Sibling rivalry usually doesn’t become a problem until your toddler has to contend with a mobile baby --one who gets into her stuff, pulls her hair, and otherwise competes with her in the Zone of Stardom she previously owned in the family. When that happens, all the harmony that existed in the home evaporates, replaced by screams of “MINE!”, “HE HIT ME!”, “STOP TOUCHING ME!”, and “AAAAAGGHHHHH!”
It’s pretty upsetting, to see it in action. Our fierce protectiveness of the baby kicks in, and it’s made worse by the fact that the offender ALSO belongs to you. “How COULD she? Am I raising a sociopath? What have I done wrong?” We worry.
First of all, it’s important to understand how painful it is for your toddler to have to share you with a sibling. Here’s an analogy: Your partner comes to you and says, "Honey, I love you SOOOO much that I've decided to get another partner JUST LIKE YOU -- to live with us, be taken care of by me, and to mess up all your stuff. Isn't that GREAT?!" Not really. In fact, pretty sucky. That's how your toddler feels (at least some of the time).
And yet: The sibling relationship has the potential to be profoundly important. Think about it: We have the longest relationship of our lives with our siblings. Siblings can understand each other like no one else, because of the shared, early experiences of our families of origin. For these reasons, we WANT our kids to get along.
Know this: Parenting a toddler AND a baby who are fairly close in age (anything less than 3 or 3 1/2 years apart) is really, really hard. In fact, IT IS THE MOST DIFFICULT THING I HAVE EVER DONE.
I’m here to give you two messages: 1) Don’t worry – it’s common and typical for toddlers, little kids, and even big kids to fight like cats and dogs. It’s a drag for parents, and not usually anything to worry about, BUT, 2) we have our work cut out for us, if we want to maximize the potential good relationship between our kids. There are lots of things we can do to make it smoother – maybe not so much now, but for the future.
That said, keep these things in mind:
• Safety, of course, is Job One. Never, EVER, leave a baby alone with your toddler (at least up to age 4), even for a second. The toddler can't help herself -- and you're not allowed to get mad at her if she starts hitting while you're not looking. She’s just too young for you to expect more.
• Adopt a "matter-of-fact" attitude. In normal circumstances, your toddler isn't a sociopathic maniac, and your baby isn't a traumatized victim. Baby is tougher than you think, and Toddler is less evil than you fear.
• Expect your toddler to TRY to hammer away at the baby -- it's simply human nature – but let everyone know you won’t allow her to hurt the baby. Your mission is to convey this: “I can’t let you hurt the baby. Tell me you’re mad, but hitting isn’t allowed. It looks like you’re mad because Baby got to sit next to me. Am I right?” Guide the interaction towards talking. This is the perfect crucible to grind out the issue of talking about feelings – instead of acting them out. Political correctness, manners and grace come much, much later (ages 6, 7 and beyond). In the meantime, expect to be there as protector -- and try not to get disappointed, worried, or critical of your toddler. She's just really bummed about having to share you.
• Resign yourself to breaking up fights -- sometimes constantly. I know it feels like you're a referee all day sometimes, and it's easy to worry about the future implications of the sibling relationship. "Will they always attack each other like this?!" They might, for a really long time -- and that might actually be a good thing. Family is the pressure cooker of life, and siblings have the opportunity to work out lots of life's big issues together: Sharing, patience, and cooperation.
• But you've got to emphasize the positive. When they DO get along -- notice, praise, and reward. "What nice sharing, you two! Wow, what a lovely time you're having together. That looks really fun." Even if it's only a brief interlude in the action, make a point of praising.
• Finally, make it a point to regularly schedule “special time” with each of your kids – ideally, with each parent, separately and together – to get some time where that one kid can be the focus. Nothing fancy -- even if it’s just a trip to the market while the baby is home with grandma, it will help.
Smoothing out the rough edges in their relationship -- over and over -- will eventually help them create a stronger relationship.
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert Sign up for my Newsletter and Follow Me:
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.
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
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?
Jenn wrote back to give me this update:
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!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
Hi Dr. Heather, My husband and I are hoping you can shed some light on a concern we have for our son who is 27 months old.
Over the last month during bath time, my son has peed in the bath 3 separate times, and without fail he would then 'hold himself' while crying/screaming hysterically! This has continued during every bath time where he is screaming like we have never seen. He doesn't necessarily pee every time, but since the first occasion... then a second, and a third... his screaming has continued.
