How to Curb Extreme Behavior in Toddlers

You know parenting is stressful when your kid threatens to kill you. Even when your toddler doesn’t understand what was said, it’s a shocker. CityMama wrote the following this week on her blog:

"Wallie was being a complete turd, and at one point, when something wasn’t going her way and I wasn’t relenting, she said and I quote: ‘I’m going to kill you then I will have no mamma. Hmph.’

Yes, she’s three. No, she doesn’t quite understand what it means. She just knows what she hears her older sister say* and knows it’s something that triggers strong emotions."

*CityMama indicated she recently discussed the difference between the words "die" and "kill" with the older child and the younger child presumably overheard.

I know a 7-year-old boy who has said similarly hateful things to his mom, and for the past 2 years has said the following when very angry: "I wish I were dead!"

If it were my 3-year-old who spoke those words, I’d be frantic for answers.

If she learned the words from a playmate, we’d talk to the parents and say goodbye to that friend if we felt he or she was a continuing bad influence. For a toddler, that is totally doable.

TV, videos and movies aren’t an influence yet because we haven’t exposed her. I’m one of those parents who believes video learning and entertainment do more harm than good in the early years (a debate for another day).

If she learned the idea from preschool, I know our teacher would intervene. To quote our teacher:

"I explain loud enough for everyone to hear that saying things to others for the purpose of making them feel bad is not allowed at school, even if it is only pretend. I reiterate that we are a peaceful school and that means no fighting and no ‘bad guys,’ even though in real life there may be bad guys somewhere, we make sure they are not at our school. If a student continued to make offensive statements, he would not be able to come to school as a consequence.

But I do feel that it is natural for children to explore good-bad in imaginative play, as well as scenarios fraught with conflict.  They are trying to work out the battle between their impulsiveness, delayed gratification, vindictiveness, and doing the ‘right’ thing."

The worst thing our daughter has said in a heated moment was when she was given a time-out by her mother.

Angry voice: "I don’t want you to be my mom!"

Calm voice: "Okay, if I’m not your mom, then I can’t help you with anything. I don’t know you. You don’t know me. When you’re done with your tantrum you can go find your father because you don’t have a mother anymore."

Our daughter took a few minutes to consider the consequences of her actions and then returned to her mom, hugged her and said, "I love my mom."

Death is an open subject in our home. What do you do when your toddler asks where her other grandma is? Well,
snap decision, rather than change the subject, I explained death. From at least the 2-year mark, we’ve discussed it. My mother-in-law and one of my brothers are dead, and when we talk about them, Little Miss wants to know who they are.

It has left us freer to mention our deceased relatives in our spouse-to-spouse conversations and is an opportunity to share with our daughter stories about the relatives she’ll never meet except through photos.

Little Miss won’t have an emotional understanding of death without first-hand experience, but at 3-years she knows that when someone is dead they don’t come back and that everyone dies one day, including mom and dad. They won’t walk in the front door, you won’t see them at the playground, and so forth. She knows people get buried, but hasn’t asked yet where her relatives are buried.

Our preschool teacher told me the following about how she handles the subject:

"We have talked at school a bit regarding death, like that my mother and father are dead (they always wonder who makes my lunch for me…) and that bugs such as ants die. At this age the concept is relatively benign, akin to moving away or going on a long trip. A few people in the class have referred vaguely to ‘heaven’ and we do sing the Found a Peanut song where we eat a rotten peanut and end up dying and going to heaven, but I just refer to it as a ‘silly song’ and an admonition not to eat food off the ground."

Pirates presented a problem for us. The first time Little Miss pretended to be a pirate, she told us she killed an imaginary man and took his possessions. I previously had explained pirates as "people who sail in ships searching for gold," but my wife later explained them in far too much detail. So, she handled this one.

"Who was the man?"

"Just some old guy."

"Oh, he was old? So he’s somebody’s papa?"

"No, he’s really old."

"Oh, so he’s somebody’s grandpa, like Opa?" [my father-in-law]

Little Miss became quiet for a moment, then said: "Well, I didn’t really kill him. I was just pretending."

"Well, it’s not okay to pretend to kill people. We kill ants that come in our home and animals for food, but we don’t kill other people."

