For toddler tantrums, what discipline - if any - actually works?

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

Question: Do timeouts work? Does anything work? What kind of discipline would you advise for a 3-year-old who likes to scream, hit, shove and repeat things she wants ad infinitum?

She has a 1-year-old sibling, if that matters. I've tried hugging her during tantrums just to let her know I feel empathy for her frustrations. We've tried timeouts with us in the room and out of the room. Redirection is met with increased volume to the tantrum. Nothing we try works: yelling, being nice, ignoring, etc.

I am defeated and also feel hardened against my sweet girl. Please help.

Answer: Do timeouts work? Does anything work when it comes to discipline? These are big questions, and I have no idea why your 3-year-old is acting out. Let's start by zooming way out.

A 3-year-old is an intensely emotionally creature. This is a time of tremendous growth, and the average day with a 3-year-old can feel like a roller coaster; the highs are so very high, and the lows are pretty darn low. Because a 3-year-old is coming into themselves, you will begin to see behaviours you may have not experienced before.

The willfulness, the chronic "no"s and the tantrums can shock any parent, especially a first-time parent of a 3-year-old. You need to cut yourself some slack. How are you supposed to know how to apply discipline at every moment? Simply put, you cannot. Parenting is a learn-on-the-job kind of gig. We make mistakes, we learn, we try something different, we gain confidence, we move forward with other decisions.

It's a messy life, and a 3-year-old cannot use her rational mind (it's coming but still a ways off). You have to apply boundaries (all the time) and comfort her as she cries in reaction to them. If this sounds exhausting, confusing and intense, that's because it is.

We know 3-year-olds are delightfully tiring, but if you have a spidey-sense that there could be other issues afoot, please see your pediatrician. To facilitate a productive conversation with the doctor, please bring a detailed timeline of the behaviours (and the antecedents), how you reacted, as well as the severity and duration of the behaviour.

As for discipline, you are discovering what does not work. Distraction and redirection are excellent for babies and 2-year-olds, because babies are still working on permanency, so shaking a toy or playing peek-a-boo essentially changes the channel, helping the baby forget they were upset. As a child ages, they no longer fall for simple visual redirection but can still be tricked into looking at an elephant-shaped cloud or a purple flower.

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This also serves to change the mental channel for many children, but if the need supersedes the distraction, the distraction or redirection will fail. Distraction and redirection also fail with a 3-year-old because the child is maturing. This is good news, right? Mature people cannot be distracted easily from their desires; hence, your child is right on track.

But what to do about tantrums and bad behaviour? First: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." This saying should be your parenting North Star, and not just for young children. Spending your time and energy figuring out how to handle misbehaviour is a losing game; you are perpetually living in reaction, which is exhausting and nonproductive. I call it "whack-a-mole" parenting.

Take out that list you made for your pediatrician and take a look at the antecedents of the misbehaviour. Are you bossing your 3-year-old around too much? Are you not getting on her level and making eye contact? Are you talking too much? Are you giving too many or too few choices? Is there too much technology? (No tablets or smartphones for 3-year-olds.) Has there been a transition or trauma in the home? Do you give into her every demand? Are your rules unclear? Do you have too many rules?

Your head may be spinning, so let's focus on a few general guidelines.

- Pick your battles. Because almost every moment with a 3-year-old holds a potential battle, you need you to readjust your expectations and have a healthy sense of humour. This will pass, so hang on to that.

- Find a phrase and repeat it when the going gets rough. Writing these phrases on sticky notes and putting them everywhere you may see them can also give you a visual reminder to breathe. "This will pass," or "I can handle this" can be powerful reminders to stay kind.

- Up the connection in peaceful times. Looking at pictures of when she was born is one of my favourite strategies. Tell her the stories (all good, please) and relish the memories. This will thrill your daughter and provide the added benefit of softening your heart toward her. Once upon a time, your tyrannical threenager was a tiny baby; let's remember her that way.

- Shut your mouth. I know our country is obsessed with communication, but when we over-communicate with our preschoolers, all we do is add frustration to frustration. No human does well when we are angry; we are not going to listen to reason even if we can.

- Try a timeout. I am not a fan of the modern timeout (a minute per year) because it usually invites more shame and drama than the initial infraction, but if you can commit to removing your child to one place for certain infractions while remaining warm and loving, timeouts can be highly effective.

The child can leave the spot when the behaviour stops. The problem is that I don't know many parents who can control their own anger and frustration enough to not escalate the situation.

If you find yourself yelling, dragging her to a step, threatening her on the step, punishing her further and simply becoming more miserable, timeouts are not going to work.

- Understand that tantrums are a child's way of telling you they have lost control. Your daughter is not trying to be bad or make you mad. She simply doesn't have many communication tools in her toolbox. When you see her as being a captive of her body and mind, you can find more empathy for her.

Showing compassion to an upset child is often the fastest way to soften their defenses and slow the tantrum. This doesn't mean you give her what she wants; it means you can hold a boundary while still showing love.

Please, get support wherever you can. As for reading material, I am forever recommending the Louise Bates Ames series of child development books because they are short, sweet and easily understood.

I love Dan Siegel's work for its kindness toward children, and I appreciate Deborah MacNamara's use of attachment theory in understanding and connecting to our preschoolers in "Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One)."

The Washington Post