"D" is for "Discipline"

A week ago my wife sadly declared, "Dear, we've gotten it all wrong." With a look of dismay and a voice of despondency, she continued, "Nothing we have done seems to have worked and Z continues to bite and to pinch and to throw his temper tantrums."

I responded with a sigh, agreeing that our efforts to discipline our son had so far not yielded any visible fruit. "I really don't know what to do as well," I replied.

And we both shook our heads.

Discipline has been an issue for our almost 20-month-old son, who will soon reach the dangerous age of the "terrible twos." Last month, our family of three took a two-week trip to Vietnam, taking in the northern sights of the capital Hanoi, scenic Halong Bay and mountain retreat Sapa. It was a spectacular trip and we were witnesses to how one of Southeast Asia's oldest countries grapples with issues of tradition and modernity. However, travelling in a developing country with a one-year-old son is more challenging than it sounds. For instance, my lovely pair of glasses (which I bought for our wedding) almost ended up in Halong Bay. Our son was then in a cranky mood and he had yanked them off while we were climbing the stairs at Sung Sot, the world-renown "Surprise Cave". Thankfully I was quick to recover them from him, and they were saved from the fate of ending up in Davy Jones' Locker. This incident was repeated not once, but no fewer than 20 times for Sue during the entire trip, and we were thankful each time we were able to recover her glasses.

Z has begun to throw temper tantrums whenever he does not get his way; he has resorted to pinching and biting us when we take him away from things that we feel are dangerous for him. There have also been times when he would shriek uncontrollably and even hit his head continuously on our chests or roll around on the ground if we tried to carry him or to physically stop him from doing things he wanted. During these instances, we were certain that many invisible eyes would be locked on that "unbecoming child" whose parents could not even seem to control him.

Child development literature highlights that pinching, biting and temper tantrums are all part of a developmental phase that toddlers go through. Stanley Greenspan, for instance, in his book, Building Healthy Minds: The Six Experiences that Create Intelligence and Emotional Growth in Babies and Young Children, observes that such behaviour is all about toddlers learning how to develop a sense of self. In addition, Dr Greenspan notes that children in their second year of life also need to learn how to cope with their emotions, how to think scientifically and how to develop a sense of right and wrong. He says these are the problems that children of this age group encounter, and it is therefore up to parents to help them solve them.

In our attempts to address the negative behaviour of our son, we had been enforcing a rather strict code of discipline. For instance, we would say "Oh Oh!" whenever he does something wrong. This would be followed by a talking to from us during which we would tell him why the behaviour was wrong and then insist on him using the sign language gesture for "sorry". Failing which, we would send him to his cot for a "time out" session and allow him out only after he said sorry. Then, when he finally admitted his mistake, we would then communicate by both touch and with words that we forgive him and that we still love him.

In recent weeks it had been more and more difficult to discipline him. We then learnt that some parents we know use physical punishment such as the hitting of the hands to instill discipline. In Vietnam we had to resort to such actions, especially since there were moments when we had to force a stop to his behaviour. One such instance was when Z sunk his teeth deep into Sue's arm and refused to let go. He only relented after I hit him very hard on his hand. By then, Sue had already suffered a deep wound which took more than a week to heal.

In the days following our Vietnam trip, it seemed that Z's tantrums were getting worse, and that nothing we were doing seemed right. Sue's father had begun enforcing physical punishment and there had been limited results. The grandmothers, however, could not bear to discipline their precious grandchild. My mum, for instance, could not even standby and watch me carry him while he was in his bad temper mood. She hastily asked to carry him and attempted to distract him by pointing to objects. All to no avail.

My learned wife has since been reading a number of books to help resolve the issue. One of the books that she has been reading is Building Healthy Minds. We had initially been worried that Z's behaviour was overly aggressive. Thankfully, Dr Greenspan assured us that all of the pinching, biting and tantrum behaviour is normal. He advocates that parents teach their toddlers how to manage their emotions by interacting with them even as the child continues with the behaviour. This would then help the child to label the emotion and learn how to deal with it. Likewise, limit setting was also encouraged and parents were asked to illustrate the seriousness of their disapproval via the tone of their voices and the severity of their actions.

We are still trying to digest all that has been shared in the book and to present the information to Z's grandparents for them to adopt. This especially since we believe there has to be coherence in how all of us approach the topic of discipline. Sue's father has suggested for all of us go for a caregivers conference i.e. that all of Z's caregivers meet to discuss a common disciplinary approach. We feel this is a good suggestion and hope to convene the meeting soon. We hope that by then, that Z would learn how to manage his emotions and that we too, as parents, would learn how to help him deal with them.


