Sassiness and the Toddler

Q: My 16-month-old shook her finger and said, “No, no” in a sassy way after my husband told her “no” when touching something she shouldn’t. How do I correct the sass back at this age appropriately?

A: My first response to your questions was, “Good luck with that,” but then I realized the written words couldn’t convey the twinkle in my eye and my sympathetic expression. I wouldn’t want you to think I was making light of your question, because I know how disturbing it can be to have a child so blatantly—and without remorse!—challenge our authority.

Because make no mistake about it—that’s exactly what your charming sasspot is doing. But in a toddler way that limits your response. If she were a teenager, my answer would be different. For a toddler, you have limitations due to her tender years and her immaturity.

She’s just over a year old, still growing, still exploring her universe. Her brain is developing at a rapid rate—her body can hardly keep up with all the new things her brain wants to do! This is one major reason why toddlers throw such massive temper tantrums. Their bodies aren’t coordinated enough to accomplish what their racing minds want to do. Everything’s new and exciting because everything is literally new and that’s exciting to them. There are worlds out there that need exploring, but a toddler brain doesn’t have the maturity to realize the hidden—and not-so-hidden—dangers lurking about in this wide new world.

All of which means she will look you in the eye and respond to your “nos,” with a wicked, little smile…then do exactly what you just told her not to do. Is she being willful? Yes. Is she being deliberately sassy? Not in exactly the same way as a child of four, ten or fourteen is being sassy. A toddler doesn’t consciously know her tone is sassy—she’s blissfully unaware of such nuances.

Therefore, a wise parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s tone of voice, just like that parent doesn’t correct a toddler’s eyerolls, shoulder shrugs or other nonverbal communication of disrespect or sass.

But a wise parent also doesn’t allow a toddler to do the thing the toddler was told not to do. In other words, the wise parent corrects a toddler’s actions, not a toddler’s outward display of inner rebellion.

What can you do when a toddler says no and does the forbidden thing? You take away the item (if there is an item) or you remove the child from the situation. At this age, it’s restrain and removal—those are the toddler’s parents’ go-to for effective discipline.

A Toddler Who Hits

Q: Our 27-month-old son who goes to a child care center in a Bible study once per week is hitting and pushing other babies in the class. He specifically hits the younger kids either with a toy or pushes them over unprovoked. He has done this two times at a park, and when I am there, we immediately leave the park. How do we handle this situation especially when I am not with him in the Bible study?

Sometimes, toddlers tussle with each other like felines.

A: I often compare toddlers to cats—both can be intractable and both generally won’t do what you want them to do! And trying to keep toddlers from tussling with each other is like trying to keep cats from play fighting. It’s impossible!

This is generally a phase many children go through at this uncivilized age. Toddlers are easily frustrated, want their own way, and lash out at the closest object when things don’t go their way. Hitting and pushing are common outflows of toddler frustration. But a 2-year-old doesn’t have the long-term memory to receive a punishment later nor the self-control to simply stop.

So leaving immediately when an incident occurs is a good way to handle it. So is separating him from the other children, which is unlikely to happen in a childcare center setting.

There’s a couple of ways to handle this during Bible study. Tell the workers to immediately let you know when he hits or pushes another child, and have them isolate him from the other children. Then you come and get him and go home. Yes, this means you will frequently be leaving study early, or sometimes have to turn around and leave right away.

Or you could simply stay home for a couple of months to give him time to mature, continuing the leaving immediately if he hits/pushes during play dates or park outings, etc.

I understand this will be an inconvenience and that you want that time with other adults. But remember, this isn’t forever—it’s temporary—and sometimes, being a parent means we have to miss out on things because our child needs time to grow up so that he can play appropriately with other children.

Can a Toddler Learn From Consequences?

Q: What is an appropriate way to punish a 17-month-old for being bad, i.e. deliberately disobeying when I tell him not to do something? Is time out appropriate for this age? If it is how do I even get him to stay put in a time out spot?

A: The only way to discipline a toddler is to remove and contain. A toddler doesn’t have long-term memory, so he can’t connect a consequence to the misbehavior. A toddler can know something is wrong, but the “I do this, so this happens” isn’t there.

Time out isn’t an effective tool to change a child’s behavior at all—not for toddlers, not for preschoolers, not for any child, so eliminate that from your consequence toolbox. For toddlers, the most effective way is to remove a toddler from the situation (like a playdate when the toddler starts hitting, for example) and containing him (like putting him in his crib when he’s has a temper tantrum).

