Q&A: Discipline methods for a 2-year-old

Charissa writes:

"I have a two year-old daughter who is generally a laid back kind of kid.  She sleeps and eats well, and we've never had any kind of screaming/crying/throwing fits from her.  Personality wise, she tends to be pretty cautious, and prefers to scope out the (social) situation before getting involved.  I'm only telling you all of this to give a little background on the type of child she is. 

As far as discipline, we haven't had to do a whole lot of it.  What we do do is time-outs, typically for hitting (usually me), throwing things, or blatant disobedience (it's fairly easy to tell the difference between her curiosity and defiance).  When one of these things happens, I will tell her it's time for a time-out, and escort her to either a corner in the room, or to a chair (we don't have a specific time-out place).  She will then sit there for a couple minutes (I'm not strict on timing), and then I will talk to her about the time-out.  I'll hold her hands, get on her level and ask her to look me in the eye.  I'll then explain why she had the time-out, and ask her if she's ready to do (or not do) that specific action any more.  Then I will ask her if I can give her a hug, and I'll tell her that I love her.  So that's our drill.  We also try our best to give her lots of positive reinforcement (verbal and physical) for positive actions.

The thing is, lately she has started putting herself in time-out.  Meaning, she'll throw something, for example, look at me and say, "time-out", then go to the corner and sit down.  I had thought that the point of a time-out was to convince the child not to do the undesirable behavior?  But she seems okay with a time out, to the point of doing it herself. 

So I guess my question is, am I doing it wrong?  Or is there some different type of discipline that you would suggest?  I'm pretty strongly against any kind of spanking, but I do believe that it's my responsibility to teach her appropriate and inappropriate behavior and so I need a way to do that."

I'm just going to state for the record that I'm against spanking, too (although that doesn't mean that I haven't felt the urge to do it!). So now that that's out of the way, let's talk about discipline that doesn't involve pain (physical pain, or emotional pain from humiliation, etc.).

As I've said previously, I don't think time-outs are particularly good as punishment or deterrent to bad behavior. They just don't have much long-term bite, and what's happening with your daughter ends up happening an awful lot: The kid realizes the only thing that's going to happen is a time-out, which is nothing, so they do the bad thing, sit through the time out, and go on their merry toddler way. (It kind of reminds me of that game in which you have a contest to see who can punch the lightest. You let the other person go first, then you punch them really hard and say "You win.") I use time-outs mainly as a physical or temporal separator to just stop the immediate situation. Or sometimes because I need to stop the bad behavior but don't want my son to see me either laughing at what he's done or counting to ten so I don't go Homer on him. So they're good tools for on-the-spot situation management, but not really as consistent punishment.

Especially for 2-year-olds. They are interested in absolutely everything under the sun, so it would be virtually impossible to find a place to put them for a time-out that would be a real deterrent to negative behavior. (Contrast that with a 15-year-old who has to be in a room with no X-Box, for example.) And a 2-3-minute time-out really isn't anything, but you can't do a longer one because a kid that young doesn't have the attention span.

I think they also learn that the looking-in-the-eye and apologizing and hugs is part of the drill, so it ceases to have much meaning in that context anymore. They're just too young to really process it as anything but ritual. (Which is not to say that some kids aren't extremely sensitive and responsive to any mode of correction, so time-outs probably work for them because they're so embarrassed to be caught in bad behavior anyway.)

I think, sad as it is to say, that there's no one method of discipline that's going to work with a 2-year-old. You're going to have to turn into a detective to try to figure out either why she's doing what she's doing (and how you can stop it) or what you can do to avoid or redirect her behavior even if you don't know why she's doing it (and there may not be a reason, because, well, she's 2).

