Child Discipline: Will One Spanking Traumatize My Toddler?

Poor reader Jenn wrote in to confess her guilt at giving a swat on the tush to her toddler, worried that she might have psychologically scarred the poor baby for life. I hope you know me well enough by now that of course I don't condone spanking, and aggression turned on your child is always something to avoid. A time out is best, of course.

But none of us here is perfect, right? I chuckled at this poignantly cute description of a situation we've all experienced -- losing our tempers after a long day with a challenging toddler -- as well as her daughter's perfect illustration of how little ones learn to handle unusual situations:

Hi Dr. Heather -

Long time reader, etc.... I have two children, a 4-year-old boy and a 17-month-old daughter. Recently, it had been a long day and my kids had been getting on my last nerve. I had the two kids in the bath, and had gotten the older out and toweled off, and then asked the 17 month old to stand and step onto the mat. She thought about it, and started to do it, but refused. I asked her twice more, and she refused, sitting there staring at me. So I told her, "If you don't get onto the bathmat, I'm going to give you a smack on your bum." Of course, she just sat there looking at me like, "I've always wondered what that is." So I stood up, gave her a smack on the bum (very symbolic, didn't even redden the skin), and put her on the mat. She looked like she would cry for 5 seconds or so, but didn't, and then went on with her night.

On it's own, that's pretty much a non-story. Although I do try to be more creative in my parenting than resorting to any kind of hitting, but I obviously wasn't successful that day.

What I have a question about is that right after that, we were in my older's room getting him dressed, and while I was busy with that, my youngest lined up all of my oldest's stuffed animals, bum up, and was giving them bum smacks. OK. And she did this the next day. And the next. And at the library, when I got distracted by something, and turned to find all dozen of the library's stuffed animals lined up for a bum smacking.

What have I done? Could this have been very traumatic? Any insight you have here would be helpful. I don't know how you do it with (now) 4 kids - I only have the two, and just keeping my head above water takes up all my time.

Thanks - Jenn

Hi Jenn,

What a great question! I love your depiction of this very common toddler-esque behavior; mimicking behavior that seems emotionally "loaded".

Now of course you haven't traumatized her for life, from what you've told me. But she has realized that the smack is a powerful thing -- and she's probably picking up on your sense of conflict and guilt about it. (Amazing how they can sense those things in us, huh?) She's doing what toddlers do -- re-enacting confusing or "loaded" situations so that she can figure them out and put them in their place in her mind.

You can talk her through it, when you see her doing it. "Oh boy, seems the Mommy lost her temper and the babies got a smack. Are the babies crying now? Do they feel better now?" You can also add, "Bum smacks aren't a good idea. In our house, we talk about our problems." Try to remain "centered", emotionally, when it comes up -- no guilt or pressure, just curiosity and reassurance. And you can apologize for losing your temper, in a sincere but matter-of-fact way. You can also model toys "using their words" when they get upset, too.

Don't forget, you're not striving for parenting with perfection, you're striving to be Good Enough. In fact, the research shows that only about a third of mother's reactions to their babies are "attuned". Another third eventually get "repaired" over time, and the rest never do. So the best that any normal baby can expect is about two-thirds of perfection from you at any given time! She'll receive far more "talking-to" than bum smacks from you, so she'll get by experience how to handle problems. And the lining up of toys for a good spanking should eventually slow down on it's own.

Does that help?

Aloha,

Dr. Heather

Jenn wrote back to give me this update:

Dr. Heather,

I did have to have an emergency talk with her, when she escalated to giving us random smacks (like coming up behind me when I was working in the kitchen and giving me a very firm smack on the bum!). And it is hard to sound legitimate telling her that, "in our house, we don't hit, we use our words" when her memory of getting a bum smack is so vivid. But I did apologize to her for giving a smack before, and explained that I was wrong, and that if we smack someone we need to say we are sorry. She seemed to absorb that (and it's amazing what all they can actually understand when they can barely talk), and eventually agreed to say she was sorry to smacking us.

Of course, all of our stuffed animals are still living stomach down, but eventually that will pass, I'm sure, and it will just be one of those stories that I'll remember for later.

Of course, you are welcome to use this for a BabyShrink post. I always like seeing what challenges other people are having, and I'm tickled that I'll now be in that group.

Thanks! - Jenn

Thanks for the story, Jenn, and for reminding other readers that we can't strive for perfection, just for Good Enough! And if you have a sticky situation with your toddler, I'd love to talk with you personally to help you work it out! I'm offering Skype, phone, or in-person Parent Coaching sessions, starting at $75. Email me at BabyShrink@gmail.com, or fill out the form at the bottom of the Parent Coaching page. Looking forward to it!

Aloha,

Dr. Heather The BabyShrink