July 02, 2015

Q: My son is two and a half. He is 100% boy! He is in to everything, even things he's not supposed to be. I feel like I can't get anything done because all I do is chase him around, out of things. He doesn't stay out of bedrooms, bathrooms or the kitchen. He doesn't take a nap unless I lock him in his room. Time outs, spankings, or redirection don't work. Can you help me? I need ideas on how to help him and how to discipline him. As I typed this I had to get him from the bathroom 3 times!

A: Dear MacKoleMommy:

It is a fact that 2 year olds are often into everything. Their bodies and curiosity are strong enough for them to muscle their way into rooms and cabinets and bookcases, but their judgment and self-control are still at a very immature level of development. The child's inborn temperament and personality often have a lot to do with the strength of a toddler's drive to get into everything and tear it apart all day long, since not every baby does this. But those who do seem as though they are "driven by a motor inside" (as their parents often say), and there is nothing that will change it--except the slow growth of the child's own judgment and self-discipline.

Meanwhile, you have to cope. Time-outs and spanking won't help at all (as you have observed). Adding your own annoyance to the mix will just stir up your son's natural aggression all the more, and make him more keyed up and resistant. Punishing him will not teach him to stop; it will just teach him that he is a bad boy and that you are in a power-struggle.

Your best bet is to use physical barriers to close off parts of the house that are troublesome: latches on doors to places you want off limits, and plastic locks on cabinets to baby-proof them. Get those portable kiddie fences that you can put in doorways to block entry to rooms and passageways. Then, give him plenty of pots and pans to bang around, or soft items he can climb on, and interesting stuff to explore safely.

Of course, you must say, "No no, we don't play with the floor lamp," if he starts to pull it down. Slowly and gradually he will learn from you how the world works, and how he needs to respect floor lamps and other people's feelings. But this is a long way off. Right now, you need to aim to control the situation rather than controlling your son. The more you keep a cool head and a friendly mood with your toddler, the quicker his own self-discipline will grow. Be patient, and his natural energy will provide him and you with a life-time of joy.

Elizabeth Berger MD

Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger