have no respect for adults, teachers or authority figures because their parents let them grow up that way. You don’t have to hit or scream at a child to teach them respect for others. Every parent’s JOB is to spend 18 years teaching their child(ren) the tools to prepare them for a life of their own.
    Being a single mother was really hard, but it was a commitment I made to her and I think it looks like I might have been successful.

    • Amber December 12, 2015 at 4:53 am

      Kudos to you for bringing up a very important and helpful perspective. It is of upmost importance that we teach our children from a young age that many people are affected by the decisions we make. Everyday we deal with adults in the store, work place, heck even driving down the street.. I try to always think how is my choice, my attitude and my behavior going to effect those around me. Too many parents give in for whatever reason (guilt, frustration, laziness or fear) you give someone an inch and guarantee they will take a mile kids included.

  6. Carrie November 17, 2013 at 9:58 pm

    It’s hard to keep your cool, but you did it–you didn’t humiliate or shame your child, yell, or hit–way to go!

    Since you asked for opinions… I would avoid the counting method. It will only train your child to stall. You validated him by letting him know you felt the photos were interesting too, and then gave a redirect; when that didn’t work, you gave a choice. At that point, it was time to just pick him up and go, without commenting or lectures (or countdowns).

    There is nothing wrong with physically picking up your child in a situation like the one you described and moving him or her (again, as neutrally as possible–no commenting or lectures). Sure, we don’t like it when our kids kick and scream, because we want them to WANT to cooperate nicely–but you just won’t always get cooperation. You just won’t. It’s not a failure on your part.

    Follow through needs to be fairly quick, rather than a scenario of negotiation that drags out, because kids are great at playing the stalling game (or trying to wear you down until you give in). Some things just aren’t negotiable–you had to be somewhere on time.

    With quick follow-through, you are teaching your child something very valuable, whether they “parse” it or not: that you are kind and loving, but they can count on you to mean what you say.

    Sometimes, teaching is hard and exhausting 😉 Hang in there!

  7. Jessica P November 17, 2013 at 10:28 pm

    Hello, I’m an Infant/Toddler teacher. I have some quick strategies to share. And I love the language and strategies you used , by the way Amy.
    Some strategies are:
    “It’s not a choice, please sit down” (or whatever the direction is).
    “You can walk all by yourself or I can help you walk, which one?” (still defiant) “You’re showing me you need help…”(using hand over hand, guide them through the direction you’re giving them.). If the child whines or cries, “Ok, show me you can do it all by yourself and I don’t have to help you.”

    A lot of times I have to “help” children follow through with directions and a small tantrum usually follows, but I say, “I can’t understand your crying words, when you’re calm, we can talk.” I ignore the tantrum and after the child realizes I’m not going to give them any attention for crying/whining, they usually calm their bodies. I say, I like that you’re calm now.”

    It’s totally exhausting, but just because you’re little one doesn’t always follow your prompts doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong. Being compliant and polite is something that is taught over the years, so continue to be consistent and use what works while scrapping what does not. I hope this was helpful to some of you. Thank you!

  8. Amy

    Amy November 18, 2013 at 9:41 am

    Thanks for the support, encouragement, and thoughtful advice. Parenting is such a work in progress and personal journey. It’s great to add perspective and tools to the parenting “toolbox” and to know that there can be rainbows at the end of this toddler storm. I so love his independent spirit and I’ve already seen how boundaries and consistency can work with him. But it is hard and exhausting!

  9. Lois Lucia November 20, 2013 at 9:54 am

    I have raised 5 kids from hatchlings, and we all lived to tell the tale, so…..

    I would only add two things to what you’re already doing….One is food. They (or mine) act up when they are hungry, and they can’t really go 6 hours without eating. They need snacks pretty much all day long.

    The other thing is: this too shall pass. Two year olds can’t help having emotional storms any more than dogs can help not flying. It is just where they are in life. Days will pass, and littles become bigs before you know it, and if everything gets to be too much – honey, call in Grandma.

  10. Mary January 15, 2014 at 4:03 pm

    “It’s hard to keep your cool, but you did it–you didn’t humiliate or shame your child, yell, or hit–way to go!”- Carrie

    I love how @Carrie started out positive, which is something I always forget to see after the fact.

    I love how @JessicaP uses words that are simple but stern.

    I appreciate @LoisLucia “this too shall pass”.

    I am now teaching my son (2 1/2) about time-outs and when he sits in the chair all he does is scream. My in-laws at times say that’s not the way their kids were and how my son should stop screaming and they try to talk to him in the time-out chair but he just continues screaming. (is it ok to just let him belt it out?)

  11. Amy

    Amy January 15, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    That’s a tough one, Mary. We’ve had some success and not so much success with time-outs with our 7yo and 2yo. In my experience, time outs typically work better for older children that really understand the rule you are enforcing. We typically limit time-outs to “big” issues (biting, hitting for younger kids and talking back for my 7yo). For younger, it’s more of a break and being removed from the situation that stimulated the behavior. When he’s vocal (screaming or crying) I try to acknowledge that he’s upset and reinforce why he was removed from the situation “I understand you’re upset but you hit your sister and it hurts her so we need to calm down before you can play.” This usually calms him down enough for me to talk more about it. If it doesn’t, I usually let him have his fit. I stay close by and let him know we can go back to playing when he’s ready.

    Every child is different and there is no “hard and fast” rule. It’s a little parenting by trial and error and I’m sure you’ll find the right solution. If you’re looking for additional resources, our early education experts wrote this helpful article about Alternatives to Time Outs: http://www.brighthorizons.com/family-resources/e-family-news/2013-alternatives-to-time-out-positive-guidance-tips-for-better-discipline/

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