Dear Dr. Meg,
My sons are 22-months apart; they are now 2 and 5 months. Right before my 2nd son was born, my 1st son really started acting out. He hits, throws and now kicks for going on 6 months. He is not in daycare, we do not watch “violent” television, and the two days a week that I work he stays with grandparents. We have tried to be compassionate about the fact that he lost the “King of the Castle” when my 2nd son was born, but I am having trouble curbing this behavior and all of our behavior modification ideas have failed so far. We intentionally spend time with him, especially when little brother is around and I have even tried telling little brother to “wait” while I do activities with older brother. The acting out is not exclusive to when younger brother is around though; it has become the only way he interacts with other children too. I have tried interacting in play and showing him appropriate contact, we discuss positive interactions on the way to play dates (high fives, hugs, sharing, etc), but as soon as a child walks into his range, he lashes out. He has even started acting out when it is only me and him spending time together. My husband and I have tried picking a method (spanking, time out, etc) and sticking with only that method for a period of time, but so far we have found nothing that seems to deter him from these actions. He is a sweet sweet boy half of the time, and then a huge handful the other half. I know sometimes his actions are meant to seek attention, but in other instances I cannot figure out what is fueling them, and in all instances I am at a loss on how to stop them and encourage positive behavior. Thank you for any advice!
Mother of Two
You have a very strong-willed 2-year-old boy on your hands. I understand your desire to empathize with him, buy you’re overthinking things. Yes, your son’s nose was out of joint when his brother was born but he’s really acting out because he wants to and he can. He’s just a handful.
There are some strategies that really do work with stubborn toddlers. First, pick one behavior that you find most offensive. Is it backtalk? Hitting other kids? Talk with your husband and choose one behavior to discipline your son for over the next month. Then, sit across from your son and look him in the eye and say, “Son, if you do this again, Mommy and Daddy will not put up with it. So if you do this, you will have to go to your room immediately.” (You can choose another consequence but it needs to upset him- so that he will want to avoid it.
Once you have done this, you’ve thrown down the gauntlet. He will love this (because strong-willed kids thrive on challenges) and soon he will do that behavior. He will wait until he knows you are watching and then he will disobey. Immediately pick him up (don’t say a word) and put him in his room. He may scream, hit the door, and wail but this is all for show. He’s not used to you laying down the law and meaning it.
When he quiets down and sits for 5-10 minutes quietly, he can come out of his room. Again, you look him in the eye and say, “Do not do that (hit, whatever) again.” Then go on to do what you were doing before. Here’s the tough part: really stubborn kids will go through this routine five, ten, maybe twenty times in one day just to test you. If he’s really creative, he will do it when you’re at a friend’s home, at the grocery store or somewhere he thinks you can’t respond. So be ready, if you are any of those places, you MUST respond. Leave the grocery store, drive home and put him in his room. If you are at a friend’s home, excuse yourself and ask your friend to borrow a bedroom to use with your son. This sounds extreme, but if he is really stubborn, extreme measures are needed. I promise, if you act this way, he’ll stop disobeying.
You may spend one or two whole days accomplishing only one thing- breaking him of this behavior. He’s trying hard to establish that he, not you, is the boss. The reason that you MUST win this battle isn’t just to curb his behavior but to make him submit to your authority so that he can have a sense of security. Bright, energetic kids who believe that they are in charge are frightened deep down and feel insecure. So you need to devote yourself to making sure that he knows that you are the boss.
Most parents fail because kids wear them down with their energy and stamina. Your job is to simply outlast him. Once you get him to understand that you (and Dad) are the boss, then move on to another behavior. Be patient with yourself and realize this is no task for wimpy parents.
Your job as a good parent of a strong-willed son is to help him channel his will in a direction that works for him, not against him. If you don’t get him to bend his will to yours, his immature desires will run his life. Don’t let this happen.