Even when he doesn't pee in the tub, he still holds himself and is screaming almost like he doesn't like the water hitting his 'manhood'? We have tried new toys and bubbles; to all of which have not work or helped. We even tried to have him try to go potty before the bath but doesn't go.
I must say also, that he is not potty trained yet but we are working on it.
We are not sure why he's continually freaking out with or without the pee.
If you could please help and how we can overcome it we would be extremely grateful.
Hi Atlanta Mom,
Sudden fears of the bath at this age are quite common. One of my most-Googled posts has to do with sudden bath fears; I'll post the link below. In regards to his "manhood", perhaps he's upset that he couldn't control it; on some level he's starting to get the idea that "pee-pee does not belong in the tub", yet he was unable to control himself those few times. So he's really upset with himself and in conflict about the whole bath/potty training thing. (And of course I assume his penis doesn't bother him any other time -- like there's not a urinary tract infection or something -- also, some kinds of soap and bubble bath can be irritating. I assume that's not it, but check it out.) Talk to him about potty training, where pee-pee belongs, and how he accidentally peed in the tub; use a matter-of fact tone, with no scolding or worry in your voice. See if you can make it like a silly joke, so he doesn't feel so bad. "Does pee pee belong in the tub? NO, silly! But that's OK! We'll keep trying and one day for sure you'll get it!"
In the meantime, try some of the tips in my post linked below for bathtime fears, including letting him stand by the bath and playing with the water, until he feels comfortable getting back in the tub. Keep reassuring him, and go at his pace. Hang in there, I promise this will pass!
Here's my Bathtime Fears Post: http://babyshrink.com/2008/08/help-my-toddler-suddenly-hates-the-bath.html
Good luck and keep usposted!
Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
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.
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 fine....as 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!)...you 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
"What," you may ask, "is the most popular 'lurkers' topic at BabyShrink?" Is there a common theme that brings the most readers to this site? Yes, there is.
Every day, I check my WordPress "Stats" to see what parents have been reading on BabyShrink. I think it's hilarious that each and every day I get several Google "hits" from people entering in phrases like this to the search box:
My toddler smears poop everywhere, what do I do?
They end up on this page, which is my all-time most-read post. And if you've read the post, you know that I laugh from all-too-knowing experience.
But every so often, I get a question from a reader who needs more help with this problem; it's progressed past the point of my suggestions. So yes, dear readers, it's time for yet another poop-smearing post:
My three-year-old daughter has been smearing poop, and it has increased in frequency. Not only does she smear her poop everywhere, but she also has a corner in my living room where she, for the lack of a better term, "marks her territory." She knows when to pee on the potty and does it fine. But more lately, she will strip off her pull-up and go to that corner to either pee or smear her poop. I don't know what to do since EVERYTHING I have tried seems not to work. I have had extreme difficulty with her potty training, which her doctor said is normal due to the fact that she is extremely hyperactive and just doesn't want to stop. He says she is afraid to miss something. I realized that almost a year ago her father stopped coming around, and it has been almost a year since she began this frustrating habit. But it's gotten worse lately and I don't know if it's an outcry towards me because she is possibly mad at me for her father not being around?? Also I am a single mother and although I was able to quit my job and be with her recently i am still not able to give her my 110% attention all the time. I don't know...all I know is I need help. I can't handle this...nor can I STOMACH this anymore!! Thank you for your time.
"Tired of Cleaning Up After the Little Stinker"
Sounds like you have a complex problem here. If her pediatrician says there is nothing medically or developmentally wrong, you can try using some of these techniques:
First, try some concrete behavioral strategies. Does she have a usual time of day when she poops? Most toddlers do it about the same time each day, and only do it once. If she does, watch her closely until she's made her poop. Don't let her wander away from you unobserved until she has pooped. Then you can give her a little more free-reign after you know she's done for the day. Also, you can dress her in a more restrictive way until she has done her poop. Get a larger size onesie, with perhaps some leggings over it, to put her in until she's pooped. If she lets you know in advance that she needs to go, fine. You can help her get undressed and to the toilet. If not, it's OK for now if she goes in her pull-up.
You might also move around things in "her corner", making it a difficult or unappealing place to spend her time. Experiment with furniture in the room to see if you can re-configure it to "eliminate" that place where she usually goes. Change around the whole room so her association to it is also changed. Make "her corner" a more focal place of the room, so that it's not a hideaway, and she can't have any privacy there.
