Mom's Spanking Fuels Toddler's Aggression

Filed under: Opinions, Expert Advice: Babies, Expert Advice: Toddlers & Preschoolers

Dear AdviceMama,

I take care of twin 18-month-olds, a boy and girl. The mom has started "disciplining" them with spanks and timeouts. As a result, the girl frowns and hits -- I feel she is acting out what she sees, and trying to process it, since I don't believe an 18-month-old understands this kind of "discipline." She is also acting aggressively with her brother, which starts the whole "discipline" cycle over again. How can I help this young family find a better way to deal with the twins' growing assertiveness?


Dear Concerned,

Toddlers are inherently uncivilized, and need to be gently taught what is and isn't appropriate as they learn to interact with the world and with one another. But the word "discipline" actually means "to guide or instruct." True discipline isn't about punishment; it's about teaching children right from wrong with patience and understanding.

Children who are disciplined with anger and force often demonstrate the behaviors you are observing in this little girl. Kids mimic the behavior of adults; if the grownups caring for these toddlers spank or shout when their children don't do what their parents want, their youngsters will behave aggressively when another child isn't doing what they want.

Having worked with thousands of parents and children, I can say with confidence that there are alternatives to using aggression or timeouts to get children to cooperate. Kids want to please parents when they feel lovingly connected. But young kids -- especially toddlers -- have poor impulse control and find it hard to act with restraint when they're agitated or upset.

It would be helpful if the mother of your charges understood some basics about child development. Eighteen-month old children are in an enormous growth spurt as they expand their capabilities while simultaneously dealing with the constant frustration that comes from being restricted in what they can do. By managing her toddlers' encounters with the things they can't do or have, Mom will minimize those moments when frustration (her daughter's and her own) turns into aggression.

Let Mom know that you sympathize with the challenge of raising two active little ones. She'll be more open to your suggestions if she doesn't feel judged, so help her know that you're on her side, rather than criticizing her parenting style.

Ask Mom if she's seen her daughter acting out with aggression. If she hasn't, give her some examples of what you've observed. Find out if she is willing to try a different approach when her daughter's frustration turns into hitting, biting or pushing. Most parents admit to feeling badly about resorting to timeouts and spankings and would use other methods if they were effective.

Offer to work with Mom to experiment with alternatives to timeouts and spankings. One strategy is to avoid problems by making sure this little girl isn't over-stimulated, hungry or tired. Toddlers need plenty of down time, rest, good food and opportunities to experience success; a little one who's wired, worn out or constantly frustrated is more likely to turn aggressive.

Pay attention to how things are going when the children are playing, and use distraction before things get bad. By noticing when this little girl is getting fussy, you and Mom can help avoid her acts of physical aggression by giving her something else to do or engage in. Toddlers usually have very short attention spans. It should be fairly easy to shift her focus onto a snack, book, song or toy before she reaches her melting point.

Also, make sure these twins have time to play alone, so they aren't constantly having to navigate one another's moods and rhythms. You may find this little girl is more out of sorts just before a meal, or right after waking up from a nap. If that's the case, address her need for a quiet, slow wake up or a pre-lunch bite of something nutritious to help prevent her from falling apart.

If your little toddler does hurt her brother, comfort him first, and then take her aside and simply say, "Hitting isn't OK." Show her what she can do when she's mad and help her feel understood: "You wanted that toy. You wanted it. You were mad that he was playing with it." Help her cry, pout, or hit a pillow to get her mad feelings out. But, generally speaking, it is far better to prevent problems with 18-month-olds, than to punish them for impulse control that is beyond their developmental capacity.

Thank you for caring so much for your charges to have asked this question. Please watch for more on the subject of discipline in upcoming columns.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.