Don't lock toddler in the bathroom!

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 27, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi Barbara,

How do I discipline my 18-month-old boy if he asks for something and I say no, because I can't give that thing to him? He gets really upset and he throws whatever is in his hand. If he doesn't have anything, he bites me. Every time I explain, "that's not good, don't do that," but he does not listen to me. Sometimes I lock him in the bathroom, too. He says sorry but he does the same thing in one hour. I don't know what I can do. Please help me.

From: Payal, Waltham, MA

Hi Payal,

Locking your child in any room is dangerous and scary for him. I urge you not to do it.

If you are so upset with him that you feel like you need a break from him (and that's perfectly OK), put him in a safe place (a play yard or his crib), where you know he can't hurt himself and there's nothing in the space that can hurt him, and shut  (not lock!) yourself in a space where you can count to 10 or call your best friend, and then go back out to be with him and not be angry. One Tough Job, sponsored by the Mass Children's Trust Fund, is a great resource. Families First Parenting Programs offers some wonderful parent education workshops;  and there also are hotlines for parents if you need someone to talk to.

It may be helpful to remember that, at 18 months, children are naturally impulsive. Even though his behavior may upset you, he's not doing it intentionally; he is not capable of thinking, "I want to make mom angry!" He is, however, probably frustrated.

When he does something inappropriate, keep your language to a minimum ("That's no!"). Let's say he bites you when the two of you are playing on the floor. Tell him firmly but calmly, "Biting is no!" Then stand up and tell him, "I can't play with you when you bite. When you are ready to play without biting, we can try again." If he begs you to play again, remind me, "OK, but no biting." If he bites again anyway, don't get angry. Simply repeat the same words ("Biting is no!") and get up again. Loss of your attention is the worst possible consequence for him at this age!

There are two other important things to keep in mind about children this age. The first is that their language is limited and they get frustrated because they can't express themselves. Whenever possible, label his feelings for him ( "I can see you are getting frustrated."); identify the source of the frustration ("You want the toy that your friend is playing with."); and offer a coping mechanism ("Let's play with this truck until it's your turn for the toy you want.")

Also keep in mind that children of all ages are always trying to figure out where the boundaries are. Set clear limits for him ("We hold hands when we cross the street;" "Biting is no!"), and be consistent in following through with consequences. ("I can't play with you when you bite.") These are just a few of many strategies that you may find helpful.

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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18 comments so far...
  1. Someone who routinely locks a toddler in a bathroom should be reported to child protective services. That's putting the child at serious risk of injury or death, and this person clearly needs some guidance as to proper discipline methods. At least he or she knows they need some help and is reaching out, but it seems likely that they need more advice than they can get from one column.

    Posted by akmom April 27, 10 09:13 AM
  1. Let's recap. You have a baby. Your baby wants things and doesn't understand why he can't have them, because he is a BABY and doesn't have adequate language skills to comprehend. You, the adult, retaliate against the BABY by locking him alone in a dangerous room.

    Yeah, you have a problem all right. Your child is acting like a normal 18-month-old. You are acting like someone who needs to report regularly to DSS.

    Posted by Redpanda April 27, 10 09:15 AM
  1. I was thinking the same thing as akmom, and secretly hoping this letter was as real as a prank call. Yikes.

    Posted by RH April 27, 10 09:26 AM
  1. Barbara - I urge you to provide this persons information to the proper authorities, if they have resorted to locking a child in the bathroom at 18 months what are they going to do to the child in a few years.

    Posted by JT April 27, 10 09:42 AM
  1. This letter makes me wonder how old the LW is. I am assuming she is a younger mom. The fact that an infant...just turning into toddlerhood is locked in a bathroom where he can fall crack his head open from the tub or toilet. OR drown in the toilet!!!! Apparently you failed to think of the dangers when you locked him in there. Seek help. Children should never, under any circumstances, be locked in any room.

    Posted by jd April 27, 10 10:39 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's response. The most important thing is to ensure the child is safe and for the parent to learn the right techniques for each phase.

    This parent needs help and is finally seeking help. This parent doesn't seem equiped with the knowledge or tools to address the ever-changing stages of a growing child and maybe this parent has no support at home. Or maybe the parent is depressed and therefore is not making the right judgements. Though it is never the child's fault, we need to consider that maybe the child might have medical issues that make it more difficult to address the behaviour. Or maybe there is a combination of issues...

    There are many possibilities and I find the situation described by the parent of deeper concern beyond that of just saying that this is a "bad parent".

