In search of self-control

In search of self-control

An unruly toddler needs guidance free from a parent’s transferred childhood emotions

By Patti Carmalt-Vener 06/12/2014

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Dear Patti,
My first problem concerns my 2 ½-year-old son, Brody, who is an absolute joy but also willful and high-spirited. He laughs hard, cries loudly and is like a hurricane when he gets angry. He’s much bigger and stronger than most toddlers his age and lately has been hitting and pushing other children when they get in his way or have a toy he wants. He even bit one child. Our pediatrician insists Brody is healthy, that his behavior is normal and that much of his impulsiveness will disappear as he matures.    
The second problem is me. I get angry at Brody when he throws temper tantrums. I know part of my feelings stem from embarrassment, even though other mothers tell me it’s normal to get upset when your child acts out. I also realize I get angry sometimes because Brody reminds me of my older brother, who used to intimidate me and act out to get our parents’ attention when we were young. I feel like I’m reacting to Brody as if he’s my brother and I don’t want to do that. I want to move on from old family drama and love Brody for who he is without putting my past issues onto him. 

— Cory

Dear Cory,
I very much admire your wanting to heal from past childhood traumas so they won’t interfere with your life today. You’ve already taken the first critical step by recognizing Brody is a normal toddler and that you’re emotionally reacting as if his behavior is similar to that previously experienced with your brother. This is called transference. The more you acknowledge and experience your repressed feelings toward your brother, the less power those historic feelings will be able to influence what you’re feeling in the present. To reduce this tendency and explore what residual feelings from childhood are being activated, I strongly recommend professional counseling. Find a therapist whom you trust and feel connected to. The goal is for the two of you to create a safe, private space in which you carefully examine and heal these painful memories.

Try this exercise. Write down all the negative traits that characterized your brother. Choose a negative trait from your list and remember a specific time where your brother exhibited that trait and caused you to feel mistreated. See the experience in your mind’s eye. Feel your anger and hurt. Do that with each negative trait and you’ll begin to understand where all of this is rooted. 

I agree with you that you don’t want past experiences to interfere with your relationship with your son. Brody needs your love, support and parenting free from transferring emotions from your childhood. 

Toddlers can truly be a handful, especially when they’re testing the limits of what we consider to be suitable behavior for their age. When a child Brody’s age hits, bites and pushes other children, it’s unacceptable. At the same time, it’s developmentally appropriate. A 12-year-old child who engages in similar acts, however, is doing things that are not only unacceptable but also developmentally inappropriate.

In Brody’s case, he may be extra willful and unruly, but what you’ve described is normal behavior for a toddler who needs parenting and guidance. Much of his behavior is innocent immaturity, and while it’s nothing to worry about, you shouldn’t ignore it, either. Every time he is inappropriate with another child, try giving him a “time-out,” removing him from the situation and sitting him in a chair for two-and-a-half minutes (one minute for each year of age). You may have to put him in the chair many times in one play period but repetition and consistency are necessary and important. Sit next to him or be close by; he doesn’t need to be sent away or isolated. This is meant to be a training experience, not a punishment. Try to react calmly without scolding or arguing. This will help him distinguish between his feelings and his behavior and to learn that it’s acceptable to be angry but not acceptable to act on his anger. Lastly, give him lots of praise when he learns self-control. Brody needs to learn how to get along with others so as not to end up being socially ostracized.

As in the case of our children, those we love and are attached to most are often our best teachers.  

Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email Visit her Web site,


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