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?


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, or fill out the form at the bottom of the Parent Coaching page. Looking forward to it!


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: Discipline Tips & Techniques for a 3-Year-Old

Dear Dr. Heather, When my 3-year-old son hits, pushes, or bites me, my husband, or his 6-month old sister, or is throwing things or generally being threatening (he likes to act like a mad dinosaur), our response is to tell him he needs to calm down and spend some time playing quietly in his room. Theoretically, this gives him a chance to calm down, plus teaches him that the consequence of misbehaving is that he doesn't get to be around the rest of us. He gets to come back downstairs whenever he feels he's ready to be nice.

In the last week, though, he has started really testing how much he can pinch, slap and otherwise hurt his sister. This culminated in him biting her thumb - HARD. He had missed his nap and it was late afternoon, but otherwise things were calm, we were relaxing in the bedroom, and he had climbed up on the bed to give her a hug. While hugging, he apparently decided to bite her. Thankfully it didn't break skin, but it was close. Our response was to make him spend the last few hours of the day in his room playing quietly, although we let him come out whenever he had to use the restroom and to join us for dinner. We tried not to be overly dramatic about it, and talked about how he needed to stay in his room because he isn't allowed to bite or hurt his sister.

What are your thoughts on our discipline approach? Is it ineffective because he gets to play in his room (i.e. is a "naughty chair" a better approach?). I like the idea of having a consequence that is related to the crime - removal from the family area and time alone if you are not behaving as expected toward family members - but only if it works. And the recent biting and acting out makes me wonder, but maybe that's typical behavior toward a sibling. Also, he is really focused on talking about how I love him even when I'm mad, which of course I confirm and say I love him no matter what, all the time. But I worry we might be messing with his psyche in some unknown way. Okay, so I'm worried about that a lot! Your thoughts are appreciated.



Hi Cherise,

I must say that you sound very thoughtful in your approach; your thinking is right on. You seem to have developed a way of thinking through these situations that makes sense, based on your kid. Bravo!

I do think, though, that he's too young to spend an afternoon in his room; it's simply too long, at his age. The usual rule of thumb is about one minute of time-out per year of age, so he shouldn't have more than about 3 minutes in his room. Any more than that is overkill.

His biting should be met by immediate attention to the "bite-ee", plus an unemotional reminder to him about the rule against "no biting". He can then be removed for a time out, and when he returns, have him check on the "bite-ee's" condition. "Check and see if your sister is OK. She us how you can apologize." Don't over-react to biting, but make sure your approach is consistent. Overreacting is likely to INCREASE the behavior, so respond unemotionally, but firmly.

His asking about "Do you love me even when I'm mad?" is long as he's not using it to distract you from doling out some kind of consequence. I think it's great to introduce him to the concept that even though you may or may not like his behavior, or even if YOU'RE having a grumpy day (Moms are allowed!) love him, no matter what. And that people can get mad at each other, but then get over it; and still love each other the whole time. "Anger" doesn't equal "loss of love". That's a difficult -- but important -- concept to start conveying to your kids, even in their early years.

In terms of "naughty chair" vs. "time out"...I think it totally depends on your own preferences, the layout of your house, and last but not least....WHAT WORKS BEST for YOUR PARTICULAR KID. For some, a quick trip to the end of a hallway met by a closed door is enough to turn around the behavior. Other kids need longer time outs, or more specific locations that work best. Experiment. GO BY WHAT WORKS.....that's a BabyShrink theme.

There are also some relevant tips to look over in my "Biting Babies" post; click here to check it out.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert

Child Discipline: How To Give "Time Out" to a Toddler

When your baby becomes a toddler, it's very exciting. But with all his new skills comes the need to set firm and consistent limits; both for his safety, and for your sanity! Lots of you wonder how, and when, to give a Time Out to a toddler. And is it OK to do it, even if he doesn't "understand" the concept? Reader Kelly has this dilemma: Dr. Heather,

My 14-month-old son has developed a scratching habit. It started with him scratching me for a reaction. I would firmly say, "NO, scratching hurts mommy." This led to more scratching. He does it if he's angry, or just because. I tried Time-Out, but I'm not sure he's understanding the concept. We're trying Dr. Harvey Karp's "toddlerese" which doesn't seem to work with the scratching, because most of the time he seems to do it out of the blue, and I don't know what he's feeling in order to show I understand his needs. Any ideas on ways to prevent this?

Kelly From Maryland

Time Out for a Toddler

Dear Kelly,

A 14-month-old is just starting to get the idea that using his new-found skills in controlling his body can lead to some interesting results. Your baby was used to being the passive recipient of action all day; people picking him up, putting him down, giving (or taking away) food, toys, or arms of comfort.