    This parent is reaching out and it is a great opportunity for putting the parent in touch with someone who can provide guidance and assess the situation at home. We certainly don't have enough information to make a fair assessment.

    Posted by rmg April 27, 10 10:59 AM
  1. LW, seek professional help, before you end up locked up...in jail.

    Barbara, I understand and agree with your advice. However, is it best to use incorrect grammar when speaking to a child? “Biting is no”? I get it, its simple, to the point, but so is “No Biting.” Or “Do Not Bite”. I don’t find baby talk cute, unless it is coming from a baby actually trying to learn how to speak. How can one expect a child to expand a vocabulary when all they hear is “chomp chomp is an owie” I’m sure the tone of voice is more important then the actual words or syntax, but why not be stern and use proper speech?

    Posted by Monte72 April 27, 10 01:34 PM
  1. Wow, there's a lot of drama today in the mailbag. I think the fact that this mom is looking for help is great. No parent is perfect, including these commenters. We all make mistakes. I know my mother did (I was frequently left alone in the car while she ran into the store-imagine the HORROR). I turned out OK. Instead of turning her in and doing irreversible harm to the child by removing him from a loving constant in his life (his mother), why not be supportive and offer suggestions as Barbara has? It's easy to throw insults when you can hide behind a computer. She wrote to ask for help, not to be lambasted by holier than thous.

    Posted by Linney April 27, 10 03:07 PM
  1. Every time I've read your "Biting is No!" phrase, I've had the same reaction as Monte72, for what it's worth...

    Posted by Ajay April 27, 10 03:13 PM
  1. I'm not going to chime in about locking the child in the bathroom -- that's been covered well by prior posters -- except to say that the LW could hardly have picked a more dangerous place to leave her child.

    But on the subject of the parenting advice given, in general, I want to echo Monte72: coming from a family of educators, one of whom is a speech therapist, speaking to kids using incorrect grammar is a poor idea. They learn to speak by mimicking us. We should speak to our kids correctly so they learn to speak correctly themselves. "No biting" is just as clear and firm and simple as the incorrect "biting is no."

    Posted by jlen April 27, 10 03:20 PM
  1. I am far from perfect, but I don't routinely make 'mistakes' that could kill my kids. Of all the places to lock a small child - in the bathroom? Really? Let's see - hard floor, lots of hard surfaces, and oh yeah, water. (Not to mention the psychological issues this kid is likely to have when it's time to toilet-train) Did you hear about the two year old who died yesterday in his family's small decorative pond? Children drown in *inches* of water all the time. If this is the way this person parents, they should not have custody of their child until they learn better ways to do things. I agree that it's good that they are looking for help, but they need more help than they can get from a single letter.

    Posted by akmom April 27, 10 04:37 PM
  1. Linney, I don't think anyone here is holier than thou. We do all have our bad parenting moments. Anyone would be lying if they said they didn't. I admit I have had my fair share but none that could potentially kill my kids. And yes, most of us here do think it is good for the LW to seek help but, like AkMom said, they need more help than they can get from this letter.

    Posted by jd April 28, 10 08:07 AM
  1. Agreed with Monte72, Ajay and jlen on the language issue. I've always told my kids (now 12 and 2) "no hitting", "no biting", "do not throw your food", etc. and they managed to understand perfectly well.

    I hope the letter writer will get some help in learning how to deal with her child. An 18-month old can be a challenge, but 2-3 year olds are on a whole other level of difficulty, and it worries me to think of what she may resort to for punishment in another years' time.

    Posted by DT April 28, 10 09:07 AM
  1. So much about both the question and response left me speechless. I had to keep coming back to read to see if it was real.

    First of all, Barbara, I'm surprised that you glossed over the fact that the LW chose the bathroom, the most dangerous room in the house, to lock her child in and simply stated that it can be scary for pre-tots to be left alone.

    You also failed to note that, even if an 18-month old says that he's sorry, he doesn't understand, really, what he's saying. That the mother believes that he's actually apologizing is a huge red-flag in terms of her own basic understanding of the way that children develop. Even our 2-year old says, "Sowwee, Mommy!" - when she's running and falls. She's getting there, but no one should expect true depth of apology from a baby or toddler.

    And yes, the LW definitely needs more help than any advice columnist can give. Everyone has their moments as parents, but most parents simply put their child in a safe place or have their own safe, comforting methods of dealing with negative behavior and correcting it.

    Locking a baby in a dangerous room sends the message that he can't trust you, that he's not safe and yes, as another commenter suggested, is probably going to play merry he** with his potty training down the road.