Don't make a big deal about using the potty right now. She's giving you mixed messages about being ready, and in that case, the advice is usually to back off from potty training. Let her be in charge of when she uses the potty. But do be clear with her that smearing poop or going on the floor is NOT an option. It's yucky. Mommy does not like to clean that up. But when she DOES successfully use the potty, make a big deal out of it. Hurray! What a big girl! It's so nice and clean when you go in the potty! Consider giving her a small treat (one jelly bean, for example) every time she does go to the potty, even if it's just to pee. And try not to be scolding if she goes in her pull-up. Just be matter-of-fact about it, and clean it up.
I also would not use punishment if she smears poop again. You might remove her from the "scene of the crime", since you have to sanitize it. Be serious, but neutral. Remind her where she should go, and that poop does not belong on the walls or the floor.
Also, it's important to give her plenty of opportunity to play with acceptable, squishy, messy things like finger paints, play-doh, even mud pies. She clearly likes the feeling of it; give her ample opportunity to make a mess in an acceptable way. Tell her when you're playing with messy things, "This is fun to be messy. We can be messy with paints!"
You ask about the impact of her Daddy leaving, and whether that is related. I can't judge that from here. But you can ask yourself about the impact it has had on YOU. If you have been upset, if things have been very different around the house, you can bet your daughter has picked up on that. But is it related to the poop-smearing? Difficult to say. If you need more input about that, I would suggest talking with a licensed therapist who has a specialty in working with young children. And if you're having trouble coping, please seek out some help. A little bit of good therapy can go a long way -- and help you to trouble-shoot when difficult times arise!
Try some of these strategies, and let us know how it goes!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
Dear Dr. Heather, My 15 -month-old terrorizes animals. We have a small dog and a few cats, and any time the child sees one of them she goes running over with her arm cranked back to whack it. If she has anything in her hands she will use it as a club. If the animal is on the ground she will grab it by the back and try to crush it into the floor and sit on it. After this greeting she will say "gentle" and pet the animal nicely, evidently to make sure it appreciates the difference.
We don't smack her, we don't smack the pets, so why is she so violent? How do I get her to stop before she gets bitten? Luckily we have very complacent pets but I'm sure even the most patient animal will defend itself eventually.
Thanks for your advice, Christine
I know it's hard to see your baby so aggressive with animals. Now that your toddler is big enough to move around and check out her environment, she wants to feel, grab, and test everything out. We're all born with aggressive instincts; it comes from evolution and our animal roots. But she has no way to understand that aggressive handling of things will negatively affect them permanently. She can't yet understand that crushing the kitty will HURT it. (And she won't understand it yet, even if you explain it to her a million times.)
She's not yet cognitively able to understand the impact of her actions on others. She's just exploring, and using her own natural (and normal) aggressive instincts. But it's not really "violence", in the sense of really intending to hurt someone. So don't jump to conclusions about your toddler's personality or temperament. She's just doing the usual toddler thing. And she's clearly also trying out the "gentle" actions she has seen you model.
So, what to do? Your daughter is at what I consider to be the most difficult age of childhood; the 10-20 month window is when babies become toddlers, physically, but they haven't yet fully transitioned into their non-baby minds. So what you get is a big, mobile baby, not fully in control of her body, with all this pent up energy and interest in the world, and not a lot of coping strategies to manage the unavoidable frustration that comes along with it. My shoulders still tense up when I recall my own kids' passage through that very tricky time.
Johnny Depp said that having a toddler is like constantly being on suicide and homicide watch. You always have to be prepared to prevent your toddler from killing herself, or someone else. It's a dangerous time! All you can really do is provide as much safety and structure as possible -- and this usually means a 1-1 parent-kid ratio at all times, until she gets into a slightly more predictable (and manageable) stage.
But with all that parent-toddler time, you do have the opportunity to model good behavior, demonstrate how to touch others (including animals) appropriately, and generally navigate around the great big world. Many of your lessons won't bear fruit for quite some time, so pace yourself. But feel confident that eventually, your daughter and your kitties will be the best of friends!
