Parents’ Corner: Toddler Tips

By Nancy Culhane, MS and Nancy Gump, MA



I’ve read lots of parenting books and have good ideas about how I want to act when my two-year-old son becomes defiant. But sometimes my anger takes over and I feel like a two-year-old myself! What can I do? Why do I feel this way?



For adults who spend a lot of time with toddlers, feelings of powerlessness, frustration, exhaustion and anger are normal. Toddlers also often feel many of these same emotions. Clearly this is an intense stage for both parent and child.

We all have times when we simply cannot live up to our own ideals, and we are at risk of acting out of anger instead. When you realize that your anger is about take over, try to separate yourself from your child for a short time. A “cooling-off period” will give you the distance you need to regain your composure. Many parents count to ten (or one hundred!), practice calming breathing, or fix themselves a cup of tea to settle themselves. Self-soothing is an important skill to develop, not only so you can calm down, but so you can model for your child that frustration is a normal and manageable part of life.

Once you are calmer, you can stop to think about your feelings, and make a more clear-headed analysis about what your toddler needs from you and how you want to proceed. Using this type of time-out is one way of taking care of yourself as a parent, while modeling to your child that he can use this same strategy to feel better. This is not the same as a “Go to your room!!” punishment approach. A constructive time-out occurs when the child hears and sees a respectful, encouraging attitude about learning from his or her feelings.

It may be helpful to explain to your child your plan to use time-outs when you and he are not getting along well. You could say something like, “We all need time once in awhile to calm down and help ourselves feel better. If we can’t stop fighting, I may ask you to go to your room until you are feeling better.” We suggest a very short time out for two-year-olds, no longer than two minutes, unless the child wishes to make it longer.

It makes sense that our interactions with others are most satisfying when we feel good about ourselves. This also explains why encouragement and discipline, rather than punishment and humiliation, create a positive family atmosphere where angry feelings and actions are handled respectfully.

While parenting books and discipline guidelines are important aids, it is also useful to keep in mind how we were parented. We need to stay conscious of the feelings evoked in us when our toddlers challenge us with the negativism that is normal for their developmental stage. The toddler is pulled between many pairs of emotional opposites, especially the need for closeness and the conflicting need for independence. Often the need for independence makes for some very defiant behavior! It is easy to see that none of us as parents can perfectly fulfill our toddlers’ conflicting needs. Likewise, our own parents were unable to do so with us. So all of us as toddlers had experiences of frustration that have left us tender in some areas, even as adults. Then, when faced with our own child’s negativism, our old feelings of powerlessness and anger are often re-experienced. Under stress, we can become stretched to the point where our emotional histories are stronger than our intellectual ideas about parenting.

Looking at the feelings our toddlers trigger in us can help us understand our attitudes and beliefs about parenting that are rooted in our own childhoods. We can then make decisions about what worked and what didn’t work, and how we want to behave in the present with our children. Those feelings of anger you struggle with are an important clue to deepened self-understanding that can in turn enhance your effectiveness as a parent.