Now that he can walk and better control his body, it's a whole new ballgame. HE gets to be in control! HE gets to experiment with ways of getting (and keeping) your attention. He's also not quite sure how to modulate the force of his touch, either. He's experimenting with what's OK; how hard (or soft) to touch others. So, your approach should be to model nice, gentle touching, and to provide consistent, firm limits when he's aggressive.

Focus on how to touch others nicely. Point out how well he touches others, when he's in the act. "I see you petting the kitty so gently. What a nice job!" Demonstrate with his peers. "Can you show your cousin how you touch nicely? I like how you patted her back so softly." Do lots of positive reinforcement of the behavior you want him to repeat.

Other times, he will need limits. When you say you're not sure he understands the concept of Time Out; I'm sure you're right. A 14-month-old certainly won't "understand" it, at least until he’s experienced it many, many times, consistently, for the same offenses. But Time Outs have a cumulative effect, and soon, he’ll get the message.

Try this three-part approach:

  1. Immediately (and briefly) explain the infraction, and the consequence. “No scratching. Time Out.” Use a firm, but low voice; you want to get his attention, but not let him think he’s got you really upset. (You don’t want to reward him if he’s just doing it to get your attention.)
  2. Find a convenient corner or other area that’s removed from the usual action. Sit with him, and have him face the corner. At 14 months, you’ll probably have to gently hold him there for the duration of the time out. At this age, I would suggest 30-60 seconds, depending on your child’s temperament. (Some get the message more quickly than others!) When he protests, simply repeat, in the same, low voice, “No scratching. Time Out.” Don’t get into explaining or yelling. He won’t understand it anyway. You just want him to realize that scratching immediately results in Time Out.
  3. And when Time Out is over; it’s OVER. Say, “Time Out’s all done.” And then move on; don’t lecture or rehash the event, or ask him to apologize. At this age, all you can hope for is that he’ll internalize some control over his aggression.

It’s also a good age to start showing him there’s a time and place for everything. Make sure he has ample opportunity to get physical; throwing, kicking, climbing, and yelling during playtime, every day. Toddlers need a solid, physical playtime of at least 45 minutes each day, as long as there are no health issues. Let him know that he is allowed to express his aggressive feelings, at the appropriate time and place. A toddler who is run into the ground at the park is far less likely to scratch, bite and yell at home! WEAR HIM OUT. Play chase, jump up and down, yell and holler, climb and roll. Then give him the opportunity to destroy things, when allowed; tearing paper, dumping items out of bins, and making (allowed) messes like finger painting are all good ways to positively channel a toddler’s aggression and energy. Then when he’s with you, he’s more likely to be calm and gentle.

As your little guy develops, soon he'll learn that he can avoid Time-Outs by paying attention to the behaviors you're reinforcing. "Catch" him behaving nicely, and give him a lot of praise when he does. That way, you'll be able to use Time Outs infrequently.

Hope that helps. And check out more on my strategies with other Annoying Toddler Behaviors!


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink

Child Discipline: How Do I Get My Toddler To Stop Screaming?

Hi Dr. Heather,


My 19-month-old screams at the top of his lungs, "MYYYYYYY" for everything! Yes, we know it comes from not getting his way - most of the time. Quite often, though, we can be happily watching The Backyardigans and he starts screeching out of control for no reason. We've tried ignoring, we've tried yelling, we've even tried bottom-swatting. Help, please!


Landlocked in Louisville,


 Hi Amy,

Little kids need to be able to make noise, and we need to be able to hear ourselves think (once in awhile). With these conflicting needs in mind, you can let them make noise, but only within certain parameters. At 19 months, he is loving the fact that he can consciously control his body and his actions, to a greater degree now. So you have to respect that, and give him an appropriate outlet for for his gleeful screaming. You don't want to use punishment for something like this; you'll just risk an escalation of the behavior as part of his naturally being oppositional at this age.

In our house, the kids are allowed to make as much noise as they can possibly create, but only in their bedrooms, the playroom, or outside. The living room and other common areas require "inside voices".

Explain the new rules to him, once all the adults are on the same page. You want everyone to be consistent if you want the new rules to stick. At 19 months, your little guy will require reminding, but you can make it a game. "You feel like screaming? Let's go to the screaming room!" and then start screaming your head off, once you're there. Have him try to scream louder than you. THEN, make a big deal out of using "inside voices" in other rooms. Tiptoe around, talk quietly, have him follow suit; but make it fun. Soon he'll get the picture!

And check out my Toddlers section for more tips.


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink


Toddler Behavior: This Toddler is Driving Me Nuts!