Aloha, Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
Is my baby just "difficult", or is there something wrong? And if I do have a "difficult" baby, is there anything I can do about it? BabyShrink reader Tina is struggling with this issue. She writes: Dear Dr. Heather,
I need some good advice on how to stop my 2-year-old from screaming for everything she wants. She doesn't yell just for fun; it is always out of anger. I hate to sound negative, but she really has seemed like a miserable soul from day one. She was a very hard baby to console as an infant, she is strong willed, and throws huge tantrums. I have tried telling her to ask mommy quietly, and that works a little, but she keeps doing it. The tantrums we pretty much ignore as much as possible until she calms down and then we talk to her, but is that doing much good? She also screams out in the middle of the night.
Another problem is that she won't go to anyone but me, not even her daddy! This really bothers me and I don't know how to handle it because it makes me feel very trapped. She is OK after a bit of crying if I leave her with someone, but if I'm there, she wants nothing to do with anyone else. Is that normal?
Thank you for whatever advice you can offer, because I don't know where else to turn.
Like many parents out there, you are having a tough time with your little one's behavior. You wonder whether there is something "wrong", per se, or if this is simply her personality and temperament? And if so...what then?
You ask about your daughter preferring you to all other adults. It is common for a toddler to show a strong parental preference for one parent over the other. And this changes over time; when she's three or so, she'll likely start becoming more interested in her Daddy.
I'm worried that you feel she has been "miserable" since she was born. First, find out if there's a medical or developmental problem. Start with her pediatrician, and share your concerns. Are there digestive problems? Some other medical concern? Get treatment for that first. Some pediatricians have a good "take" on infant temperament, and might have something helpful to suggest in that regard as well. You can also ask for a referral to a pediatrician who specializes in Developmental/Behavioral pediatrics. These are specialists who are trained to evaluate child behavior and temperament more fully. They may also be "plugged in" to a larger group of Early Intervention specialists who can help too.
In the process, it would be worthwhile for you to look into the Early Childhood Intervention programs in your area to see if there is someone who can help you with this. All communities in the United States have a free program that will evaluate the development of any referred child, from ages 0-3. They will look at all domains of your baby's development (including social and emotional development), and offer intervention services, if needed. Ask your pediatrician's office for the name of your local agency. It's important to know that your baby's development doesn't just refer to rolling over, walking, and talking. Her emotional and social skills are a crucial part of her development as well.
If this is not a medical or developmental problem, it could be a problem in the parent/infant relationship itself. All babies are different, and some have truly challenging personalities. Some parents are lucky enough to have a complementary temperament; they can "roll with" their challenging baby's antics. But most of us struggle with frustration as our challenging babies "push our buttons".
What strikes me about your question is the fact that you feel "trapped" and helpless. This isn't so unusual, and I don't want you to feel guilty about it. But it does show that you need help and support in dealing with your daughter.
There are a few well-trained therapists out there who specialize in Parent/Infant Therapy; they work with the parent(s) and baby together. They seek to understand the unique personalities of the parents and the baby involved, and help everyone cope and adjust better. One of my Child Development Heroes, Dr. Donald Winnicott, wrote that "there is no such thing as a baby". A baby cannot exist alone. There is only a parent AND a baby, together. Therefore therapy can't be focused on only the infant; the main caregivers need to be involved as well.
This kind of therapy is extremely effective. Please don't hesitate to try it if you need it. I also suggest that you reach out to other friends, family and community resources to help you feel more supported in what sounds like a lonely struggle for you.
You can also read Stanley Greenspan's The Challenging Child. Dr. Greenspan is an excellent resource on child development, and the book is in paperback.
I'd also like to hear from other readers out there who have struggled with the temperaments of their babies. What tips can you share with Trina?
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
BabyShrink readers Angie, Sharon and Stacy have emailed me over the past few weeks with the same horrified question: Why is my toddler suddenly smearing poop everywhere, and HOW CAN I GET THAT DISGUSTING BEHAVIOR TO STOP?! Although I tried to offer some suggestions, I had never experienced the same thing with my kids, so I really didn't have much "oomph" behind my answers.
And then the Great Karmic Finger pointed at my household. And that finger had poop smeared on it.
Our TT is now 2 1/2. He's kinda-sorta potty trained. He's healthy (minus one hernia, which I will update everyone on later in the week), developmentally on-track, and he's got the "easiest" temperament of all our three kids. But over the past few weeks, it's happened three times; he's pooped in his diaper, then reached in to decorate his crib with it. And it's the grossest clean-up job I've ever had to do.
