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Taming the Terrible Twos

Terrific Twos

Toddlers have a bad reputation and it's sadly undeserved, says esteemed child psychologist Penelope Leach, Ph.D. The fact is, your child's negative behaviors are actually positive signs of growing up. The key is in how you handle this important developmental stage.

Max, 22 months, and Lucy, 10 months, have squabbled and lost it. Their mother, Joanna, quiets Lucy with her pacifier, puts her in the twin stroller, and calls big sister Jodie. With both girls ready to move on, Joanna holds out her hand to Max, who immediately throws himself on the ground. "Now see here," Joanna says, "if you won't go in the stroller like your baby sister and you won't walk like your big sister, just what are we to do with you?"

For parents, that's the billion-dollar question, especially when faced with that most dreaded sign of toddlerhood: public tantrums. Two-year-olds have always had a terrible reputation for delaying tactics, pickiness, and downright defiance. But the more we expect of young children, bringing them to restaurants and thinking they can control themselves in group settings like toddler classes, the more these behaviors seem to increase.

Terrific Twos

Acknowledging the "terrible twos," however, doesn't make the difficult behavior easier for parents to handle -- actually, only understanding your child's developmental stage can do that.

Remember, a toddler like Max isn't a baby anymore, and since he has to grow up whether he likes it or not, treating him like an infant will only make him balk. But a toddler isn't a preschooler yet either, and since growing up is difficult and scary, treating him like he's older than he is makes him clingy. While his in-between behavior is confusing for you, his own ambivalence is often painful for him. Your toddler has to pursue his own ends even when they're at odds with yours, but conflict feels desperately dangerous because he still loves and depends on you. He needs to be sure you'll go on loving him.

This toddler stage isn't just an awkward phase to be gotten through as fast as possible. It's an important period in your child's development. Over the next couple of years, she has to learn to do as kids do and babies don't, which means changing from diapers to underwear and out of a crib into a bed. She has to be able to eat and drink without special baby stuff like bottles and sippy cups. And she has to know enough playground rules to get along with other kids. Wow! It's a lot to learn.

And then there's the question of independence. Ten years ago, few parents expected babies and toddlers to stay with unknown adults in unfamiliar places. Now many places parents go to, such as health clubs, provide childcare, and children are expected to accept it. The reality is that while some do, many don't. And the fact that some kids will happily play with all those toys, not minding that Mommy or Daddy is going away, makes it hard for parents of the others to accept that it's age-appropriate for an under-3 to protest being left in that situation. They'd like their child to be more independent. If you think about it, though, that's a pretty silly notion. How can someone who can't meet his own physical needs be independent?

Bottom line: Some toddlers are more confident in social situations than others. If yours is a dive-in kid, fine. But if he's a need-to-know-you-first kind of person, that's fine too.

Terrific Twos

Although we talk about parents "socializing their toddlers," the truth is that the whole process of growing up belongs far more to the child than to her parents. You can put a child on a potty, even find ways to encourage her to stay there for a while, but you can't make her do anything. The parents who have the hardest time with toddlers (and with teens, for that matter) are those who get into power struggles and feel they have a moral right to win them. Most of the time, the harder you push, the more your toddler will resist and the more frustrated you'll get.

Instead, if you think of getting your toddler to want to behave the way you'd prefer and of helping him manage it, you'll meet with less resistance and more success. Think "potty mastery" -- a matter of empowering your child by teaching him to recognize when he needs to go and get there himself -- rather than "potty training" -- which is you taking charge of him and his body.

It isn't easy, though, because in the meantime your toddler may seem less reasonable than she did as a 6-month-old. When you went to get her in the morning a year ago, she held up her arms to be lifted and hugged. When you go to get her up now, she's standing and rattling the crib bars. But when you try to lift her, she goes all stiff and heavy; she wants to get out by herself.

There's never just one right way to go, but you could try pretending to be a helicopter that's flying her across the room. When your toddler wants to do something that isn't safe for her to try, making a game out of it is often the best way to get her to abandon the idea. But do find ways for her to handle things herself whenever it's safe. Even doing a little bit today and then a little bit more next week will keep her cheerful and learning.

It can take 10 minutes (or more) to get a toddler dressed. He doesn't want help but he can't do it himself, so he wiggles and grumbles (or kicks and yells!). Find one thing he can do while you do the rest. Let him pick the socks so you can help with his sweater. And if he won't let you put the coat on him, pretending to put it on yourself may turn grumbling into giggling.

If you want your toddler to understand something, you need to show her what you want as well as explain it. ("This way up for the sweater, see?") If you want her to do something, you usually need to do it with her. If you want her to go somewhere, take her there. If you want her to come, go get her. When you need to protect her from traffic, use your body to keep her in safety as well as your voice to tell her to stop.

Terrific Twos

When you're 2, success doesn't necessarily breed success but it does breed willingness to keep trying. If you expect your child to say "please" at all the right moments when he's just learned to say the word, you'll be setting him up to fail. The more he fails, the more discouraged he'll get, and the less interested he'll be in learning. So be patient and offer lots of encouragement.

Nothing your little one learns is more important than speech. The more you talk to her, the more she'll understand things and talk herself. But don't expect her to use words the way you do. Your toddler may be able to say "promise," but that doesn't mean she's likely to leave the park without a fuss. At 2, "I promise" is not a moral commitment but a formula that she's discovered buys her time. And she often needs to buy time because while you complain that she's always dawdling, she can't understand why you're always in a rush.

"Mine doesn't," says Maria, a mother I know. "Yesterday, I showed Elisa how to wash her hands, getting them soapy and then rubbing them together until they were all covered in foam. When we'd rinsed it off, she seemed to like her hands being clean. But the minute I turned away from her highchair, she squished her whole peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich in her fists and rubbed her hands together so that they were coated. If that's not being naughty on purpose, I don't know what is."

How was Elisa to know that the game her mother had encouraged her to play with a bar of soap was forbidden with a sandwich? All Elisa knew was that she liked the soft, squishy feeling on her hands. You can say, "Soap is for washing with, not for eating; food is for eating, not for washing." But don't tell her she's bad or you'll hurt her feelings and teach her nothing.

You can't make a child good by making him feel bad (or make him grow up by making him feel babyish). Know that your toddler means well overall even when he hasn't done well.

Toddlers want parents to be pleased with them so they can feel safe and pleased with themselves. That's the key to understanding their difficult behavior and channeling it in a positive direction. Your child may behave badly because he doesn't know what you want. Or because he isn't capable of doing it. Or because he's capable under ideal circumstances but current circumstances aren't ideal for anything but a tantrum. Or just because -- like the rest of us -- he sometimes does what he wants instead of what he should. It won't be because he means to be mean, though. He isn't mature enough yet to think himself into your shoes. However badly he may behave, it won't be because he intends to upset you. He doesn't. Not ever. Believe it.

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Copyright © 2003. Reprinted with permission from the April 2003 issue of Child magazine.