My favorite tip for handling toddlers is one that really works. Don’t tell a toddler: “Don’t climb on the table.” Instead say: “No climbing on the table.” For some reason, the “don’t” contraction trips up the toddler, obscuring the message you’re communicating. Using a simply “No” instead is much more effective.

And finally, remember not to negotiate with a toddler—just stick to your guns and deal with the temper tantrum that’s sure to follow when you tell your little tyrant in short pants “no.”

Clinginess, Tantrums, Screaming…Welcome to the Twos!

Q: I have boy/girl twins who just turned two years old. We are experiencing an increase in several behavior issues that seem to be compounded by a very recent move and also minor illness, from which they are now recovered. Here are my specific questions:

1) How do I manage my son’s clinginess? Specifically, he wants to be constantly carried (up and down stairs, into school, to the car, etc.). He has always been a very challenging personality, but even more so recently. I have been complying when he asks properly (saying please and without whining), but it is becoming very difficult with him getting bigger. I would prefer he walks most of the time like his sister.

2) Screaming/tantrums are occurring almost constantly by both. They are well-fed and rested, and we have good routines in place. The tantrums are a result of not getting what they want right away, especially not having my husband’s or my full attention.

3) Do we make a temporary exception to any of these issues due to the recent move and illness? And if so, what and for how long? With the move last week their normal routine was totally abandoned, but everything is back to normal this week.

Image courtesy of marin/

A: First of all, this is normal behavior. Truly it is! Toddlers are volatile creatures, that’s for sure. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wrapped into a dynamo package. And twins sometimes feed off each other, making the typical toddler challenges doubled. So, to answer your questions…

The son’s clinginess: He might not be getting enough time with you each day, so try to have more touch points. Read him a short book right after breakfast. Give him more unexpected hugs. Hug him when he wants to be carried, then put him down. Hold his hand when walking. That should lesson some of his clinginess, but stop carrying him around.

The tantrums: At this age, I’d stick with containment in a crib if possible or just hold the screaming child tightly (if you can) to calm him or her down. Yes, this is a child who wants what he/she wants when he/she wants it, and no one’s going to tell him or her otherwise. Hence the screaming.

The other factors: 3. You take into consideration the mitigating factors which help you not lose your cool, but you still handle the tantrums the same. It will take a little while for your routine to reassert itself but don’t be surprised if your toddlers want to forge a new one (like dropping a nap). This is the high growth stage mentally and physically, so expect ups and downs in personalities and behavior.

Above all, remember that this is only a stage, and it won’t last forever. Hang in there and keep loving on those little munchkins! Soon this will be all in the past and you’ll have moved on to the threes.

Middle Child Acts Out

Q: We have 3 boys: 3 years old, 2 years old and 10 months old. Our second son has recently been hitting, biting, pushing and kicking his brothers but not other kids when we are out. He is also a very affectionate and loving boy who has a sweet side, but he can get angry fast, before I even know what is going on. He slams doors, throws things and has the tendency to get angry with everyone. Sometimes it is unprovoked, and other times it is provoked, even if it is just the baby crawling by. The hitting is sometimes followed by tickling and he never seems to show any remorse. I’ve tried taking away his coveted teddy bear and putting him in short timeouts in his room away from his brothers. His brothers have had minor injuries from these altercations, and I am hoping to make a change before anything worse happens. This behavior seemed to start when our 3 year old started preschool in September, the baby started becoming more mobile crawling around, and I started having two different part time babysitters help me during the day.

Image courtesy of sattva/

A: You are in the thick of things and I understand you just want this problem to go away! However, your 2-year-old is acting like, well, a toddler tyrant. This is what 2-year-olds do—they hit, slam doors, throws things, get angry at the drop of a hat for no discernible reason. In short, when he’s upset, everyone knows it.

You could spend time investigating the why behind his behavior, but really, what will you do with the answer? You can’t very well put the baby back, or keep your 3-year-old home from preschool, or stop having help over.