Your story is similar. Your toddler is somewhat engaged in potty training. They're at the age when they can understand most of what we're telling them...and certainly understand that poop is yucky. Then all of a sudden, you discover your little darling has smeared poop all over the place. Reader Sharon tells her stinky story this way, "She's in her crib about to nap, and I hear the usual noises of her just talking to herself. Then I hear this: “Mommy, yucky.” So I go in there and see the worse scene of my life!!!! She apparently had a poopy diaper, took it off, and proceeded to smear the walls, her crib and everything in the vicinity with poop. I was mortified! I quickly yanked her up, stripped her down and got in her the bath as fast as possible. I had to call my husband and tell him to come home so I could sanitize her room. Ugh, it was awful!"
Is This Normal? Yes dear reader, it is. Not necessarily common, but normal. A 2-year-old is struggling with attempting to master his own body, to control it's functions, and is quite curious about his productions. (They don't call it the Anal Stage for nothin'!) Preschool teachers will tell you it's common to see children this age quite interested in messes, too. They can alternate between being quite the obsessive neat-freak, OR the poop-smearing opposite -- as they struggle to master this stage. I would say, however, that poop-smearing past the age of 3 1/2 -- 4 would concern me. An evaluation, starting with your pediatrician, should occur in that case.
How Do I Get It To Stop?! First, know that, for an otherwise typically developing toddler, this should be a time-limited, passing phase. Nobody likes the smell of poop. It's an experiment that is naturally self-limiting!
The most important thing is to control your own reaction. Don't overreact; you risk reinforcing the behavior. If Junior knows that Mom will FREAK every time this happens, he's got a potent weapon to use, when necessary! Instead, calmly say "Yucky. Poop is dirty. It belongs in your diaper or the potty. No more touching poop." As grossed out as you may be, take a deep breath (outside of the room!), clean up the offensive little beast first, and close up the room until you have backup. You'll need time, and someone to watch Mr. Stinky, while you break out the Clorox.
Next, it's time to get practical and LIMIT ACCESS TO THE DIAPER. Go out and find some toddler sized "onesies", or other one-piece clothing. Some creative parents have even put one-piece PJs on backwards to further limit access to the diaper area. Keep them clothed this way as needed, until the phase has passed.
Also, take it as a sign of interest in potty-training. Use it as an opportunity to review the proper use of the potty, and validate their interest in poop. "Here, make your poop in your potty. Then when you're done, you can look at it. We don't touch it, but you can look at it if you want to see what it looks like."
Finally, create opportunities for your creative genius to make acceptable messes. One of the hallmarks of this phase is the desire to make -- and clean up -- messes. It's how we eventually learn to keep things clean and organized, and how to handle all the messes in life. So it's a vitally important lesson to learn. Offer messy finger painting, kitchen mixing and squashing, and outdoor mud play, liberally. Talk about it, as you do. "I know you want to make messes. THIS is a good place to make a mess. I will help you clean it up later. Here, let's make a mess together!"
Hope that helps, Gang. Happy Cleaning!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink Mom of Four, Parenting Expert
PS: THIS POST HAS BECOME MY ALL-TIME MOST-READ ENTRY! (Is that weird, or what?!) FOR MORE TIPS ON THIS GROSSEST OF PROBLEMS, SEE MORE OF MY THOUGHTS ON IT HERE.
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
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:
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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!
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,
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.
Dear BabyShrink, My husband and I have two really great little girls, ages four and 22 months. They are both really well behaved, good kids, but we have been having a lot of problems with our youngest whining constantly.
I expect a toddler her age to have plenty of temper tantrums and be willful. But the constant whining all day long is really getting to me. No matter what she is doing, she wants something different and is whining constantly. For instance, she whines for a certain toy she can't reach. When she gets it, she drops it and decides she wants something else. She gets that and she whines that she wants something her sister has. She whines when she wants her snack. I set her at the table and she whines because she wants down the whole time she is eating.
I have tried to treat it like a temper tantrum and not give in if it is something she really doesn't need. But she soon forgets whatever it is she is whining for and moves on to whine for the next thing she decides she wants. It is making my husband and me CRAZY! Is this just a stage that we need to ride out, or do we need to make some changes in how we deal with this? I try to get her to use words to tell me what she wants, but she is very stubborn and refuses even though I know she can say these words. She can talk very well when she wants to. Please help!! We will really appreciate any suggestions you might have, or suggestions for books that address this issue.