    Posted by Phe April 28, 10 01:21 PM
  1. Yes, I agree that this person needs more than help than a letter can provide but Barbara DID tell her where to get more help. What did you all provide for her? And for the record, there are lots of places parents let their kids go that are dangerous everyday. Ever play on the monkey bars? Let them walk down concrete stairs? "Hard floors" and "hard surfaces" aren't exactly hard to come by. I just think it's counterproductive to spew critique at her when help is what she really needs. And I think it's worth noting that child services is very unlikely to remove a child from a home and put him into the system just because his parent locked him in the bathroom a few times.

    And jd, you don't have to think anyone here is holier than thou. But I do.

    Posted by Linney April 28, 10 06:05 PM
  1. Linney, there's a huge difference between having a child at a dangerous place such as a playground, where they are being supervised, and locking them into a dangerous place with no supervision. Do you really not understand the distinction?

    Maybe child services won't remove the child from the home, but hopefully they will make sure the parent gets the help they need. Locking a toddler into a bathroom is bordering on abuse, if it doesn't actually cross the line.

    Posted by akmom April 29, 10 09:39 AM
  1. I don't disagree that it's not extremely dangerous. However, I'm more concerned about the psychological side effects. As of yet, the child has not been injured and hopefully, if the mother is reading this, she'll discontinue this ineffective method of discipline.

    And what playground are you at where every kid is being supervised enough to avoid falling and breaking their arm (I knew about 5 kids in elementary school who did this)? Sure, they're supervised. As they fall and dislocate their shoulder, I'm sure someone is watching. Yet, we still send our kids off to the playground and the swimming pool and the skateboarding park. This woman was only on the other side of the bathroom door-mere feet away. And I get the distinction so there really is no need to be so dramatic and ask if I "really" don't understand it . I made the comparison because I don't think the bathroom is so much more dangerous than other places we let children hang out, which is why I'm FAR more weary of what this is doing to the child mentally. That's where the focus of helping her needs to be, in my opinion. In addition to that, we don't know enough about this situation to be calling her an unfit parent. It's a few sentences from a frustrated woman. Hardly what I would call an accurate portrait of her life. I can promise you, as a lawyer who deals with child services and unfit parents on a consistent basis, this is VERY low on the scale of terrible parenting. From what I gather, she uses the bathroom out of frustration, not to be cruel. She just needs better methods and I think Barbara pointed her in that direction. I hope she listens.

    Posted by Linney April 29, 10 10:37 AM
  1. Linney, you make some good points. However, I still think there's a huge difference between a child breaking an arm at the playground while an adult is right there and a toddler drowning in the toilet or bathtub while there is no adult in the room. Even if mom truly is on the other side of the door, if the kid sticks his head in the toilet (let's face it - kids do that!) and manages to inhale water, she may not hear anything, and by the time she goes in to check, it's too late.

    We agree that the focus needs to be on helping mom. I know it's low on the scale of awful parenting, but that doesn't mean it's not worthy of attention - it's not outside the realm of possibility that her frustration could blossom into some of the more egregiously bad parenting. And her intent (frustration vs. cruelty) doesn't matter one whit if the child winds up injured or dead, or even terrified to toilet-train.

    I agree 100% with your last two sentences - she needs to learn better methods, and hopefully she will follow Barbara's links or find some other resource that can get her the information she needs, before it gets to the point where you would agree that child protective services needs to be involved.

    Posted by akmom April 29, 10 10:56 AM
 
18 comments so far...
  1. Someone who routinely locks a toddler in a bathroom should be reported to child protective services. That's putting the child at serious risk of injury or death, and this person clearly needs some guidance as to proper discipline methods. At least he or she knows they need some help and is reaching out, but it seems likely that they need more advice than they can get from one column.

    Posted by akmom April 27, 10 09:13 AM
  1. Let's recap. You have a baby. Your baby wants things and doesn't understand why he can't have them, because he is a BABY and doesn't have adequate language skills to comprehend. You, the adult, retaliate against the BABY by locking him alone in a dangerous room.

    Yeah, you have a problem all right. Your child is acting like a normal 18-month-old. You are acting like someone who needs to report regularly to DSS.

    Posted by Redpanda April 27, 10 09:15 AM
  1. I was thinking the same thing as akmom, and secretly hoping this letter was as real as a prank call. Yikes.

    Posted by RH April 27, 10 09:26 AM
  1. Barbara - I urge you to provide this persons information to the proper authorities, if they have resorted to locking a child in the bathroom at 18 months what are they going to do to the child in a few years.