So, what to do with your toddler tyrant? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Make sure you spend time with him several times during the day. A five-minute snuggle time after big brother goes off to preschool, a book read after you’ve tended to the baby for a while, etc., will go a long way toward making him feel noticed and loved.
  2. When he starts having a temper tantrum (hitting, biting, throwing things), simply remove him from the area and confine him to his crib (or room) until he calms down. This isn’t as punishment so much as it is depriving him of an audience and helping to teach him how to calm down himself.
  3. Don’t use the baby as an excuse, as in, “We can’t do X because the baby needs a nap.” Instead, say, “We’ll go do X in 15 minutes. I’ve set the timer so you’ll know when it’s time.” This will help him not resent the baby.
  4. Involve him in baby’s care. Have him entertain the baby when you’re cooking dinner, bring you diapers, etc. Exclaim what a big boy he is to help baby brother out.
  5. Make sure you keep the baby away from his favorite toys when you can. In fact, let him pick two or three toys to be “his” and don’t let the baby play with them.

Finally, remember that at this age, he’s doesn’t understand why he’s acting this way—that sort of self-reflection isn’t possible in a toddler. At this age, he’s all emotions and action. So keep that in mind as well.

This too will pass—it is only a stage. I know it seems like it’s going on forever, but it won’t.


Bath Time Blues

Q: My 22-month-old son loved bath time from the time he could sit up. He also loves swimming, and at a recent trip to the beach, he showed absolutely no fear of the ocean and would actually run into the waves (with mommy and daddy holding his hand). About a month ago, he started having meltdowns during bath time. He seems absolutely terrified, bawling and standing up the entire time. We have always given him lukewarm baths, and he normally would want us to drain and run it one more time on occasion.

I’m not sure if he is actually fearful of the tub or has caught on to bath time leading to bed time, but to me he seems legitimately terrified. He goes to sleep after milk and a book with no issues, so not sure that it’s the “almost-bedtime” aspect of it. I’ve tried giving him morning or afternoon baths before play time, but with similar results. He reacts the same with me attempting to shower with him.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/

Should I try taking a bath with him until his fear subsides? Our tub is pretty small, but whatever helps him to get back to enjoying this activity.

A: Welcome to the ever-changing world of toddlers, where one minute they love something and the next minute, they absolutely don’t! Rest assured that this is perfectly normal behavior. I think all of my children went through a terror of baths at one time, standing up and crying while we quickly washed the trembling body.

Because a 22-month-old can’t communicate why bathing all of a sudden is so dreadful, it’s best to simply not make a big deal of it and to let him stand while you give him a quick washing/rinsing. Don’t try to “talk” him out of it, just get on with the bathing part. I don’t recommend bathing with him, as that’s likely to muddle things up and prolong the crying at bath time.

This is a phase that a lot of toddlers go through, and while it can be rather trying to get through as his mom, it’s best not to overthink things or overcompensate with reassurances or major changes in how bath time is done. He will outgrow this in a month or so, so hang in there until he does.

One other note: toddlers do not need bathing more than a couple of times a week. Daily baths are simply not necessary for young children (unless they get so dirty, it’s the only option), so dropping his bath schedule down to say a Wednesday and Saturday, will also lessen the times you’ll have to deal with his unhappiness with bathing.

Toddler TV Time

Another new study was released this month decrying the side effects of too much television on toddlers. According to an article in the May issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine (a JAMA/Archives journal), the side effects of too much screen time may not be evident until the child enters grade school.

Children who watch more TV at 29 months old (2½) seem to exhibit more problems in school and poorer health behaviors when they enter fourth grade.

A study of more than 1300 kids around 29 months old found that each additional hour of TV in early childhood corresponded with a 7 percent unit drop in classroom engagement, a 6 percent decline in math achievement and a whopping 13 percent decrease in weekend physical activity.

It gets even scarier: Each additional TV hour in early childhood is linked to a 9 percent higher score for soda consumption and a 10 percent higher score for snack consumption. In other words, watching TV as a 2 year old contributes to fatter kids.

“The long-term risks associated with higher levels of early exposure may chart developmental pathways toward unhealthy dispositions in adolescence,” the study’s authors wrote.

This research, coupled with previous studies, shows that television programs on a regular basis are not good for toddlers and preschoolers. In my house, the TV is rarely on during the day and only at night when the children are all in bed. Yes, sometimes I do long to pop in a video because the kids are driving me crazy, but I curb that tendency and instead kick them outside for some playtime. With more and more evidence stacking up that TV time is not good for the health and well-being of children, especially young children, I think it’s time we stop our love affair with the boob tube and start realizing the very real dangers even “educational” programming can do to our kids.