Testing boundaries normal for toddlers

My 22-month-old daughter sucks her thumb. However, the other night at the dinner table I told her she couldn't suck it while she was waiting for dinner to be served.

After reminding her several times, she understood that I was serious. She didn't eat one bite of food and glared at me the whole time.

At the end of dinner, I tried to feed her at least one bite of food. She accepted it, but then spit it back out just to spite me. What should I have done?

Know that you're not alone, and your daughter is acting completely normal for her age. Toddlers are notorious for testing their boundaries; and as a parent, it is important to set these boundaries and then be consistent when enforcing them.

Disciplining children, especially young children, can be just as trying on the parent's patience as it is on their nerves. They're learning what buttons to push to annoy their parents.

In the above dinner story, there were two issues that you were really dealing with. The first issue was not letting her suck her thumb while sitting at the dinner table. She tried over and over to see if she could get away with still doing it, but I commend you on sticking to your guns and not giving in to her stubbornness. You set that boundary for her and followed through until she abided by it.

The second issue was her spitting the food back out after she took a bite. If you said that she glared at you through dinner, she was probably still angry and did want to spite you.

I would have recommended that you get her down from the table, as she was obviously not going to eat anything, and one night without dinner certainly wouldn't have hurt her. I would have then given her a time-out for her misbehavior.

At her age, she could have handled a 2-minute time-out in a designated area. At the end of the time-out period, I would have gotten down to be eye level with her, told her why she was in the time-out, asked for an apology, and then given her a hug. At that point, the entire incident from the beginning of dinner to the spitting out of food would be over and forgotten.

Here are some other discipline tactics you can try for other situations parents may encounter with toddlers:

• Distract and divert. This one is a very effective form of discipline with younger children, especially when they may not understand what a logical consequence may be in regards to their misbehavior. Simply distract them from their original intention and then divert them to an alternative action.

• Ignore the temper tantrum. Ignoring the behavior or making statements such as "let me know when you are finished and we will talk" will show the child the tantrum will not gain them control over the situation. Ultimately, the parent still has the control.

• Encourage cooperation. Children often respond more positively when you treat them with respect - ask rather than tell. For example, try saying "Would you give me the book, please?" instead of demanding "Bring me the book."

• Provide structure. Set up conditions that provide a positive environment for the child. When your toddler discovers the toilet, start keeping the lid latched or the bathroom door closed. With some preplanning, you can remove most of the situations that you'll find yourself saying "no" to.

• Use positive reinforcement. Studies show that positive reinforcement for toddlers works far better than punishment. This takes some work on the parent's part, but you really need to catch your children doing something right and reward him or her for it.

Whatever you do, just make sure that you're consistent with your discipline. It seems that at this age, children have two purposes in life: to test their limits and to melt our hearts. They do both tasks equally well. If we can survive the first one, we'll be rewarded with a big, mushy heart that only gets softer every day.

n Tami Purchase is a parent educator for the PACT (Parents and Children Together) program at Family Support Council. If you have questions or suggestions, call or e-mail her at 782-8692 or tpurchase@family-support.org.


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