And we haven’t played pirate since — beyond wearing a pirate cap and talking funny. We still listen to pirate music, which my wife explained by saying, "Pirates are bad people, but they make good music." It’s logic for a 3-year-old, I guess. There are no easy answers.

Maybe a tantrum could still elicit a parental death wish, but I think it less likely when she has some idea of what she’s saying.

A foundation of respect is what we work on in our home. We incorporate the words "please," "thank you" and "I’m sorry" into everyday speech. "Excuse me" is required when wanting to interrupt a conversation, and then waiting for a response. We also teach that when you ask someone for something, the person can say "no," and that’s okay.

My wife and I follow these rules too and allow our daughter to correct us if she catches us not following them.

If she asks for more milk at the dinner table, I don’t move without a please. If I forget to put my shoes away, I’ll put them away when she points them out.

If she hurts my feelings in an overt manner, I remain hurt in the short-term until an apology is received.

My wife was opposed to me pouting sometimes when our Little Miss would slight me. She feared Miss would "learn" to pout and thought I should model best behavior. I felt it’s more important to teach that words have impact, that she is capable of making people sad, and when people are sad it never helps her situation.

If we require Little Miss to share and play nice on the playground, why would I let her be demanding and commanding to me at home?

In practice, we each fall somewhere in between on adherence to our opposing developmental standards, but tantrums never result in my daughter getting what she wants. Period. The rule with rules is to never waver and to always support your spouse’s discipline decisions in front of the child.

Instead of these please-and-thank you pleasantries being perceived as hoops to jump, she seems to genuinely accept them as the normal way people treat each other.

Now when a Costco employee draws a smiley face on her receipt, it’s my daughter who asks for it. She begins with, "May I please have…" and departs with a "Thank you."

Don’t get me wrong. We don’t have a perfect child, nor could we, but I feel we’re on the right track.

Discipline requires patience and consistency. Just now I was called into the kitchen to enforce "consequences" while my wife is busy cooking. Little Miss was refusing to remove her toy plates from the kitchen floor, alternating between saying "No" and pretending Mom didn’t exist.

I explained that the plates could cause Mom to slip, fall and hurt the (unborn) baby. I then said she had 5 seconds to put her plates in her room or she would not get them back for three days (one day for each birthday). I asked her several times, then began counting down from 5, and by 3 she started cleaning up. I thanked her and returned to typing. Little Miss then joined her mother in preparing our real meal on real plates.

I don’t know how that sounds to you, but I feel we’re middle-of-the-road on discipline. We only embargo a toy maybe every other month.

I’m starting to think that our daughter doesn’t wish us death in her more hysterical tantrum-filled moments because deep down she’s aware there would be consequences. Maybe because it would upset us. Maybe because she would have a time-out. Maybe because she knows killing mom or dad means we wouldn’t be around anymore. Maybe because we teach her to treat people with respect.

Look for the sequel to this article when Little Miss is six-years-old and our 3-year-old boy is going nuts. In some ways I’m glad our second child isn’t a girl so that fewer mature-girl topics won’t filter down to the boy before he needs to hear them.

Alrighty, so by now you realize this article’s title was complete baloney. I didn’t explain how to curb extreme behavior. I speculated why my daughter hasn’t crossed that line yet.

Have you faced this sort of issue? I rambled through a lot of territory—death, bad influences, poor behavior, discipline. What do you do in your home?


6 Responses to “How to Curb Extreme Behavior in Toddlers”

  1. Kelly says:

    We do much the same. It is very amusing to see peoples reactions to our 3yo saying “excuse me” if he gets in their way at a store. Often people are astonished and react as if children aren’t supposed to have manners or be civilized. Without fail, he gets a smile… which led to the problem of getting into peoples way for the purpose of saying, “excuse me” to see people smile at him. It isn’t a no win situation but every solution seems to have its own difficulties.

    We generally get results from consistently modeling preferred behavior and following the same path as you… must say please and thank you. If our oldest hurts the youngest by playing too rough he must go play by himself for a while after apologizing. No hitting allowed. No pushing. No kicking anything but a ball, outside. General rules but they work. The hardest thing is keeping on track with my husband, making sure we both are following the same path.

