Taming the Terrible Twos

Ever since my child began nursery school, he has been acting out in strange ways. This is a child who rarely, if ever, whines or cries during daylight hours. He is pretty even-keeled in personality (doesn’t take after me), and if he could, he would run and explore outside all day and work on his painting masterpieces (does take after me on the latter). 

However, now at the ripe old age of 21 months old, I already see glimpses of the mystifying “terrible twos” creeping into his personality. Now he very well could be influenced by his surroundings at school, namely a little boy whom I’ve seen fling himself onto the floor in a manner that would make an Italian soccer star look on in awe during morning drop-offs. Or he could simply be exercising his independence and control.  

But his recent “bad” behavior is making me wonder if it’s time to start disciplining him. More importantly: how? There are so many theories on this hot-topic. My husband believes it’s too early to begin: “He needs to converse with us so he can understand why we’re disciplining him.” But to that I always tell him he already knows right from wrong; yes from no; grilled cheese from broccoli … you get the point.  

The other night, in a moment of weakness, I raised my voice to him for the very first time. He wouldn’t settle down to sleep and this was now going on for a couple of hours in the dead middle of the night. I was exhausted and I lost my patience, so I picked him up, held him firmly, and looked him straight in the eye and said “Go to sleep … now!” Ordinarily, this aggressive tone of voice would bring most toddlers to attention, but he just looked back at me and began to laugh – as if mommy was joking – and then shook his head from side to side and chanted “na, na, na, na.” 

Who was this child and what had become of my sweet, obedient little baby!? Can’t he see that mommy is at her breaking point? Is he lacking empathy? Perhaps he has no conscience and I’m raising a future delinquent! I promptly removed myself from the situation and let my husband take over while I sat in my bed in silence feeling helpless, the dark thoughts swirling through my head. 

When I spoke of my fears of his strange behavior to his teacher the next day, she said, “It’s only the beginning, I’m afraid.” Not the most encouraging words, but brutally honest, I suppose. She did tell me to simply ignore the behavior and he will realize soon enough he won’t get the reaction he’s fishing for (attention). We can’t wrap our children in cotton wool, and as they move up through the school years, it will just be more challenging in different ways. Which brings me back to my original point: How and when do you start disciplining an unruly child? 

In the old days, a slap on the bottom or having your mouth washed out with soap might have been appropriate, but nowadays this is tantamount to child abuse. Although, the sad truth is that in some places, including right here in the West Indies, this is still happening and accepted as normal disciplinary practice. I had a childhood friend who was always “grounded” – banished to her room if she got into trouble, with privileges taken away (TV, playing outdoor with friends, etc.) until she had time to reflect.

I was never grounded or spanked but my mother did chase me around the house with her slippers when I was naughty. I always outran her though (and laughed in her face). One time I ran right out the door and up the block to a friend’s house to hang out for a few hours. I still remember laughing all the way. Her words have now come back to haunt me: “You just wait until you have your own kid. You just wait!”  

The most popular technique among parents today is giving your child a “time-out” as seen on all of those “Supernanny” re-runs. It requires putting your child in the corner on a chair, a step, in their room, what have you, for a certain amount of time, so that they will reflect on their poor behavior. In theory, this should elicit a sincere apology, at which time you give them a hug and say you accept the apology, and everybody moves along with the rest of their day. 

However, a recent article in “Time” magazine, entitled “‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child” caught my attention. The authors of the article and corresponding book “No-Drama Discipline,” Daniel J Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., claim that the time-out technique is actually harmful to your child’s development due to the isolation it imposes. Time-outs teach children that when they make a mistake, they will be forced to be by themselves, which translates into rejection. This is based on studies in neuroplasticity (the brain’s adaptability) which has proven that repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain.  

Furthermore, in a brain scan, relational pain (caused by isolation during punishment, for example) can appear similar to physical abuse. The authors deduced that discipline should be about teaching – not about punishment – and parents should find other ways to teach children appropriate behavior for healthy development.

Children need connection, especially in times of distress, but being put in the “naughty chair” means they have to endure emotional distress alone. Instead, they recommend a “time-in,” which can include sitting with the child, talking, comforting – forging a loving connection – as well as allowing them time to calm down and teach them to pause and reflect on their behavior. 

It is hard to know which way to turn, but this technique resonates the most with me so far, but I do know one thing: I will never judge another parent again when I see their child go ballistic, especially now that I’m a parent. Raising children is hard work and we all try our best, so I’m done casting stones since I’ve moved into my glass house.  

And, yes, mom, these are for your eyes, too – as deflating it is to admit, parents tend to be right about most things …. 


New discipline technique proposes ‘time-ins’ for toddler tantrums.

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