Kids / 15 May, 2020 / Dr Harvey Karp

Help! My Toddler’s Behaviour Is Becoming Impossible To Manage

My toddler is 3 in about a month. Her behaviour is increasingly difficult to manage. No form of punishment seems to work, we resort to putting her in her cot and leaving her to scream. She gets stuck on a problem and won’t let it go and builds it up into a tantrum. She’s aggressive towards me, she knows she’s doing it (‘I’m ANGRY, my going to HIT you, my going to SCRATCH you’ etc) and when she’s calm later on will happily say how she doesn’t hit anyone, not daddy, not friends, not big sisters (half-sisters, teenagers, visit every other weekend), not teachers, but yes, I hit mummy. She says regularly ‘Daddy is my favourite, not Mummy’ and ‘I don’t like Mummy, I like Daddy’.

Our home circumstances have changed; in Jan my husband lost his job so he’s been at home ever since. He’d been taking on more and more bathtimes – we started doing them together, but it’s morphed into ‘Daddy do it’ or all hell breaks loose. Screaming, fitting, attacking me etc.  Then in March, the country locked down, so he is home full time, we don’t have any nursery, or part-time nanny. She’s become more Daddy-focussed, he has to do putting down to naps, he’s established an annoying ‘read a story before nap’ (before she was just put down to sleep) and he has to do baths etc. I’m ‘allowed’ 90% of the time, to read to her but only after he has done bath, dressed her, and a story himself. She’s become a total tyrant.

In day to day life, she is difficult for both of us. Refuses to do much of what we ask, getting dressed is a daily battle, half the time she won’t engage in whatever activity we’ve got for her… She’s incredibly stubborn. she just seems to want to hang around the kitchen and ask for snacks. she is very food-motivated. She constantly says ‘I’m a bit hungry’ when she’s not, she’s just walking past the kitchen cupboard, or she’s not engaged in whatever she’s doing (once she is fully engaged she stops asking for food). I think this might be boredom of lockdown life… We try to give her a lot of stimulation, she has daily focus-activities, we take her for daily walks (or at least try to, she sometimes refuses, and if we do manage to get her out she will just sit in the pushchair and refuses to walk). She’s overweight according to the NHS childhood BMI calculator. she doesn’t have many ‘treats’ but is constantly asking for snacks and I am aware that calories are calories wherever they come from. I wonder whether we should overhaul her diet?

Baby 2 is due end-June. So in all likelihood, he will continue to need to do all the bedtime stuff, but I find it so upsetting that she chooses him every time. If he’s not in the house, then she will do naps/baths etc with no problem with me, it seems to be a choice for her. I would like to re-establish the previous position of relative harmony in advance of the new baby coming.

I feel like she’s sucking the life out of us. we can have a good hour playing or out and about, and then it just gets spoiled by another shitty attempt at getting her down for a nap. I dread the evenings, it’s ruining our relationship because there’s such a pressure on my husband to do everything for her, and if I try to help all hell breaks loose so I’m starting to just back off, which puts more pressure on him to do all the childcare. I WANT to do it, but she doesn’t want me to.

We ask world-renown paediatrician and child development expert Dr. Harvey Karp for his advice. 

Toddlers are little uncivilized beings

They don’t expect to live in a house or apartment. They would love to live in a small village in a teepee where they can wake up, immediately run outside, and join the other toddlers running after the dogs and chickens. So, it’s no wonder why tantrums, a normal way our little “cave kids” express strong negative emotions, only get stronger and more frequent when they are stuck indoors. Fortunately, there are a few tricks that can dramatically shorten your tot’s meltdowns.

The building blocks of any good relationship is communication.

The key to quickly defusing an explosive situation is usually a two-step appr`oach to successfully acknowledging their feelings… in a special way that is most meaningful to toddlers.

1) the Fast Food Rule and

2) translating into their native language, Toddler-ese.