Ugh! I am so with you. Our youngest is 26 months old, and just getting to the end of that horrible "constant whining" stage. Whining is specially created by the baby gods to cut through the hustle and bustle of the household to get your immediate attention. It works, right?! Toddlers' whining is super irritating, party because at this age, we KNOW they CAN "use their words" when they feel like it. Why must they insist on whining, when all they have to do is USE THEIR WORDS?! Just like they did so nicely yesterday (for like 14 blissful seconds, but who's counting?).
Well, toddlers this age are really on the brink of a developmental shift. I HIGHLY recommend the DVD series, "The Baby Human". It's terrific at showing so much of what we're talking about here. (Please do yourselves a favor, everyone, and watch that series.) One of the episodes focuses on the time around 18-24 months, when a huge change starts to occur. Before that, they're really just walking babies. We don't expect much more from them. But after this change, they're more like "miniature preschoolers", capable of expressing themselves much more directly. Yeah, they're still toddlers, but an important shift has occurred. They can hold themselves together longer. They can communicate much better. They understand more of what you're telling them. They can wait for things (for a few seconds, anyway).
Have you read T. Berry Brazelton, MD, about how any new developmental shift is first accompanied by some serious regression? Your little girl wants to do all these new, "mini preschooler" things, but is overwhelmed a lot of the time with her inability to make the world work in all the new ways she's trying out. So she's frustrated and feels like freaking out. It's like when we, as adults, are learning a new skill (say on the computer, and writing a new blog!). Until you really understand your new skill, you feel like banging your head on this damn keyboard, and screaming at the screen!
The Best Thing About Whining But I digress. Whining, believe it or not, is a way your toddler has developed to avoid melting down into a total tantrum. This is good, right? What would you rather have: whining -- or a kicking, screaming tantrum? It's also a way your toddler is working on to establish some more power around this place. How can I be in control here? How come everyone decides everything for me? "I do it! I do it!" These are early signs of the negotiating skills that are used so well by 5, 6 and 7-year-olds. And even though it's irritating as hell, it's also a sign that your baby is growing into a thinking, negotiating little person, striving towards independence and self-assertion. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: you really don't want a passive little toddler who never complains. I worry about those kids. Blustering, loud, irritating attempts at independence are the hallmark behaviors of this stage, and need to be struggled with in order to help your toddler feel a sense of competence and success in the world.
How To Cope But how do you cope with it? First of all, understand that it is a normal phase. Constant whining at this age is really common. If your toddler is whining constantly at a later age; something else is going on. Perhaps there's a speech delay, or you could be unintentionally reinforcing the behavior. Whining also increases a lot when kids are sick. So always check to see if that might be true.
Tell your toddler: "I hear whining. I don't like whining. Tell me in your words. You want juice? Here's your juice. No juice? OK, tell me, 'Mommy, no more juice'. Thank you for using your words. Now you want milk? OK, but no more changes. Milk, or juice. You choose. OK, no milk and no juice?" If whining starts, try again. "No more whining. Milk or juice. You pick." Often, this little exchange will help, at least a little. Your toddler wants to feel that you take her needs seriously, even if she changes her mind a million times.
Lather, rinse and repeat until you start to get irritated. Because there will be a limit to how much any living, breathing parent can do this. And she's checking to see exactly how much you can take it...today. Testing is part of the whole routine. Exactly how much control do I have in this situation? When does Mommy take over and cut me off? How far can I push it? Now, notice I didn't say, "Continue to negotiate until you're about to lose your mind and give her the juice box, milk, water, AND the Diet Coke you were just drinking, plus open up the bottle of wine that YOU need now". Instead, set the limit before you're at your wit's end. "OK, no more drinks, all done with drinks. Let's go do something else."
Try to Ignore? If you're really strong, you can try ignoring the whining. Say you're about to do it. "No more whining. I don't like it when you whine. Mommy is busy. I don't hear whining." And then go about your business with the whining toddler behind you, trying to get your attention. Breathe deeply, don't make eye contact, and repeat yourself. "I don't listen to whining." This may take several minutes, which seem like several hours, in toddler-time. Some will get the message, others will not.