Dear BabyShrink, I am going to make my question quick cause I am eight months pregnant and exhausted. I have a 2.5 year old son who is currently at home with me. He will be returning to "school" in July, which is a nice daycare that does a good job.

I am looking for a book to read to help me communicate effectively with my son. I want to do a better job than my parents, who did almost no job. I read Dr. Harvey Karp’s book on babies, The Happiest Baby on the Block, and it helped me survive a very happy babyhood with my son, and now hopefully my daughter too. But now that my son is 2.5, I feel like I am not doing a good job. I read a book my sister gave me, the name escapes me now, that said to give lots of choices blah blah blah. And I do that and it works.

But what do I do when he just won’t do what I ask of him? I do the whole "you need to follow directions", and sometimes he just ignores me. Recently he has started clicking his tongue at me or squeezing his eyes closed instead of listening to me. Now I feel like I am whining about a great kid cause most of the time he is really good, but I still feel like I am not saying the right things to him. So, are there any books that you suggest that can help me communicate with him better?



Hi Ashley,

You've got your hands full, my friend! Managing a new baby and a toddler was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. Pace yourself, get as much help as possible, and keep up the good work. It sounds as though you've got a good head on your shoulders and good mommy's intuition. Keep following that, above everything any of us "experts" have to say.

That said, I can recommend some techniques and books for you.

I like anything by T. Berry Brazelton, MD. He has great empathy for the stormy, torrid, intense world in which our toddlers live. You've got to try to inhabit that mental place from time to time in order to "get" your toddler. Use his words, and reflect the intensity of his feelings, when you talk to him. Speak in short, simple "sound bites". Remember: the intensity of this moment can literally evaporate in a second for a toddler.

I also love Vicki Iovine's Girlfriend's Guide to Toddlers. She talks all about the weird, wacky ways of toddlers, and how you can try to manage it all without throwing your own tantrum (which by the way is unavoidable at times! Toddlers have a way of really pushing our buttons!) You can try to stay vigilant and unemotional about it, but sometimes we ALL need a time out.

Toddlers are really in a mini-adolescence. They are struggling mightily with how to act. Whom to be like. "How can I get some power around this place, anyway?" And otherwise asserting themselves in really important, developmentally appropriate ways. When I evaluate toddlers, the ones who worry me the most are those who are quiet, passive little things who don't cause a minute of struggle for anyone. Those children are either delayed in some form or really repressing themselves, which will cause BIG TROUBLE later on. You don't want to stamp out a toddler's powerful, striving little spirit -- but you don't want to give them the upper hand, either. That's even more destructive down the road.

Now, what to do when your little man flatly refuses to do what he needs to do?  First, make a choice: is this particular issue really worth the power struggle it will create with him? If not, let it go. But sometimes it will be absolutely YES, like staying away from the street or other safety issues, and the things that make you nuts. For me, it's screaming in the house.

In those cases, remember, YOU'RE THE BOSS. I am amazed at how often we as parents forget that simple fact. I was engaged in a power struggle with our then two-year-old daughter once, when my husband reminded me: "Just look at the size of her! She's a little shrimp! How can you let her get to you like that?" Getting that perspective back is crucial. Don't hesitate to pick your resistant toddler up like a football and put him in that car seat, move him away from the street, or place him in that stroller, if need be. And don't hesitate to use a short (one minute for each year of age) time-out for major defiant displays. And tell him how you feel in terms he can understand, using a "listen to me, I'm serious" tone of voice. "I don't like that. No hitting."

Good luck with the little guy and the new baby. And get some sleep, while you can! (AS IF, right?!)


Heather, The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: How To Handle a Sassy-Talking Preschooler

Dear Dr. Heather, I have a 3-year-old son and he is for the most part a good boy. However, he comes home from daycare upset because a friend at school tells him he isn't his friend anymore, or that he doesn't like him. My son takes it very personally and is starting to use phrases like "I'm not your friend" and "I don't like you" to my husband and me. How do we handle this? I tried talking to his teacher at school and she treats it like they are just typical toddlers. I just don't want this behavior to continue or get worse. We try time out, taking toys and TV away, but nothing seems to help.

Stacey Orlando

Hi Stacey, I know it's really hard when your precious little guy starts talking like that.  But don't take it personally.  He's just trying out the strength and power those new words have.  He sees how much impact they have at school, and wants to "try them on for size" at home.

Talk to him about the meaning you hear underneath the words....not the words themselves.  When he cries about his friends saying those things, say, yes, it's hard when friends say mean things.  I think your feelings are hurt.  We don't like to say mean things in our family.  But try not to dwell on it...the friendships of preschoolers are notoriously changeable.