First, the Fast Food Rule says that when your toddler is upset, you repeat back what they’re feeling before you try to calm them down or offer any kind of explanation.

Second, speak your tot’s native language: Toddlerese.

There are three steps to speaking toddlerese:

1) speak in short, 1- to 3-word sentences.

2) Use repetition, you may say the same thing 5 to 10 times!


3) mirror one-third of your toddler’s emotional energy with your tone of voice, expression, and gestures. This helps make them feel understood. It might feel a little weird at first, but it’s really pretty similar to how you might want someone to respond to you if you were very upset!


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Putting a stop to aggressive behaviour

To put a stop to the aggressive behaviour you’ve described, time outs can be very effective—but they’re not the only tool you have. I’m a fan of using Time-Ins to encourage good behaviour. I’ve found that a steady stream of time-ins is a more effective way to boost cooperation and good behaviour than a steady stream of time outs. A time-in is the opposite of a time out. It’s when a well-behaving tot gets tiny bits of encouragement. There are many types of time-ins. A few of my favourite time-ins include attention, praise, and “gossip”.

Showing your child attention shows her that you’re interested in what she’s doing… and that makes her feel good! While you might be spread thin right now, attention doesn’t require a lot of time. A pat on the back, a wink, or a kind word can go a long way.

However, your relationship with daughter might also benefit from “special time.” Special time is a daily routine of one to two short (5- to 10-minute) sessions of uninterrupted fun and attention. It’s a gift that many kids fondly remember for the rest of their lives. Try to think of an opportunity for special time that’s distinct from how she and Daddy spend time together. This might be a good way to help your daughter embrace Mommy as much as Daddy. A similar routine to try is bedtime sweet talk. As part of your bedtime routine, remind your daughter of the many good things she did that day and previews some of the fun things she can look forward to in the morning.

Praise is another effective time-in. Let your daughter know when you like something she’s doing by giving her a balanced diet of praise. Mix a bit of “applause” with a bunch of compliments and a whole lot of gentle, smiling approval (just don’t overdo it, and make sure you don’t offer praise and then yank it back).

You can supersize the impact of the praise you give by gossiping about it. Let your daughter overhear you whispering to Daddy about how great she’s doing— all of us (adults, too) are more likely to believe something if we overhear it than if it’s told directly to us.

Time ins will be extra important after the new baby arrives. A new sibling can sometimes make a toddler feel like they were kicked off their throne! You can help your daughter deal with that loss—and all the big feelings that come with it—with lots of mini time ins. She might appreciate praise now more than ever!

And, believe it or not, the arrival of a little brother or sister is the perfect time to give lessons in kindness. Let her bring you a new diaper when you need one or help sing to the new baby. Remember to set an example by replacing negative comments (like “don’t be so rough!”) with positive ones (“babies love gentle touches!”). Later, gossip to your husband about how well your daughter did.

Favouring a specific parent

As far as why your daughter seems to favour your husband… while it’s difficult to not take this personally, remember that toddlers are rigid little creatures. They like things just so! And right now, having Daddy take the lead on bedtime is part of the routine that she’s used to. So, she’s not rejecting you, she’s adhering to a routine that feels comfortable. Routines make toddlers feel safe and secure, so as I mentioned above, introducing a new routine of special time with Mommy, might help break away from this Daddy-dependence. Also, keep in mind that favouring one parent over the other comes and goes! Just like you might switch your BFFS, little kids often may shift their parent preferences every 6 months or so.

Remember, your daughter’s world has been turned upside down! The modern world can already feel pretty weird to a toddler. And now she’s dealing with lockdown…plus a little sibling on the way. It’s a lot for all of you to handle! But with respectful communication and some encouragement, I believe you can restore harmony before the new baby arrives!

Article by Dr. Harvey Karp, MD, FAAP, CEO, Happiest Baby

RECOMMENDED BOOK PURCHASE: Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One- to Four-year-old


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