Getting your 18-month-old to listen

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 7, 2012 06:00 AM

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My 18 month old son is proving to be a challenging one to discipline. Whenever he does something that we disapprove of, whether it is throwing his dinner on the floor or hitting us, we look him in the eye and speak to him in a stern voice. If the behavior is bad, we give him a timeout. His response is to laugh at us, and his behavior never improves. What are we doing wrong?

From: Anne, Acton, MA

Dear Anne,

Three things:

(1) Your little guy is doing exactly what he's supposed to do at this age: he's testing cause and effect. "If I throw my food down, what happens? Ah, it falls and mom gets this funny voice and expression. What if I do it again? Does the same thing happen? No! It still falls, but mom gets another funny look!" His laughter? He's not laughing at you. He's laughing with you. He thinks you're in this together, that this is a game, a routine: FUN!

(2) Young children want our attention more than anything else, and they don't categorize it as positive and negative. To them, it's all the same. He's delighted because there's nothing he wants more than to be engaged with you.

(3) Forget about time-out. Time-out does not work for some children, especially at young ages, and then again after age 7. It never works if you over-use it.

Instead:

Set age-appropriate limits that you can live with, and he can, too. You're setting your expectations too high to think a toddler will not throw food on the floor. So cover the floor with newspaper and then ignore him when he throws and/or drops food. Like magic -- well, OK, a few meals, give or take -- he'll lose interest in this behavior. Why? Because if you're not giving the behavior attention, it no longer works as a point of connection.

The other strategy for toddlers is to remove your attention. That's essentially what you're doing when you ignore the food-dropping but it works with other behaviors, too. If you're playing together on the floor and he starts to hit you, take hold of his arm, tell him firmly, "No hitting," and then abruptly stand up and say in a firm but matter-of-fact voice, "I can't play with you if you hit." Turn your back on him, leave the room, do whatever it takes to make your point. He'll be really angry so you need to learn to tolerate that anger (assuming, of course, that he's safe). When the tantrum runs its course, you can calmly sit back down and offer to try again. If he kicks again, you need to repeat -- and repeat and repeat -- the same behavior.

My book for parenting toddlers? "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," by Harvey Karp, MD.

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10 comments so far...
  1. I also suggest the Positive Discipline book series and approach. It has worked well for our family.

    Posted by Dawn May 7, 12 10:34 AM
  1. This works for children of all ages: Don't just tell them what NOT to do, tell them what to do instead, or give them something else to do.

    Also, I second the directions above. Do not use indirect language about "us" or yourself ("We don't use our hands for hitting in our house" or "It makes Mommy sad when you throw your dinner on the floor). It's hard for toddlers to understand--it is too abstract and does not communicate that you are actually giving a command (stop hitting, keep your dinner on the table) as opposed to just giving out an interesting tidbit of information. It's pretending you aren't giving directions.

    Posted by di May 7, 12 02:29 PM
  1. This is what I do with my 18 month old (see below). Works like a charm. Now I say, "If you hit/throw things at me, I can't play with you and will have to leave. Do you want me to leave?" and she says "No." (at least, she does for now) and stops hitting/throwing. Hope that works for you!

    If you're playing together on the floor and he starts to hit you, take hold of his arm, tell him firmly, "No hitting," and then abruptly stand up and say in a firm but matter-of-fact voice, "I can't play with you if you hit." Turn your back on him, leave the room, do whatever it takes to make your point. He'll be really angry so you need to learn to tolerate that anger (assuming, of course, that he's safe). When the tantrum runs its course, you can calmly sit back down and offer to try again. If he kicks again, you need to repeat -- and repeat and repeat -- the same behavior.

    Posted by Poppy May 8, 12 12:12 PM
  1. Also for use with toddlers: ignore & redirect. Ignore the bad behavior and encourage something else.

    As 'di' noted, tell children what is expected. For my kids: we place a spare plate on the table, directly in front of the toddler's plate. If they don't want to eat something, the guidance is "put on plate". When food goes on the plate, they get positive reinforcement (GOOD JOB!).

    Posted by Stacie May 8, 12 12:25 PM
  1. Do you have any children of your own? I worked on a Child Psych unit and the social workers had no children, and they did not give out very good advice. I will try your methods and hope they work. Thanks for trying to help. I appreciate it.

