Doctor Betti
Dr. Betti Hertzberg Ressler is a Board Certified Pediatrician on staff at Miami Children's Hospital. Dr. Hertzberg developed the toilet training video "Let's Go Potty." She is the co-author of "The Doctor's Book of Home Remedies for Children."

Changing a Toddlers Behaviors

Question: I have a 33-month-old son. He is the first of two. My daughter is one. Over the past three or four months my son has become increasinly fresh. He is not hitting or bitting, so I guess I should be thankful for that. What he is doing however is really getting on my nerves. If he wants something he will demand "I want it now." Or if I ask him not to do something he will just ignore me and do it anyway including things like dragging my 1-year-old around by her legs or delibrately taking a toy away from her or pushing her down. When I ask him to stop, he will yell at the top of his lungs. I then send him into a time out. This goes on every night from the time I get home to the time he goes to bed. I try to reason with him first but it always turns out the same. Charlene

Answer: In the mind of a toddler, "the world revolves around me," "I am the center of the universe," "I want it, and I want it now!" Sound familiar? He's not mean (not really)! He's striving for independence and control. This is normal.

Reasoning is not something that a 33-month-old child can do very well. They do better with simple statements and directions that are straightforward. Consistency and following through will be more productive. If you say you will take this away if he does that, then make sure you take it away.

Toddlers quickly learn how to manipulate and "push buttons." Time out is good, but make sure that the time spent is not enjoyable for him. (Playing with his toys, watching a video, etc.)

It's important to let your son know that certain behaviors are not appropriate nor acceptable. He's not really aware that his actions may hurt his little sister. He only knows that if he does certain things, he'll be getting attention for it. Any attention will do, whether it's a good word or raising your voice.

By asking him to stop certain behaviors, you are giving him the choice of whether he wants to stop or not. With some things, there are no choices. What your toddler needs during this phase of development is to be given choices, so he's in control! Examples: choose which shirt or pants he wants to wear. Choose what colors he wants to color with. Choose which food he wants to eat first. Allowing him control in everyday tasks will make it easier to focus on other things that are more constructive.

Behaviors that are reinforced, tend to be repeated. Same goes for not reinforcing them. A child that is continuously reminded not to suck his or her thumb may continue to do so because of the reinforcement and attention that is obtained. Sometimes it's best to ignore an unwanted behavior. Unless it's going to be hurtful or dangerous. Ignoring this type of behavior may not be wise.

Many times, the toddler that has been the center of attention is selfishly wanting to continue getting the attention. A new sibling or environment that is removing some of that attention will cause him to demand it more. After all, IT'S MINE, IT'S ME AND I'M IN CONTROL!

Just remember this is normal growth and development. Try to be patient and both you and your child will grow.

Good luck,
Dr. Betti Hertzberg

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  • Ask Dr. Betti your questions

    This information is not intended to be a substitute for visiting your pediatrician. If you or your child has specific concerns, you should see your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment.