Don’t Take the Bait!

November 15, 2018
Don’t Take the Bait!

This week’s tip on how to avoid taking the bait is from early childhood expert Claire Lerner and her website, Lerner Child Development.

Child Development and Parent Consultation


If you have heard your child say provocative things like “You’re the worst daddy!” or “I hate you!”, you are not alone. It’s frustrating, but this behavior isn’t manipulative or designed to drive you crazy. The trick is to stay calm and respond in a way that doesn’t result in a power struggle.

  1. Consider their Limitations

Remember that young children, especially those under 3 ½ to 4 years, are largely driven by emotions, not logic – so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. The part of the brain responsible for exerting control over emotions and impulses is not well-developed in children under 3. This is why toddlers are much more likely to act on their desires, such as yanking a toy out of a friend’s hand, rather than thinking, “I really want that toy, but it’s not right to grab, so I will go find myself another toy.”

  1. Understand their Reasoning

This feels exasperating, but your child is going through a normal phase of development. Young children are clever and highly skilled at tuning in to what creates a reaction.  Children are just trying to figure out how to gain the control they so desperately want, and yet have so little of. Any reaction from you puts them in the driver’s seat, and reinforces the behavior, even if your response is negative – which is counterintuitive to many parents who expect that their children want their praise and will be deterred by their anger and disappointment.

  1. Ignore It

The best way to respond to bait? Ignore it. Behaviors that don’t get a reaction tend to decrease. This doesn’t mean you ignore your child—you just don’t engage with the provocative behavior. Remain calm. Remind yourself that your child is just trying to cope with a disappointment, acknowledge the underlying feeling your child is expressing, and then move on.

  1. Respond, Rather than React

The goal is to be responsive (showing empathy for your child’s struggle while maintaining the limit), not reactive (which just fuels the flames and reinforces the behavior). Here’s an example:

  • Child: “I hate you—you are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!”
  • Reactive response: “You are so spoiled and so ungrateful! And you cannot talk to me that way!”
  • Responsive approach: “I know you’re mad you can’t get a toy today. It’s hard to be in a store and not get something for yourself, I understand.”  Then, just move on.  If he keeps nagging you, start singing a silly song or talk about what he wants to do when you get home, to show with your actions that you won’t be drawn in.


Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a nationally recognized early childhood expert with over 30 years of experience in infant mental health, parent guidance and family support. Visit her website for more information!

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