Somewhere after your child’s first birthday, babyhood is gradually left behind as your child begins his crazy transformation into a talking, thinking, independent, toddler. It’s a wild period, pitched with high emotions. The laughs are big but so too are the tantrums and frustrations. Perhaps cruelest of all is the introduction of the word ‘NO’ into his vocabulary.
‘Terrible twos’ is a bit of a misnomer, as the behavior can start before your child’s second birthday and continue well after the third. Helping him through this phase is one of the biggest challenges of parenthood, and among the most important. The self-control your child learns now will help guide him through life. Understanding the science behind your child’s behavior during this stage can go a long way toward helping him manage his emotions and ability to self-regulate his behavior.
This Isn't Rocket Science (But It Is Neuroscience)
This stage isn’t a period of growing pains that must be weathered, but rather a struggle you can help your child through.
In his body and brain, major changes are happening. Motor skills are growing rapidly, his intellect is coming alive, and his interactions with the people in his life are causing a host of new emotions. He’s understanding and using new words, he’s better able to explore his environment, and he’s beginning to understand there are limits to what he can do, both physically and practically.
His frustration comes from his inability to communicate those ambitions and frustrations. The things he wants to do can’t always be allowed to happen. He can’t eat seven Oreo cookies or fish around in the toilet bowl or swing the cat or leap down the staircase.
He has no idea why he can’t do this stuff. He only knows big Mr. or Mrs. Stifle-Pants love to say ‘NO,’ and there’s nothing he can do but throw a fit.
Accept Your Intertwined Fate
A little strategy can help you and your family weather these tough times. First, be prepared and know that you will both lose patience with each other. But since you’ve got the big pants on, your role is tougher. Keep your cool and be there for your child. When something silly causes him to pitch a fit, don’t try to correct him or talk him out of it. Offer comfort, or ignore the behavior. Say, “I’m sorry you’re upset, but you can’t turn the gas on in the fireplace.” Then, as he writhes on the floor screaming, simply walk away.
It can seem counterintuitive to leave your child in a puddle of tears, but there is science at the core of this. Research shows that nothing has a greater impact on health and happiness later in life than how caregivers deal with a child’s emotional life. Ignoring a child who’s crying because his Transformer fell into the lake is not the same as leaving a child who’s crying because you won’t let him stick a fork into the electric outlet. Your attention validates his behavior.
Crying because something unfortunate has happened deserves to be validated. Crying because he was prevented from causing damage and harm should not. It might seem like he’s too little for such lessons, but he isn’t.
Ignore the Battle and Win the War
Your child’s stubborn desire to do for himself is actually a good sign. It’s an indicator of a strong sense of self-determination, goal-setting, curiosity and perseverance.
As a parent, strike a balance between allowing space for your child to learn things on his own, while being close enough to save him from himself when needed. Your role is to guide him, so he learns what is okay and what is not okay.
Discipline Without Stifling
When a tantrum starts, look for the trigger that caused it and talk about his feelings. At the playground say, “I know you want to stay in the sandbox, but we have to go. I’m sorry you feel sad.” Then pick your child up, strap him into the stroller, and go. Keep in mind, there will be screaming. Suffer it with as much dignity as you can muster and don’t give in. Avoid bargaining, too. Your child doesn’t need a cookie every time he must do something he doesn’t want to do.
Give the Right Amount of Help
He wants to brush his teeth without help and knows how to turn on the faucet. Let him spill some toothpaste on the counter. Let him run too much water. Then follow up with your adult-level brushing skills and talk him through the clean up. He might cry at first and that’s fine. If you don’t validate the behavior, he’ll eventually learn the rules.