  1. Mark and Sue... well, our kids are very much in the same phase. Ha.. I meant the girl of course. I am no expert and I'm also dealing with S' occasional hitting spree and tantrums. But my limited experience with my older boy tells me that it takes a while of training for obvious behavioural changes. Things will be more helpful when they learn to communicate and could share their frustrations and wants, and that might be another few months to a year. As they mature, they would also be able to accepts reasons better.
    One reminder I find helpful is that kids throw tantrums because they are dealing with emotions larger than themselves. With this in mind, I would first try to emphatise with S and her frustrations. More often than not, I'll give her some time and space to cool down before trying to communicate with her or metting out punishment if necessary.
    I'm still trying to work on the hitting part though. Her brother has a milder personality so I never had to deal with that. It's a new challenge. Let's learn together in this journey. It's great to have supportive parents working with you. I'm sure Z will benefit from your efforts.

  2. Oh... btw, I found offering alternatives to S useful when I cannot give her what she wants. I would divert her attention by offering some more suitable activities or toys or food. And that helped averted full blow tantrums in a couple of situations. Not too sure if you've tried...

    1. Hi Elaine, thanks for sharing, we really benefit from your experience. Yes we have to be reminded that Z is dealing with huge emotions and can't often express himself yet. The book I was reading reminded us not to emotionally disconnect with our children even in the face of their anger, but to remain calm and connect empathically first before punishing. It's easier said than done though! I tend to freeze in the face of anger of any kind. It's been a few months of this behaviour though it seems like forever... a good reminder that it is only a phase.

      We've tried offering distractions, sometimes it works but mostly not - we have a very focused and determined son who seems to have an elephant's memory for what he wants! Thankfully, Z seems to have outgrown his tantrum phase... we need to deal with the hitting and biting now. Please do share what you learn about how to handle this area from your interactions with S. Our PD told us to let him hang out with other children of similar temperament, but we haven't found many yet ;-)

  3. When he bites and won't let go, pinch his nose. When he can't breathe he will simply let go. Don't worry, it's safe

    1. Haha... That's a great idea Inky! Will try that the next time :)

  4. My heart goes out to you two. Having a daughter who has frequent deafening screaming fits (and yes, she is the one who hits everybody else in the family), I know what you're going through.

    I've also tried every method in the book: Time-out, ignoring, distracting, offering alternatives, hugging tightly, singing praise songs, praying during tantrums, using the cane (which I try to avoid) and even letting her smell essential oils. You name it, I've done it. But I realised that nothing works all the time.

    One of the best way I find is to learn how to "read" your child VERY well. Look out for trigger words, actions, situations or even your tone of voice and try to diffuse the tension even before the tantrum becomes full-blown.

    If all else fails and she's in a full-blown tantrum, I don't try to reason during tantrums cos my daughter will not listen with all that raging emotions which she fails to cope with. My focus will simply to calm her down first. It goes against my nature but I try to offer hugs, kisses, carry her, affirm her that she's a beautiful princess whom God loves very much, sing to her (though she sometimes screams for me to stop and I'll stop and push me away when I try to hug her). I will reason with her only after she has calmed down. She's then more willing to listen to my explanation why I can't give in to what she wants and make her apologise for her wrong-doing. That said, it takes lots of patience in enduring all that abuse from your child for an extended length of time (my girl's tantrums can last for hours!)

    As for the invisible eyes, I've been judged countless times by strangers who have absolutely no idea what's going on. It seems like I'm always the one at fault (i.e. didn't love her enough, didn't treat her well enough, didn't give her what she needs, being too harsh on her...) My advice is: Just ignore them. God sees your efforts and love for Z. The strangers come and go and it's easy for them to say things when they are not the one suffering. We'll just have to develop very thick skin. LOL

    It's wonderful when you have so much support from your extended family. It makes a lot of difference. Some grandparents go out of their way to sabotage the efforts of the parents to discipline the child....

    I may not be of much help but just wanna let you know that I'm praying for you. :) Press on, friends!

    1. Thanks for your prayer support. It's really much appreciated :) We're also thankful for our parents who have really been so supportive!

      Yes, we've also been learning how important it is to read our son - he gets especially cranky if he does not get to sleep or if he is in the company of too many strangers. And yes, it's always good to try to stop the negative behaviour before it develops into a full-blown tantrum.

      Well, I do agree that tantrums are hard to manage. For us we also don't reason with him - send him straight into his cot if we're at home. If we're out it's more difficult - the only recourse so far for me has been to hold him firmly and try to stop him from biting or pinching - but he is very strong, so that's been quite a challenge.


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