    Posted by JT April 27, 10 09:42 AM
  1. This letter makes me wonder how old the LW is. I am assuming she is a younger mom. The fact that an infant...just turning into toddlerhood is locked in a bathroom where he can fall crack his head open from the tub or toilet. OR drown in the toilet!!!! Apparently you failed to think of the dangers when you locked him in there. Seek help. Children should never, under any circumstances, be locked in any room.

    Posted by jd April 27, 10 10:39 AM
  1. I agree with Barbara's response. The most important thing is to ensure the child is safe and for the parent to learn the right techniques for each phase.

    This parent needs help and is finally seeking help. This parent doesn't seem equiped with the knowledge or tools to address the ever-changing stages of a growing child and maybe this parent has no support at home. Or maybe the parent is depressed and therefore is not making the right judgements. Though it is never the child's fault, we need to consider that maybe the child might have medical issues that make it more difficult to address the behaviour. Or maybe there is a combination of issues...

    There are many possibilities and I find the situation described by the parent of deeper concern beyond that of just saying that this is a "bad parent".

    This parent is reaching out and it is a great opportunity for putting the parent in touch with someone who can provide guidance and assess the situation at home. We certainly don't have enough information to make a fair assessment.

    Posted by rmg April 27, 10 10:59 AM
  1. LW, seek professional help, before you end up locked up...in jail.

    Barbara, I understand and agree with your advice. However, is it best to use incorrect grammar when speaking to a child? “Biting is no”? I get it, its simple, to the point, but so is “No Biting.” Or “Do Not Bite”. I don’t find baby talk cute, unless it is coming from a baby actually trying to learn how to speak. How can one expect a child to expand a vocabulary when all they hear is “chomp chomp is an owie” I’m sure the tone of voice is more important then the actual words or syntax, but why not be stern and use proper speech?

    Posted by Monte72 April 27, 10 01:34 PM
  1. Wow, there's a lot of drama today in the mailbag. I think the fact that this mom is looking for help is great. No parent is perfect, including these commenters. We all make mistakes. I know my mother did (I was frequently left alone in the car while she ran into the store-imagine the HORROR). I turned out OK. Instead of turning her in and doing irreversible harm to the child by removing him from a loving constant in his life (his mother), why not be supportive and offer suggestions as Barbara has? It's easy to throw insults when you can hide behind a computer. She wrote to ask for help, not to be lambasted by holier than thous.

    Posted by Linney April 27, 10 03:07 PM
  1. Every time I've read your "Biting is No!" phrase, I've had the same reaction as Monte72, for what it's worth...

    Posted by Ajay April 27, 10 03:13 PM
  1. I'm not going to chime in about locking the child in the bathroom -- that's been covered well by prior posters -- except to say that the LW could hardly have picked a more dangerous place to leave her child.

    But on the subject of the parenting advice given, in general, I want to echo Monte72: coming from a family of educators, one of whom is a speech therapist, speaking to kids using incorrect grammar is a poor idea. They learn to speak by mimicking us. We should speak to our kids correctly so they learn to speak correctly themselves. "No biting" is just as clear and firm and simple as the incorrect "biting is no."

    Posted by jlen April 27, 10 03:20 PM
  1. I am far from perfect, but I don't routinely make 'mistakes' that could kill my kids. Of all the places to lock a small child - in the bathroom? Really? Let's see - hard floor, lots of hard surfaces, and oh yeah, water. (Not to mention the psychological issues this kid is likely to have when it's time to toilet-train) Did you hear about the two year old who died yesterday in his family's small decorative pond? Children drown in *inches* of water all the time. If this is the way this person parents, they should not have custody of their child until they learn better ways to do things. I agree that it's good that they are looking for help, but they need more help than they can get from a single letter.

    Posted by akmom April 27, 10 04:37 PM
  1. Linney, I don't think anyone here is holier than thou. We do all have our bad parenting moments. Anyone would be lying if they said they didn't. I admit I have had my fair share but none that could potentially kill my kids. And yes, most of us here do think it is good for the LW to seek help but, like AkMom said, they need more help than they can get from this letter.

    Posted by jd April 28, 10 08:07 AM
  1. Agreed with Monte72, Ajay and jlen on the language issue. I've always told my kids (now 12 and 2) "no hitting", "no biting", "do not throw your food", etc. and they managed to understand perfectly well.

    I hope the letter writer will get some help in learning how to deal with her child. An 18-month old can be a challenge, but 2-3 year olds are on a whole other level of difficulty, and it worries me to think of what she may resort to for punishment in another years' time.