There seem to be a few huge causes of misbehavior in 2-year-olds. One is frustration at not being able to express their feelings as well as they want to. That usually results in some kind of violent behavior (hitting, biting, scratching, pushing, throwing) that just explodes when the frustration wells up inside of them. One highly effective way to deal with this kind of violent outburst is to recognize that it's from the frustration and allow the kid to have those feelings. Instead of trying to get the kid not to hit, give the kid a a designated object to hit/bite/scratch/push/throw. That way the kid is still allowed to release the frustration, just not at people or animals. If you're consistent about using a designated object, eventually the kid will ask for that object when the frustration strikes.

Another big cause of misbehavior is tiredness or other physical discomfort. (I'm actually just about to start a new book by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka [the Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles author] about how sleep deprivation is a leading cause of misbehavior even in older kids. I'll let you know how it is.) No nap and everything gets out of control and they have tantrums about things like wearing blue socks instead of red socks. They skip a snack and their blood sugar goes low and they freak out about not being allowed to unlock the front door (and it's just not the same if you relock it and let them unlock it again). Too many errands in a row and they become that kid you always thought was the spawn of a Truly Bad Parent, screaming and demanding candy at the checkout, in those scornful days before you had kids yourself. So if you notice a connection between some kind of physical discomfort and bad behavior, you might want to make a concerted effort not to let the situation happen again and give the kid a pass (within reason, of course) on the bad behavior.

Testing limits is another big one. The only thing you can really do about this is to decide what your limits are and then stand firm. If you don't care about something, don't set up an artificial boundary just to back down later. It's not going to hurt a kid to be able to make the choice about some things in his or her life. But the things that you do care about, just stand firm on them, and be as calm as possible. You may need to redirect your child physically (I had to do this all the time with my older one--I'd have to physically move him from the situation, or put my hands on his and give the toy back, or put my hands on his and brush his teeth for him while he held the toothbrush--and sometimes still do when he gets very tired) or just sit down with your kid and hug her so she calms down, or just let her rage until the fit is over. You may have to physically restrain her from doing something, or take something away from her, or just stand between her and the thing. Whatever is going to work with your daughter to get her not to do what she's not supposed to do (or to do what she's supposed to do).

The most important part of this is to remain unemotional about it. It's not you trying to get her to do something. It's simply time for the thing to be done, and that's that. Just "Nope, we don't run into the street!" and then click her into the stroller. Or "It's 8 o'clock and that means time for bed. Let's count to 20 together and then we'll put on your PJs." Or "Oh. You dumped your juice on the floor. Here's a rag. I'll help you wipe it up." Decisive, swift, calm, and not punitive.

The things you describe your daughter doing sound like they are probably in the category of frustration or just not being able to deal with emotions that are way more complex than her speech is right now. So I'm betting that you'll have luck with trying to help her channel her frustrated and angry feelings into something else (increased physical activity and/or hitting a special pillow or stuffed animal) or logical consequences (she runs away from you so she has to ride in the stroller instead of walking, or she yanks the cat's fur so she can't go into the room with the cat for the rest of the evening, for example) or even just continuing with everyone's perennial favorite--distraction.

It's a really tough age, because they're so much more advanced than they can express, and they are just nonstop. My mom says that the trick to dealing with 2-year-olds is making sure you get enough sleep, because if you're rested you can stay on top of them and not lose it, but if you're tired it all spirals out of control. So try to get enough sleep, pick your battles (which it sounds like you do), and try to ferret out what is making her do the misbehavior (which shouldn't be too hard since it sounds like you know exactly what makes her tick) and react specifically, swiftly, and pleasantly.

It sounds like you're on the right track in general, and that you just need to switch out the time-outs and try some other things.

If you want to do a little more reading on how you can get your own head realigned for the next few years of discipline, I'd suggest Lawrence Cohen's Playful Parenting. The practical tips are more useful for kids aged 3 and up, but the ideas behind how to look at kids' moods and misbehavior can reduce your stress level with a kid at basically any age (I first read it when my older son was around 15-16 months, and it helped me even then).

Anyone else who's been through the 2-year-old stage? What did you do that worked?