Take a Time-Out You can also give time-outs for excessive whining. The amount of time necessary for each toddler will vary, but usually a short one (a minute or less) is sufficient to make your point. We have a little place in our kitchen for exactly such purposes; it's just a small corner of space between a wall and an armoire, about three square feet of space, which provides a sense of containment for our little guy. After going through the above routine, I will threaten one. "No more whining. More whining, and you go in time-out." When he was at his peak of whining, I would follow though on this once or twice a day. He felt the pain of the consequence, and especially the pain of having to give up some power, and often (but not always) return in a better frame of mind.
A key part of all this is to make sure you give huge props for quitting the whining. "Wow! You used your words! You are playing nicely now! Oh, that feels so much better! Good job, honey! Gimme five for talking nicely! I love it when we play and talk nicely together like this!"
Also, make sure you can blow off some steam about the whining. Call a friend who understands and complain about your whiner. Exchange "horrible toddler whining" stories. Laugh about it, and get away regularly so you can re-gain your sense of perspective about all of this. Take turns with your partner when the whining is really getting on your nerves, even if you have to "trade off toddler duty" for just a 10 minute break. Ten minutes taking a quick walk around the block, or plowing through People magazine, in the quiet of your own bathroom, can be wonderfully restorative. (I know I'm not the only one who retreats to the bathroom for some peace and quiet! Where else can you go, sometimes?!)
Hope that helps. Let us know how it works out!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
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.
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
Dear BabyShrink, Our three-year-old son is a great kid, but lately he has been playing this annoying little game: he orders us around, telling us what to do and how to do it, with really specific orders like “Mommy has to sit on the orange rug! Put your feet here, not there!” He gets really mad if we don’t do it his way. I have nightmares about where this is going. Is he becoming a bully? How do we handle this?
Your little tyrant is showing you in no uncertain terms that his budding superego is in a fever-pitch of development.
At this age, toddlers are struggling to master their bodies and their environment. They feel a flush of power, since they can now use their words and bodies to control what people do. They really enjoy play-acting, and that’s a wonderful and important part of being three. A three-year-old gets lost in the imaginative process, and we want them to learn from and enjoy play-acting. And they don’t yet feel the pull of what is socially OK. But the tiny superego is blossoming; the internal sense of mommy and daddy, deciding what is right, what is wrong, what is allowed, and what isn’t. The superego is still very primitive at age three; very black-and-white, “my way or the highway”. It’s really common to see three-year-olds behaving like little tyrants, ordering people around, trying out their new dictatorial tendencies.
So what’s a parent to do? It’s our job to help the little dictator get a taste of democracy; or at least accept the role of Vice President. Help him learn the rules of give and take, taking turns, and asking nicely. These skills take years to develop, but this is a really important time to lay the foundation of how your little one will respond to, and create, rules and order in his life.
Next time Junior starts ordering you around, play with it a bit, but with the ultimate idea in mind that YOU are the boss. If you have time to play, go ahead and follow his rules and orders. But sneak in little requests, like, “oh, that works better when you say please”. Or, “Now that you made me dump out these blocks, let’s clean them up, let’s take turns seeing who can get the blocks into the bin!” If you don’t have time to play, or if he’s asking you to do things that aren’t nice, safe, or allowed, remember: you’re the parent, and he’s counting on you to know better. Say, “I know you want me to jump out the window, but that’s not allowed. We’d get hurt. Let’s jump up and down instead.” If he throws a tantrum, that’s OK. He’s upset that he’s not the boss — but deep down, he’s also relieved. And over time, with your help, that primitive, controlling little superego of his won’t be quite so tough.
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink
Turns out Johnny Depp is a lot more than a fantastic actor; he’s also an armchair psychologist. On a recent appearance with David Letterman, Depp said this about his kids: “Living with young children is like hanging around with miniature drunks. You have to hold on to them. They bump into things. They laugh. They cry. They urinate. They vomit…”
Accurate comparison? Absolutely. In fact, Depp’s comment has striking relevance to an issue thousands of frustrated parents confront every day – “How can I get my child to stop having temper tantrums?”
Your Toddler is a Drunk. Kind of. Think about Depp’s analogy. Alcoholics exhibit some distinct behavioral and physical signs – many of them quite similar to the actions of a toddler:
• They are impaired in their ability to make decisions • They have difficulty controlling their bodies, speech, behavior, and emotions • They feel happy one minute and the next they are crying inconsolably • They slur their words and often forget what they have heard, seen and done • They fall down, get into accidents, hit people, break things and embarrass those around them
If that sounds familiar to you, you’re either a parent or a bartender.