    Posted by DT April 28, 10 09:07 AM
  1. So much about both the question and response left me speechless. I had to keep coming back to read to see if it was real.

    First of all, Barbara, I'm surprised that you glossed over the fact that the LW chose the bathroom, the most dangerous room in the house, to lock her child in and simply stated that it can be scary for pre-tots to be left alone.

    You also failed to note that, even if an 18-month old says that he's sorry, he doesn't understand, really, what he's saying. That the mother believes that he's actually apologizing is a huge red-flag in terms of her own basic understanding of the way that children develop. Even our 2-year old says, "Sowwee, Mommy!" - when she's running and falls. She's getting there, but no one should expect true depth of apology from a baby or toddler.

    And yes, the LW definitely needs more help than any advice columnist can give. Everyone has their moments as parents, but most parents simply put their child in a safe place or have their own safe, comforting methods of dealing with negative behavior and correcting it.

    Locking a baby in a dangerous room sends the message that he can't trust you, that he's not safe and yes, as another commenter suggested, is probably going to play merry he** with his potty training down the road.


    Posted by Phe April 28, 10 01:21 PM
  1. Yes, I agree that this person needs more than help than a letter can provide but Barbara DID tell her where to get more help. What did you all provide for her? And for the record, there are lots of places parents let their kids go that are dangerous everyday. Ever play on the monkey bars? Let them walk down concrete stairs? "Hard floors" and "hard surfaces" aren't exactly hard to come by. I just think it's counterproductive to spew critique at her when help is what she really needs. And I think it's worth noting that child services is very unlikely to remove a child from a home and put him into the system just because his parent locked him in the bathroom a few times.

    And jd, you don't have to think anyone here is holier than thou. But I do.

    Posted by Linney April 28, 10 06:05 PM
  1. Linney, there's a huge difference between having a child at a dangerous place such as a playground, where they are being supervised, and locking them into a dangerous place with no supervision. Do you really not understand the distinction?

    Maybe child services won't remove the child from the home, but hopefully they will make sure the parent gets the help they need. Locking a toddler into a bathroom is bordering on abuse, if it doesn't actually cross the line.

    Posted by akmom April 29, 10 09:39 AM
  1. I don't disagree that it's not extremely dangerous. However, I'm more concerned about the psychological side effects. As of yet, the child has not been injured and hopefully, if the mother is reading this, she'll discontinue this ineffective method of discipline.

    And what playground are you at where every kid is being supervised enough to avoid falling and breaking their arm (I knew about 5 kids in elementary school who did this)? Sure, they're supervised. As they fall and dislocate their shoulder, I'm sure someone is watching. Yet, we still send our kids off to the playground and the swimming pool and the skateboarding park. This woman was only on the other side of the bathroom door-mere feet away. And I get the distinction so there really is no need to be so dramatic and ask if I "really" don't understand it . I made the comparison because I don't think the bathroom is so much more dangerous than other places we let children hang out, which is why I'm FAR more weary of what this is doing to the child mentally. That's where the focus of helping her needs to be, in my opinion. In addition to that, we don't know enough about this situation to be calling her an unfit parent. It's a few sentences from a frustrated woman. Hardly what I would call an accurate portrait of her life. I can promise you, as a lawyer who deals with child services and unfit parents on a consistent basis, this is VERY low on the scale of terrible parenting. From what I gather, she uses the bathroom out of frustration, not to be cruel. She just needs better methods and I think Barbara pointed her in that direction. I hope she listens.

    Posted by Linney April 29, 10 10:37 AM
  1. Linney, you make some good points. However, I still think there's a huge difference between a child breaking an arm at the playground while an adult is right there and a toddler drowning in the toilet or bathtub while there is no adult in the room. Even if mom truly is on the other side of the door, if the kid sticks his head in the toilet (let's face it - kids do that!) and manages to inhale water, she may not hear anything, and by the time she goes in to check, it's too late.

    We agree that the focus needs to be on helping mom. I know it's low on the scale of awful parenting, but that doesn't mean it's not worthy of attention - it's not outside the realm of possibility that her frustration could blossom into some of the more egregiously bad parenting. And her intent (frustration vs. cruelty) doesn't matter one whit if the child winds up injured or dead, or even terrified to toilet-train.

    I agree 100% with your last two sentences - she needs to learn better methods, and hopefully she will follow Barbara's links or find some other resource that can get her the information she needs, before it gets to the point where you would agree that child protective services needs to be involved.

    Posted by akmom April 29, 10 10:56 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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