If he says those things to YOU, try not to overreact, but use it as a lesson.  I think you heard your friend talking like that today, but I know you can talk more nicely.  If you're mad, say 'Mommy, I'm mad' instead.  Can we try that again? It's important that you don't get emotional about it. Remember that he's testing out some new phrases. Staying low-key about it -- but setting the limit about what's allowed (and what's not allowed) -- will help him to learn how to use his words most effectively (and politely).

Otherwise, you run the risk of putting too much emphasis on those powerful words, and he'll be tempted to get into a power struggle with you about it.

Let me know how that works!


Dr. Heather

The BabyShrink

Toddler Behavior: How To Deal With Biting Babies

Dear BabyShrink, My 16-month-old son just got kicked out of daycare for biting, a habit he picked up there! I’ve heard many different ways to stop the biting habit. Do you have any suggestions on what you’ve found that works best?

Amy in Louisville

Hi, Amy,

I'm so sorry that your son's daycare hasn't found a better way of addressing this COMMON toddler behavior -- one that needn't be made into such a big deal.

Now, yes, I know that it is very upsetting to be on the receiving end of a bite, and even more so to be the parent of the "bite-ee", but we have to look at this as normal toddler exploratory behavior. Babies at this age still get a lot of their information about the world through their mouths. Plus, they’re often teething, and they’re not the greatest at explaining their wants and needs. So a bite now and then is really understandable. Some toddlers even bite to convey their love and affection for someone! Modifying the environment usually does the trick in minimizing biting.

First, give care and attention to the "bite-ee" IF he/she is upset, and certainly if the skin is broken. But if the child isn't upset, don't make a big deal out of it (you don't want to unnecessarily reinforce the biting). DO show the biter what to do instead. "We don't bite people, but you CAN bite this special toy! This is YOURS to bite!"  (Click HERE to see a photo of the kind of chewie things that Early Intervention specialists use for toddlers; we have one at home.  It's a little different than what you get at the regular baby store. They're nearly indestructible, and they're fun to chew.)

Analyze what came before the bite. Was the child tired? Overstimulated? Teething? Take care of THOSE issues first, and you should see a reduction in biting.

At home, be unemotional about biting, but firm. "No biting. If you want to bite, bite this instead." If he bites you, say, without reacting TOO strongly, "Ouch. That hurt. No biting.  Here's your bite toy." And then move on. If you have to be a broken record, do so -- you might have to for awhile. But he will eventually stop.

Maybe moving to a new daycare is not for the worst thing in the long run. Toddlers need and deserve daycare settings that know how to handle this, and other annoying (but normal!!) toddler behaviors, without making the kids look like little monsters. Try to find a new daycare that has established approaches that work with biting; you don't want a place that is scared off by a little chomping.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink

Parenting Tips: Dealing With Four-Year Olds, Tantrums, and a Death in the Family

Dear BabyShrink, I have a son who will be 4 in April.  Recently he has taken to laughing at us when we get mad at him. He despises doing anything he is asked to do and will cry and carry on until he gets his way. I know giving in is wrong but the tantrums become unbearable sometimes. In the last 2 weeks there has been the added stress of dealing with the death of my father. I'm willing to give my son space and time to grieve the way I imagine a 3 almost 4-year-old would, but it's taking a toll on my stress level and I don't want his behavior to escalate into something bigger that we have no chance of getting our arms around.

Please help!


Karla, MN

Hi Karla,

I'm so sorry about your loss. I can certainly relate, having lost my own father a few years back, with little ones at home too. First, know that little kids really don't understand death until they're 7 or older. You can't do anything about that, it's just their level of cognitive development.  If your son and Dad were close, you can talk to him about " Grandpa has died and we won't see him for a long long time", but ONLY if your son brings it up.  Follow his lead.  Don't assume that he is suffering....or is not.

Most likely he is upset by the adult emotions that must be strong around the house nowadays. That's inescapable of course; but you can try to give yourself room and have supportive people around for YOU...away from your son, so he does not have to get upset by YOUR being upset.  When you feel OK, you can talk calmly to him about it, in very short, simple sentences; just a little sound-bite at a time.  But focus on reassuring him that you are ok, and he is ok, and the family and house have rules, and that they have to be followed by everyone.

In terms of his behavior, hold the line.  He is testing you partly because he sees that you're down.  He is wondering:  "What happens when Mommy is upset?  Can I get away with things now.....and will things fall apart?" He's pushing the limits to see if he's safe, and if you're OK.  I bet a few days of consistent expectations, and consequences, will set him on a better path.


Dr. Heather The BabyShrink