    I like the way the pirates demise was handled… going to bookmark that one.

    November 30th, 2007 at 4:36 am

  2. Airwick says:

    I agree with almost everything up there … the only issue for me is a deep seated repulsion to the word please. It makes me feel like I’m begging – even for minor things and or things that are rightfully mine to expect. Such as,”can I please have a paper bag?” – at the supermarket checkout. I’m (almost) always extra pleasant, and always say my thank you’s … but I just can’t get around my please-repulsion.

    Adding the please into the initial request makes me feel like I’m supplicating myself too much … I’m not asking the king or the judge to humble themselves to acknowledge my existance (i.e. may it please the court ….)

    For instance, I see nothing wrong with asking my wife, “while you’re up, could I trouble you to get me some more XXXX” at dinner. And then when she says sure, I thank her even before she gets it. Then when she has given it, I thank again, with a flourish, i.e. “thank you ever so much.”

    The ‘trouble you’ seems more genuine to me … I’m acknowledging that I’m asking her to make one more lap of the kitchen, or what not. To me, please is just an empty magic word that we force kids to say rather than teaching them to understand the impact of their request on someone else.

    So – other than forcing toddlers to say please, how do you help teach the impact of the request on the requestee? Is my please-repulsion destined to make my daughter a toddler-pariah?

    November 30th, 2007 at 6:56 am

  3. Jennifer says:

    I am with you with the respect. It is the key you have to your daughter’s behavior. The mutual respect you have taught her (we respect you, you repsect us; plus the additional everyone gets respect).

    Yes, people do smile when they hear a 3 year old use manners…because it, unfortunately, is a rarity these days.

    As for the pleases, I have to admit, I am guilty of not always saying please (especially when asking for a bag at the store); but I do make sure that when I am asking something out of the ordinary from someone, I do say please. When delegating tasks to my employees, I make sure to say please (and thank you when it’s done). If my husband is in the kitchen a simple “honey could you PLEASE bring me a glass of water”. I don’t see it as begging; it’s a matter of respect.

    I find that you can never go wrong with teaching a child respect, and modeling it is the best way to teach it

    November 30th, 2007 at 7:29 am

  4. Stefania/CityMama says:

    Thanks for the shout-out. Wallie was *definitely* exploring when she said what she did. (Former teacher here.) She’s at the stage where she is testing how far she can push things. We don’t shy away from talking about death in our family either. We’re pretty pragmatic about the whole thing. It’s only natural for kids to want to explore the meaning of living v. dying, death being permanent etc. I wasn’t freaked out or worried about raising a mass murderer when she said it…we all know our own kids.

    Interesting point about pirates. It’s the whole pirate-sword thing that first raised the concept of “kill” in our family. We have girls and we try to be pretty gender-neutral, but it wasn’t until we were around a bunch of boys (I hate to say it, but it’s true) that this whole pirate/kill thing came to light. It was pretty shocking to see my 5yo pointing a pretend sword at another child saying “I’m going to cut you!”, but the shock passed after a few seconds and I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I find if you do, they they only do it more. My girls are being taught the difference between right and wrong, and a little “pretend pirate play” every once in a while, even with “pretend killing”, is okay. Nothing has gotten out of hand…yet. :-)

    On manners, I completely agree. We are a “please/thank you” family. We model polite behavior, we expect it of our kids. Not only that but from the time they could talk my kids said “I beg your pardon” (which even strangers have commented on) and “May I please be excused.” My five-year-old says “No thanks, I don’t care for that, but I’m happy to eat the other things on my plate” instead of “YUCK!”

    Thanks for keeping the discussion going.

    November 30th, 2007 at 9:26 am

  5. AJ says:

    Thank you (everyone) for reading the article and commenting. It was a few times longer than typical blog fare, and I wondered if in-depth ruminations would be of any interest. But then you went and followed it up with your own stories, so thanks!

    November 30th, 2007 at 4:18 pm

  6. My Boaz's Ruth says:

    I’m glad to hear you are having a boy. we have a 4-month old and I’m eager to see reviews of boy stuff as he’s growing up as well.

    December 16th, 2007 at 8:26 pm

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