Forget all the parenting books that say the toddler years are a great time to introduce time outs or similar punishments for temper tantrums and other emotional outbursts. Punishing toddlers’ negative behavior may lead to behavioral problems later on, especially for boys, found a new study by the University of Illinois.
“If you punish toddlers for their anger and frustration or act as if their fears are silly or shameful, they may internalize those negative emotions and that may lead to behavior problems as they get older,” says researcher Nancy McElwain, associate professor of human development at the university.
Researchers used data gleaned from observations of 107 toddlers who were part of a larger study on parent-child relationships and children’s emotional development. When the children were 33 months old, parents were asked how often their child had displayed anger or social anxiety in the last month, and how they would respond to several hypothetical situations. Six months later, parents answered questionnaires about their child’s current behavior problems.
Parents who were apt to punish their toddlers for their fears and frustrations, such as sending the child to his room or taking away a privilege, were more likely to have children who were anxious and withdrawn. Boys who had displayed a high incidence of negative emotions at 33 months were especially affected at 39 months if their parents used punishment as a means of dealing with them.
“In our culture, boys are discouraged from expressing their emotions. If you add parental punishment to these cultural expectations, the outcome for boys who often experience negative emotions may be especially detrimental,” says the study’s lead author Jennifer Engle.
So how should you deal with toddler temper tantrums?
“When children are upset, it’s better if you can talk with them and help them work through their emotions rather than sending them to their room to work through their feelings on their own,” says Engle. “Young children, especially little boys who are prone to feeling negative emotions intensely, need your comfort and support when their emotions threaten to overwhelm them.”