A Toddler Terror

An energetic grandson has this experienced grandmother perplexed. How can she support her son and daughter-in-law in raising him?

Q: After raising four children myself, I can say that my 2.5-year-old grandson is on the far end of the active, aggressive, physical, energetic, testing, bouncing-off-the-walls and curious scale. He has been since birth, beginning with endless sleepless night, on up to the present day.

As we speak, he has been screaming and kicking at his door for about two hours past his bedtime to get out of his room. My son and daughter-in-law have run the whole gambit of approaches, including spanking (but stopped, since it wasn’t getting through to him), and nothing is making a dent in his behavior. They tell him he can have the door open if he stays in his room but every night he gets out of bed, they close the door and the drama begins. This is just one example of how exhausting and persistent he can be.

He’s has always been a screamer throughout the night since his birth, getting by on little sleep. He now goes to bed between 7:00-7:30, wakes up (often upset) in the middle of the night, usually wakes everyone up, eventually falls back to sleep, and gets up anywhere between 5:30 on.

He’s is also often very defiant throughout the day but, as relentless as his defiance, testing and physical energy can be (he bounces off the walls from the moment he gets up), he also loves big! He charges at us with his hugs, gives us love “pounds” and big kisses, and says the most adorable and precocious things. He can literally light up a room with his cuteness!

Unfortunately, though, our kids are exhausted (especially now that they also have an 8-week-old baby) and they need some wise counsel on how to positively and successfully discipline and guide their son with this gigantic personality. They stay on him really well, but they can get really discouraged at times. If you have any good advice, would you please send it our way?

A: I’ll say right now that your grandson isn’t “getting by on little sleep”—a child his age needs lots of sleep, and his restless sleep habits are a result of too little sleep. In fact, much of his behavior can be the result of chronic sleep deprivation, which can mimic hyperactivity.

He’s not learned self-soothing methods and letting him scream for 2 hours isn’t helping him learn self-soothing methods. What to do? First, I highly recommend reading Healthy Sleep Habits, Health Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read on both the importance of sleep and how to get your child sleeping better. I still refer to it occasionally and my kids are between the ages of 11 and 17!

Second, you don’t mention electronics but at his age, he should not be watching shows or doing anything on a device. This includes any electronic screen type “baby” toys too.

Third, he sounds like he could benefit from a lot of structure during the day with plenty of physical activity. Some kids go “crazy” because they simply can’t stand to be idle. If he can go to a play-based preschool or daycare center, even for a morning or afternoon, then that might help a lot. But please be sure the facility isn’t trying to “teach” him anything! He should be learning through play (think lots of different centers and very little “seat” time). If that’s not possible, you can help his parents develop a loose “curriculum” to help keep him occupied during the day.

Fourth, you don’t mention naps, but he needs to have quiet time for at least an hour every afternoon. Leave the light on, give him books or other toys, to occupy himself. If he’s never done a “rest” time before, start with five minutes, then gradually increase the time.

Fifth, put him to bed earlier, like 5:30 p.m. Yep, that’s early, but I think wonder if he’s getting overtired at even a 7 p.m. bedtime, especially if he’s dropped his afternoon nap. Make sure he has a set routine. Leave the door open a crack, and when he comes out, simply return him to his bed with minimal talking. Don’t scold, just say, “It’s time for bed. You need to stay in your room.” Yes, I realize this might mean a hundred times before he falls asleep, but gird your loins and suck it up. Expect that it WILL be 100 times and you’ll find you can accept this much easier.

Sixth, make sure you have more positive touchpoints with him than negative ones. In other words, even though he probably needs correcting a lot, he needs to feel your love for him more than your correction. A strong connection will help him respond better to corrective measures.

I’ve helped other parents with sleep issues, so if his parents want additional help, they’re welcome to get in touch with me for a free consultation.

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