You Knew The Job Was Dangerous When You Took It Toddlers’ brain development is such that their ability to control their behavior, control and understand their feelings, and use logic are barely starting to emerge. We might see our toddler acting patiently one day and screaming, hitting, and acting like Jack Daniels after an all-night whiskey bender the next.
Naturally, this behavior needs to be controlled – and the best way to get a handle on it is to understand your toddler’s frame of mind.
What If You Were a Toddler Too? Imagine yourself as a two-year-old. Remember how small and powerless and dependent it feels. Being a toddler is HARD, mostly because they are:
• Unable to make their needs known most of the time • Unable to make their body do things that others around them do easily • Unable to make grown-ups understand what they need to say • Needing help with almost everything. • Being overpowered by their emotions several times a day
Why Your Child Is Acting Like That Girl From The Exorcist You certainly can’t prevent ALL tantrum triggers, all the time. But you can try to keep them in mind throughout your day with your toddler – and possibly prevent some tantrums as a result.
Here are some common situations that can trigger toddler meltdowns:
• Not enough physical activity during the day • Too many “forbidden” things or activities in the environment • Frustration at inability to do something (e.g., speech, coordination, dexterity, size) • Too many people and/or too much noise in the environment • Unfamiliar/disliked people in the environment, especially if they want something from the toddler, like a kiss • Major change in routine or environment • Sleepiness • Hunger/thirst • Illness/teething pain/ear infection • Potty conflicts and frustrations • Parent “tuned out”/busy/not paying attention to what toddler needs • Parents trying to accomplish too many “adult” tasks with toddler (e.g., adult conversations) • Activity overload (e.g., too much TV) • Environment is too active/chaotic (e.g., dinnertime, kids running around, TV on, neighbors coming and going)
A Personal Anecdote: Diffusing Dinnertime Meltdowns In our house, dinnertime is so noisy and chaotic that it used to lead to nightly meltdowns for our 20-month-old. Now, I try to eat with him, ahead of the rest of the family, so that we can all eat in peace.
Once my husband and "the big kids" are ready to eat, I take Tai into the bathroom for a nice long bubble bath, with the door CLOSED, so he is not distracted by all the noise from his older brother and sister. We work on “eating as a family” at other meals, and he will be far more capable of enjoying family dinners when he is a little older and a little less sensitive to the noise and activity of the house. Plus he gets tired at the end of a long day of trying to share with the “big kids”, trying to communicate with us; he’s exhausted and needs a little break to “mellow out” before bedtime. I know this forced family separation every night is just temporary, and it’s certainly worth everyone’s sanity. And since we have been doing this, we have NO nightly tantrums.
Decide What Works For YOU I’m not suggesting that all toddlers should be separated from their siblings at dinnertime, and I realize this is not practical advice for every family. But what is really important is that you develop routines for your family that work for you. Every family is different, and every toddler is different. KNOW YOUR CHILD. See how they respond in different situations. When are they feeling good? When do they behave well? When do YOU feel good, as a parent? These things are not random occurrences. There are patterns to your child’s behavior and feelings; there are patterns to YOUR behavior and feelings, and patterns to the rhythm of your family. What are those patterns? Become a detective. Observe. Take notes. Remember. Put it all together. Here are some questions to keep in mind:
• When does my toddler behave well? What times of day? What situations? With whom? • What kinds of things seem to make my toddler angry or have a meltdown? What changed in the situation just prior to the meltdown? • What helps my toddler feel better when she is having a tantrum? What has worked in the past? Who is able to help her feel better? • What was I doing just prior to my toddler’s meltdown? How was I feeling? Was I stressed/distracted/not “present”?
Start paying attention to these things. Once you do, you will start to suspect certain patterns. You might not be sure if your hunches are correct. That’s OK; like any scientist, you will test your hypotheses. How? By being aware, in the moment, with your toddler; then when you see the pattern start to emerge again, do something to MAKE IT DIFFERENT.
If there is a certain time of day that makes him fussy and difficult, try to decrease the noise and stimulation at that time. If there are certain places you go that make him crazy (WalMart, anyone?), don’t take him there! Change it up, and see what happens. Then, you start to have answers. Your detective work will lead to a much happier toddler. Good luck!
Dr. Heather The BabyShrink