Two-year-olds are not terrible. They are amazing.
They are learning to become confident, independent, contributors of their family and are truly finding their ways. Children, at 24 months, enter into new developmental stages that often challenge the control we had on them as infants. They find excitement in doing things themselves, employing the two-year-old mantras of “I do it” and “No”, and therefore they are less reliant on their parents to do everything for them.
This, then, becomes a pivotal time for parents as well. They in turn are learning that their child is starting to vocalize, advocate, and initiate their own thoughts and actions. This requires a loosening of the reigns and a shift for parents of two-year-olds into a role of encouragement and empowerment, moving from being the doers in their children’s lives to the supporters. And after two years of training in the doing role, this can be a difficult shift.
Before reaching 24 months, children are in the Sensimotor Stage of development. This means that they are soaking everything up like a sponge. Using only their five senses they are constantly learning their enviroment by literally taking it all in. Through many, many tests during this stage, an infant starts to learn that they are separate from the world around them. Object permanence is tested and learned. Children literally discover that when you cover a toy with a blanket, it does not go away. As with the game peek-a-boo, children learning that your face is just behind your hands and has not in fact gone away forever!
Around 24 months, children start to shift into a new stage: the Preoperational Stage of development. During this stage, children are learning to connect symbols and objects together. Why this person in front of them is labeled “Mama” but the other person is “Dada”. Language is developing and with new found information, independence is born. Children now possess a tool other than crying to convey their own thoughts, feelings, and needs. The tricky part during this stage: logic is being developed though not fully comprehended; that comes in the next stage!
This is where I often see the trend of resistance start. Children start to learn how to assert themselves in their environments, using language, looking for independence - yet lack logic. As a result, parents are left trying to meet the needs and demands of an illogical dictator!
Cue the image of angry drunk people demanding more television.
Here, then, are my top five tips for easing this transition smoothly. Poor habits and negative cycles start early. I’m hopeful that with the following five strategies your family can shift from terrible to terrific!
Speak what you want to see.
There is one little word that I want you to cast out from your vocabulary right now. This one little word is the prime source of drama and the biggest invitation to a power struggle. The word I want you to forget: DON’T.
This tip is honestly good for any age, but it especially applies for two-year-olds. Why? Because when you use this as a behavior cue, only the second part of what you say will be heard and followed.
“Don’t run!” = RUN!
“Don’t whine!” = WHINE
“Don’t think of the color blue.” = What color are you thinking of?
When using the word “don’t” our brains have to first think of what it is you do not want us to do, and THEN think about not doing it. Multiple steps. Using the color blue as an example, even if you were able to summon up another color, your brain first had to identify that the color you thought of was indeed NOT blue.
Learning to speak what we want to see (rather than what we DON’T want to see), the process is simplified. This makes it easier for the two-year-old to process and comply. Less confusion all around equals less defiance.
“Don’t run!” becomes “Walk!”
“Don’t whine!” becomes “Say it so I can hear it.”
“Don’t think of the color blue.” becomes “Think of green.”
Ignore the invitations.
Big reactions create big reinforcements.
Let me say that again: Big reactions create big reinforcements. We all learn by repeating actions over and over again - repetition reinforces the thing being learned. And actions that are reinforced stick to become the learned behavior. This is awesome for actions of love and attention, but can be really tricky with actions that create frustration and annoyance. Remember that during this stage, children are learning to label certain objects and actions. Our reactions, and non-reactions, to what they say and do help them classify what works and what to abandon.
Specifically, I’m talking about potty words and hitting. These two behaviors especially get reinforced by our reaction and become a powerful go-to for children. Remember, too, that children during this stage have not yet fully developed logic; they are purely in the research mode. So when they use these tactics of hitting and potty words, the easiest way to quit that behavior is by ignoring them.
Helpful phrasing to use in place of “We don’t say that word!” or “We don’t hit!” is to sportscast. In other words, just narrate what you see, objectively, and then teach a new way to get what they want. “Seems like you were upset that I didn’t give you the cookie you wanted. What’s a different way you can share your frustration?”