    Posted by Eleanor L. Barry May 8, 12 12:51 PM
  1. 1. Spank.
    2. Stern lecture.
    3. Send to bed with no dinner.
    4. See #1

    Posted by G.Murphy May 8, 12 03:17 PM
  1. Negative reinforcement: If you do that, I will take away your IPad. What? Every toddler needs an IPad . . .

    Posted by harry May 8, 12 06:28 PM
  1. @G. Murphy You call for spanking an 18 month old child?! You must be a real tough guy.

    Posted by Eoin23 May 8, 12 06:45 PM
  1. Wow to spanking an 18-month old baby. For pete's sake, understanding a bit about child development and a baby or toddler's actual cognitive abilities can go a long way towards better parenting.

    Just because you can hit a baby doesn't mean you should.

    Posted by jjlen May 8, 12 08:57 PM
  1. @G. Murphy At first I was distracted by the spanking part (which is so ridiculous! An 18-month old is going to understand all the cause and effect? Ha!), that I didn't even notice the "stern lecture" part. This must be a stroll job, right? Stern lecture using an 18-month's vocabulary...

    Posted by Mason May 9, 12 11:05 AM
 
10 comments so far...
  1. I also suggest the Positive Discipline book series and approach. It has worked well for our family.

    Posted by Dawn May 7, 12 10:34 AM
  1. This works for children of all ages: Don't just tell them what NOT to do, tell them what to do instead, or give them something else to do.

    Also, I second the directions above. Do not use indirect language about "us" or yourself ("We don't use our hands for hitting in our house" or "It makes Mommy sad when you throw your dinner on the floor). It's hard for toddlers to understand--it is too abstract and does not communicate that you are actually giving a command (stop hitting, keep your dinner on the table) as opposed to just giving out an interesting tidbit of information. It's pretending you aren't giving directions.

    Posted by di May 7, 12 02:29 PM
  1. This is what I do with my 18 month old (see below). Works like a charm. Now I say, "If you hit/throw things at me, I can't play with you and will have to leave. Do you want me to leave?" and she says "No." (at least, she does for now) and stops hitting/throwing. Hope that works for you!

    If you're playing together on the floor and he starts to hit you, take hold of his arm, tell him firmly, "No hitting," and then abruptly stand up and say in a firm but matter-of-fact voice, "I can't play with you if you hit." Turn your back on him, leave the room, do whatever it takes to make your point. He'll be really angry so you need to learn to tolerate that anger (assuming, of course, that he's safe). When the tantrum runs its course, you can calmly sit back down and offer to try again. If he kicks again, you need to repeat -- and repeat and repeat -- the same behavior.

    Posted by Poppy May 8, 12 12:12 PM
  1. Also for use with toddlers: ignore & redirect. Ignore the bad behavior and encourage something else.

    As 'di' noted, tell children what is expected. For my kids: we place a spare plate on the table, directly in front of the toddler's plate. If they don't want to eat something, the guidance is "put on plate". When food goes on the plate, they get positive reinforcement (GOOD JOB!).

    Posted by Stacie May 8, 12 12:25 PM
  1. Do you have any children of your own? I worked on a Child Psych unit and the social workers had no children, and they did not give out very good advice. I will try your methods and hope they work. Thanks for trying to help. I appreciate it.

    Posted by Eleanor L. Barry May 8, 12 12:51 PM
  1. 1. Spank.
    2. Stern lecture.
    3. Send to bed with no dinner.
    4. See #1

    Posted by G.Murphy May 8, 12 03:17 PM
  1. Negative reinforcement: If you do that, I will take away your IPad. What? Every toddler needs an IPad . . .

    Posted by harry May 8, 12 06:28 PM
  1. @G. Murphy You call for spanking an 18 month old child?! You must be a real tough guy.

    Posted by Eoin23 May 8, 12 06:45 PM
  1. Wow to spanking an 18-month old baby. For pete's sake, understanding a bit about child development and a baby or toddler's actual cognitive abilities can go a long way towards better parenting.

    Just because you can hit a baby doesn't mean you should.

    Posted by jjlen May 8, 12 08:57 PM
  1. @G. Murphy At first I was distracted by the spanking part (which is so ridiculous! An 18-month old is going to understand all the cause and effect? Ha!), that I didn't even notice the "stern lecture" part. This must be a stroll job, right? Stern lecture using an 18-month's vocabulary...

    Posted by Mason May 9, 12 11:05 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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