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Posted on Tue, Nov 15, 2011 : 5:30 a.m.

Understanding a toddler's motivation can pinpoint solutions when parents feel helpless

By Kerry Novick

Dear Kerry,
I love my little boy very much, but sometimes he just drives me crazy. He’s only 16 months old, but he’s into everything. When I can’t control him I feel like I’m at the end of my rope. Even when I spank him, he doesn’t seem to learn. I don’t like to do, that and I don’t like feeling so angry with him. How can I make him mind better?
—LS, Milan

Dear LS,
You are not alone. Every parent is challenged by moments of helplessness. Babies growing up constantly present us with new situations that we don’t yet know how to handle. We all recognize that overwhelmed feeling, when nothing you do seems to work. And it feels embarrassing to be unable to control someone who only weighs 25 pounds!

Since there is no way to avoid those moments, the issue is how to respond. How can you equip yourself to feel capable at moments of stress, to be able to reach for comfortable techniques in the heat of the moment?

One tool is to understand where your little one is coming from. With a toddler, his drive to explore is much stronger than his beginning sense of what is safe and right or dangerous and wrong. Curiosity is a good thing to nurture for his whole life, so it’s important to make his environment as safe for that as you can.

Putting plasticware and light pots in a bottom kitchen cupboard, for instance, so he can safely open and close the door himself, pull them out, nest them, bang on them with a wooden spoon, put them all back in (probably over and over) — this gives him an acceptable way to learn about his world. If you secure the other cupboard doors with childproof latches, then you won’t have to say no all the time; you’ll be less likely to get into control battles.

Helplessness is one of our most basic fears and most of us are geared to respond to that awful feeling with a deep danger reaction of ‘fight or flight.’ Part of what makes parenting so hard is that we can’t run away from our babies, since our impulse to keep them safe and love them is also so strong. They need us to stay there and take care of them.

And we can’t fight someone so little and defenseless. Except that is just what many parents find themselves doing, because they don’t have alternatives available.

Hundreds of studies document that physical punishment in childhood is associated with later verbal and physical aggression; delinquent, antisocial and criminal behavior; poorer quality of parent-child relationships; impaired mental health; and later abuse of one’s own spouse and children. Despite all the evidence of bad effects, some people elevate spanking, paddling and whipping into a child-rearing method, for instance the report in the Nov. 6 issue of the New York Times of a systematic program of beating babies, toddlers and children with plastic pipes, belts, straps and willow switches, sanctioned by so-called religious authority.

An alternative option is to develop your own emotional muscles to find the positive of curiosity when he "gets into everything;" remembering that you share his goal of being in charge of himself long-term so that you can support his learning how the world works; setting limits that mesh with his real capacities; putting words to feelings and actions to enlist the power of language to help you both. Along the way you will be helping him develop his own emotional muscles of a sense of agency and self-control as he learns what he can and can’t do.

Together you will both get a lot of fun out of finding new ways to play and be with each other. Enjoy these precious years!

Kerry Kelly Novick is a local child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst, and author, with Jack Novick, of "Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children," available at or through Check the website regularly for blogposts and news of upcoming media appearances and events. Follow EMOTIONAL MUSCLE: STRONG PARENTS, STRONG CHILDREN on Facebook. She welcomes your email with comments and questions for future columns at