Dear Patti, 

My husband, Jeff, and I have been married for three years and have no children. Jeff’s sister, Bridget, has to care for her ill mother-in-law on weekends and has asked us to take care of her daughter, Harper, who is 21 months old. While we both care deeply for our niece, it’s becoming clear that we disagree when it comes to how to discipline her. We understand Harper may be upset having to be separated from her mother, but we can’t let her kick us, hit the cat, throw her food and constantly scream.

     In my opinion, Jeff doesn’t discipline her enough. If Harper hits the cat, Jeff pretends to cry and tells her the poor kitty is sad. Harper couldn’t care less and runs to find the cat to hit her again! If Harper starts to throw objects, Jeff tries to distract her. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. Jeff feels that I often sound angry or scolding when I attempt to discipline Harper. He also thinks I tell her “no” too often which he believes makes Harper more angry and rebellious. When Jeff was young, his mother would shame him and tell him he was a very bad boy. Jeff is adamant about not overreacting or labeling Harper. 

     While I understand his position, I also believe Harper needs to learn how to behave. I know she’s still very young, but if we don’t teach her, she won’t learn on her own.

  — Diane

Dear Diane,

Jeff is correct in that shaming and characterizing Harper as “bad” will be damaging to her self-esteem, especially at this impressionable age. She’ll end up confused, frustrated, her trust and belief in you could be compromised, and most likely such behavior will cause her to act out even more. 

You are correct that toddlers need firm and consistent boundaries taught through respectful feedback. When Harper pushes the limits — as normal toddlers do — find a calm, clear, neutral voice and talk to her normally in full sentences and slowed down speech without being false or withdrawing your affection. Show her that you are unthreatened by her behavior. The emotional state of you as a caretaker sets the tone. “Please stop screaming loudly and talk to me so I can hear you. Your yelling hurts my ears.” Explain without shaming, directly and honestly, person-to-person. “I don’t want you to hit the cat. It hurts and scares her.” Tell her what she’s allowed to do — “You can pet the kitty” — instead of always using the word “no.” 

If she continues the hitting behavior, help her gain control by taking her away from the situation to be somewhere else with you for a little while and be in tune with her feelings. Toddlers need to release their feelings frequently and that should be encouraged without condoning bad behavior (i.e., “I know you are angry because Sophia took your doll, but you can’t kick Sophia”). Harper is searching for consistent boundaries and limits and does not want to be all-powerful. She needs clear authority. She needs help to stop out-of-control behaviors and guidance regarding her aggressive impulses.

When you want Harper to do something, try to give her choices. “It’s time to brush your teeth. Do you want to use your pink, sparkly toothbrush or your sunny, bright yellow toothbrush?” Make sure, however, that you don’t give her a choice that you don’t want her to have. Example: “Do you want to brush your teeth?” If she says “no”, that’s not an acceptable choice.

Rather than distract Harper from a bad behavior, tell her what’s unacceptable and give her another choice. “I can’t let you draw on the floor, but here is some paper to draw on. Can you draw me a picture?” Telling her that she can’t draw on the floor teaches her what is acceptable and unacceptable as well as how to handle conflict. Remember to recognize her achievement. “Look how well you draw!”

Lastly, it’s essential to remember that you and your husband’s needs are important as well. It’s OK to express your likes and dislikes and to develop an honest and balanced relationship with Harper. 


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 pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.