July 02, 2015

Q: My daughter is VERY independent and strong willed. She wants to stand her ground no matter what the situation is. But lately I have found that disciplining her is getting harder to do. Time out doesn't work, no threats of any kind work, not even spankings work. She just seems to think that everything is funny. How do I get her to understand that its not acceptable to act out or throw tantrums when things don't go her way and that I'm disciplining her?

A: Dear Tiffany Dukes:

You sound as though you and your daughter are locked in a painful battle of wills. But if you are willing to think outside the box, I have some suggestions to you about how to avoid the power struggles.

You might trade in the goal of "controlling your daughter" for the goal of "controlling the situation." This may mean re-adjusting your ideas of what is possible for a time, until your daughter's self-discipline has a chance to grow a little more. You may need to lower your expectations of her patience and her self-control somewhat, and find more flexible solutions for what needs to happen next. If your goal is to keep the day going along smoothly, so that there are fewer opportunities for you both to feel frustrated, that would be a constructive direction.

The behavior of a 2 year old is often not "acceptable." Two year olds typically have very little capacity to cope when things don't go their way. This is just how toddlers are. Keeping a good relationship with your daughter--who is of course in reality totally dependent upon you--is more important for her growth than trying to force her to respond in ways that she simply is not going to respond. You may be frightened that "giving in" will create a spoiled monster; although it is a common anxiety among parents, this worry is not really justified.

You are not going to get her to "understand" anything about her behavior. Two year olds don't really "understand" ideas like this. I would abandon that goal too. All you are trying to accomplish is the next thing: putting on our snowsuit; sitting down for our dinner; getting into our bathtub. All of these transitions are slow and difficult for two year olds.  If your ambitions are quite simple--just getting through the day--then I think you will find that interacting with your daughter will become more friendly.

Elizabeth Berger MD

Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger


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