The key here is to be neutral. It certainly takes effort, but with practice you will become the champion!
Do the unexpected.
Recently, I had the joy of watching a two-year-old. When it came time to clean up, she definitely had other plans. I cued the transition, telling her, “Okay, it’s now time to clean up so we can go eat lunch!” She immediately fled the scene! I knew I had two options: chase & force or patience & empowerment. That day I chose what to her was the unexpected; I just quietly waited.
Sportscast: “Looks like you ran away when I said ‘clean up time’. You let me know when you’re ready to clean up and have lunch. I’ll be sitting right here waiting.”
The giggling from the other room was met with silence. The requests for a snack was met with silence. I held my ground and kept my silence strong. After about a minute, the toddler appeared.
Sportscast: “Oh hi! Ready to clean up now?”
As the toddler entered the room, she picked up a toy that was not part of what we were playing with and brought it over to show me.
Sportscast: “Well, I can’t look at that toy until these toys are cleaned up.” And I SHUT MY EYES.
Now I was silent and not looking. The toddler just froze for a solid 30 seconds, and then I heard the toys start to fill the bucket. I continued to cover my eyes while I simply cued, “You let me know when the toys are picked up and I can open my eyes.” Within a minute all the toys were cleaned up, I opened my eyes to look at the new toy and then made the transition to lunch.
It was unexpected that I didn’t chase her. She was looking for the rush of the race, but I instead held my boundary in a different and unexpected way. Helping children learn where the limits are and holding them accountable to them is a total game changer.
Setting clear limits.
Routines are just a series of events that happens over and over again. Routines can be both helpful and not helpful. In the above example, the clean up routine had become: a request made, the child running out of the room, a chase, until finally a forced clean up. Having identified it, I realized that I wanted a different routine in place. So, I set my limits, clearly and respectfully. “I can open my eyes when the toys are cleaned up.”
As soon as we learn we can not control another person, we also learn that they can not control us. Toddlers have no problem setting their limits by utilizing the word “No”. I want to encourage you to do the same. Set clear limits, while holding respect.
When children are in the stage of learning what actions are reinforced, you have an opportunity to really define what is okay and not okay in your family. I am not here to say what limits are right or wrong, rather to encourage you that the clearer those limits are, the faster your children will learn to respect them.
I always encourage charts, visuals, books, schedules, pictures, and agreements as tools that help set the limits quite clearly.
Validate their feelings and emotions.
As two-year-olds are growing up and learning to label the actions around them, find ways to validate those feelings (the labels) as they pop up. This helps foster a strong emotional intelligence and lays the foundations of building healthy coping skills.
The easiest way I’ve learned to do this is to print out a feelings chart, and as the feelings pop up, name them. In the book, The Whole Brained Child, this strategy is called “Name it to Tame it”. With repetition children will start to understand how each emotion feels in their body and learn what to do with those feelings that won’t cause mass destruction around them. Especially after employing all the other tips listed above.
I truly believe the greatest gift is a solid understanding of how our feelings influence our actions and how it’s all in our control. The clearer that message is the more resilient and strong a person will be.
So how are you feeling about two-year-olds now? Hopefully feeling better equipped to work through those difficult moments together. I like to think of year two of a child’s life as a year of investment. I promise if you invest in setting a strong foundation, your children will grow up stronger, more confident, more resilient, and more connected to you!
The Preoperational Phase of two-year-olds is said to stick around until around the age of seven. I want to encourage you that this stage can progress quicker while applying these tips. Learning to control our emotions, show empathy, and foster connection is work that we too often leave until the later years. I fully believe that with practice, children can learn these skills sooner.
When I was a preschool teacher I will never forget when a parent stopped me in the hallway to ask me a question about their soon-to-be three-year-old daughter. They had a very worried look in their face as they said
“The other night we were walking home from dinner, and she had a total meltdown. When I asked her what was going on she answered ‘My body is tired and out of control right now. I need help to calm.’ Is that normal?”
I gave them a high five and congratulated them on raising a child who is learning to express her feelings and needs clearly!