By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Sometimes a child at age 2 to 3 can seem so serious. Her frowns and determined pace let you know she’s trying hard to figure out her world.

She decides what she wants and worries that she may have to struggle to get it. She tries to maneuver around her parents’ commands. But she is torn between her hunger for their affection and her need to assert herself. Among the challenges:

Toilet Training

The child may be excited about identifying with the world of grown-ups. But children who have been pushed to be toilet-trained may not see it as a chance for more independence. For them, using the potty may seem like “giving in.”

Parents may not realize how much they challenge a child when they push her to be toilet-trained. What a request! Why wouldn’t a feisty child resist?

Parents may beg, “Just sit here a little bit. Do it for Mommy.” They may bargain and persuade, “Mommy can’t bring you to preschool if you’re in a diaper.”

If you’ve had a struggle, try apologizing to your child for the pressure. Let her know it’s up to her to decide when she’s ready. Then she can set her own timing and live up to her decision. It will be her achievement.


A child will have a tantrum to show you how important it is to her to make her own choices: “I want the orange shirt, not the green one.” You’ll have to pick your battles. Don’t be surprised if she melts down when you say, “No, you can’t go out in your shirt and socks. It’s raining.” A 3-year-old may still fall down screaming.

But the tantrums have a new element. As she throws herself on the ground, she may seem to do so with a dramatic flair. A tantrum is a communication. The child will look her parents straight in the eye. With a new defiance, she asserts her ability to subject them to a tantrum that only she can control.

But tantrums are no more fun for the child than for her parents. She resorts to them when she doesn’t know how else to get her way. A parent’s job is to help the child learn other means of expressing her needs.

Let her make her own decisions and feel in control but only when you can. “No, we’re not buying soda or chips. But you can decide if we should get pears or apples. Both? OK.”

Don’t take tantrums personally. You’ll just make them more powerful. Instead, stay cool and, by your lack of response, disarm her. Let her know: “Your tantrum won’t get you what you want.” Stick to your position. Then, if it’s safe, walk away. If not, stay nearby and keep an eye on her but don’t interact. Your resolve will be a relief to her. Afterward, pick her up and comfort her.

New Expectations

A child at 2 or 3 has learned so many new ways to show control over her world, but now there are new expectations too.

Pulling the cat’s tail, pinching Daddy or kicking Mommy may once have seemed playful. Now, though, the child is expected to understand that these actions are hurtful and that she will be held responsible because everyone thinks she should know better.

She needs these new expectations, which show respect for her strong wish to be in control.

(This article is adapted from “Mastering Anger and Aggression: The Brazelton Way,” by T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua D. Sparrow, M.D., published by Da Capo Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group.)

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at

Reprinted with permission from the authors.