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Making the Terrible Twos Terrific

by Dr. Heather Wittenberg | April 8, 2011 | Child Development

By Dr. Heather

I love 2-year-olds. Really — I do. It’s amazing to see how much they’ve learned in their short time on the planet, and I’m actually reassured when I see them being “difficult.” In fact, when I evaluate a 2-year-old in my practice, I worry when I DON’T see signs of oppositional behavior. You see, babies are all about “YES.” They’re taking everything in and exploring. Toddlers, on the other hand, have progressed past the baby stuff and moved into limit-setting — which is all about “NO”. Where do I start and stop? What are Mom and Dad’s rules? (And how can a girl get some candy around here, anyway?) It’s developmentally appropriate for her to be challenging everything — and everyone.

But that’s not very reassuring to parents, I know. Parents at this stage get sick of hearing — and saying — “NO” all day long. Once your toddler has discovered The Power That Is No, you’ll encounter these common parenting frustrations:

  • Refusing To Nap
  • Screaming and Whining
  • Saying Mean Things
  • Hitting and Biting
  • Picky Eating
  • Insisting that “ME DO IT!”
  • Refusing Diaper Changes (or Potty Training attempts)

Toddlers say “NO” with such glee. They almost don’t care what they’re saying “NO” to — as long as they can make their opinion heard. Keep your “Toddler Translator” running at all times, because often, “NO” doesn’t actually mean “NO.” It may mean, “I’m not exactly saying YES, but I’m at least reserving the right to remind you that I have my own opinion on this matter, and it’s MY opinion, regardless of what YOU say. And even if it happens to be the same opinion as yours – I don’t care, because I want it to be MY opinion. So — “NOOOO!!!!” (Just don’t quote her on that.)

Realizing your toddler isn’t a rational being is the first step to calming down about her negativity. Here are more tips to help you turn “NO” into “YES”:

  • First, strive for prevention. Toddlers get more oppositional when they’re tired, hungry, frustrated, overstimulated, or sick. (Parents too, for that matter.) Keeping your toddler on an even keel will help prevent meltdowns.
  • Once she starts a struggle, make sure she feels heard. Emphasize that you “get” her feelings. Repeat them back to her, matching her intensity. “You want candy NOW! No peas now. You don’t want peas! You want candy!” If done right, this will often de-escalate her. I know it feels silly at first, but really let yourself get into it. She’ll give you an “A” for effort — and you both might get a laugh out of it.
  • Once she feels that you take her seriously, THEN you can calmly state your expectation – with a little bit of distraction thrown in. “Yes, you want candy, but it’s time for dinner. After dinner, we’ll have our family playtime. What game should we play after dinner?” Repeat as necessary.
  • Try not to lose your cool. Toddlers have a special way of unhinging their parents, so make liberal use of deep breaths and calming self-talk. One thing that helps me get through these situations is to simply remind myself of my toddler’s size. “This tiny shrimp is going to ruin my day? I don’t think so.” I also visualize my toddler’s babysitter, who’s awesome with toddler tantrums, and try to copy what I’ve seen works for her.
  • Finally, make sure you get time away from your little provocateur. Being around toddlers all day can be rough. Even a little adult time chatting with friends, exercising, or enjoying time with your partner can go a long way.

Toddler tantrums give way to the fabulous fun of 3 and 4-year-olds. Take a look at my other blog post to learn about your preschooler’s creativity, and how to overcome the common fears that go along with this stage.