Treating the Terrible Twos (and Threes)
Life can be frustrating for toddlers. Though eager to be independent, young children can’t always move as quickly as they’d like or clearly express their needs.
They also tend to have trouble dealing with limits, compromise and disappointment. This can lead to tantrums and misbehavior.
But you can teach your toddler to behave well by providing love, clear rules and a degree of routine.
Consider these practical parenting tips:
Show Your Love
Make sure your displays of affection for your child outnumber any consequences or punishments.
Hugs, kisses and good natured roughhousing reassure your child of your love.
Praise and attention also can motivate your toddler to follow the rules.
Be careful not to over-praise however, as that can have the opposite effect!
Rather than overloading your child with rules from the outset — which might frustrate him or her — prioritize those geared toward safety first and gradually add rules over time.
Help your toddler follow the rules by childproofing your home and eliminating some temptations.
How to Prevent Tantrums
It’s normal for a toddler to have some temper tantrums.
To reduce the frequency, duration or intensity of your child’s tantrums:
Know Your Child’s Limits
Your child might misbehave because he or she doesn’t understand or can’t do what you’re asking.
Explain How to Follow the Rules
Instead of saying, “Stop hitting,” offer suggestions for how to make play go more smoothly, such as “Why don’t you two take turns?”
Take ‘No’ in Stride
Don’t overreact when your toddler says no. Instead, calmly repeat your request.
You might also try to distract your child or make a game out of good behavior. Your child will be more likely to do what you want if you make an activity fun.
Pick Your Battles
If you say no to everything, your child is likely to get frustrated. Look for times when it’s OK to say yes.
Offer Choices, When Possible
Encourage your child’s independence by letting him or her pick out a pair of pajamas or a bedtime story.
Avoid Tantrum-Triggering Situations
For example, don’t give your child toys that are too advanced for him or her. Avoid long outings in which your child has to sit still or can’t play — or bring along an activity.
Also know that children are more likely to act out when they’re tired, hungry, sick or in an unfamiliar setting.
Stick to the Schedule
Keep a daily routine so that your child will know what to expect.
Remind your child to use words to express his or her feelings. If your child isn’t speaking yet, consider teaching him or her baby sign language to avoid frustration.
Despite your best efforts, at some point your toddler will break the rules. Ignore minor displays of anger, such as crying — but if your child hits, kicks or screams for a prolonged period, remove him or her from the situation. Consider using these parenting tips to encourage your child to cooperate:
Let your child see the consequences of his or her actions — as long as they’re not dangerous.
If your child throws and breaks a toy, he or she won’t have the toy to play with anymore.
Create a consequence for your child’s actions.
Tell your child if he or she doesn’t pick up his or her toys, you will take the toys away for a day. Help your child with the task, if necessary.
If your child doesn’t cooperate, follow through with the consequence.
If your child doesn’t behave, respond by taking away something that your child values — such as a favorite toy — or something that’s related to his or her misbehavior.
Don’t take away something your child needs, such as a meal.
When your child acts out, get down to his or her level and briefly and calmly explain why the behavior is unacceptable. Encourage your child to try a more appropriate activity.
If the poor behavior continues, guide your child to a designated timeout spot — ideally a quiet place with no distractions. Enforce the timeout until your child is calm and can listen to you. Afterward, reassure your child of your love and guide him or her to a positive activity.
A Short Guide to Time Out For Toddlers
Understand What a Time-Out Is
If you don’t think of a time-out as punishment, neither will your child, and that’s as it should be.
Instead, think of it as an opportunity to teach your child how to cope with common frustrations and modify his behavior.
Although at times it may require superhuman effort, try not to scold, yell, or speak angrily when you call “time-out” – the point isn’t to chastise your child, it’s simply to help him switch gears.
The goal of a time-out is to defuse and redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way, and to help your child behave without setting a negative example, the way yelling does.
Is Your Child is Ready for Time-Outs?
Two-year-olds find it hard to sit still, so trying to make your little one stay in one place for a prescribed length of time may well disintegrate into a chase scene:
Your child runs away from his time-out spot, delighted with this new game. You catch him, then struggle to make him stay. You threaten, he laughs. You grab, he bolts. Meanwhile, because 2-year-olds have short attention spans, your child forgets why you wanted him to sit still in the first place. Instead of helping him regain his self-control, you find yourself in an escalating power struggle.
That’s why traditional time-outs won’t work until your child begins to appreciate the need to follow rules (usually around his third birthday).
Watch for signs that he understands what’s allowed and what’s not – if he reminds you of the rules when you break them, chances are he’s absorbed that lesson.
If, for instance, he catches you doing something you normally wouldn’t allow him to – munching potato chips on the sofa, say – he may scold, “You’re not supposed to do that, Mommy.” Until that point, though, hold off on time-outs or your child will feel he’s being punished but won’t understand why.
Meanwhile, try to distinguish between your child’s natural inquisitiveness and willful disobedience. Instead of constantly correcting his behavior, childproof your home to reduce the opportunities for mischief, and distract your child to redirect his attention to more suitable activities.
Save time-outs for when your child is doing something he knows is wrong and distraction and redirection just aren’t working, or when he needs to get a grip on his emotions.
Take Time-Outs Together
Most 2-year-olds just aren’t ready for solitary time-outs, so introduce the idea of time-out by taking a “positive” one together.
When your 2-year-old gets revved up and borders on losing control, try saying, “Let’s take a time-out to read a book until we feel better.” Any quiet activity, such as listening to music, lying down, or putting together a simple puzzle will work.
Taking a time-out with you gets your child used to the idea of a cooling-off period. It disrupts the downward spiral of negative behavior while avoiding the battle of wills that a more formal time-out can incite.
Don’t spring time-outs on your child in a burst of frustration – this discipline method works best if it’s explained ahead of time.
Use simple terms: “When you get too wild or act in a way that Mommy and Daddy don’t think is a good idea, I’ll call, ‘Time-out.’ That means you’ll sit in this chair for a little while until you can calm yourself down.” You may find it helpful to act this out or to use a doll or teddy bear to demonstrate.
With a 2-year-old, your goal is simply to introduce the idea of an enforced break in the action. Such an interruption can be upsetting enough to your hard-charging, egocentric 2-year-old; insisting that he sit in a certain place, in a certain way, for a certain length of time may be too much for him.
Instead of marching him to a special “time-out” chair, for instance, consider just having him sit still right where he is – and stay with him if need be. Go easy, too, in determining how long he needs to stay there.
But don’t start following the common one-minute-per-year rule until your child is at least 3. Thirty seconds to a minute is generally enough for a 2-year-old.
The period should be long enough to refocus his attention but not so long that he gets frustrated. One idea: Have him sit and recite his ABCs, then redirect him to a different activity.
Don’t Expect Miracles
As you’ve no doubt discovered, 2-year-olds are notoriously active, willful, and unpredictable. This is normal (though admittedly tough on you), and the only solution is plenty of patience.
Testing limits and gauging your reactions – over and over again – is your child’s way of establishing a secure understanding of his world. He may repeatedly toss food off the table to establish that gravity continues to exist. He may repeat an action just to make sure it’s still “not okay,” so consistency is vital.
Keep Consequences Consistent
Whatever consequences you choose, be consistent. Make sure that every adult who cares for your child observes the same rules and discipline guidelines. This reduces your child’s confusion and need to test you.
Also, be careful to criticize your child’s behavior — not your child.
Instead of saying, “You’re a bad boy,” try, “Don’t run into the street.” Never resort to punishments that emotionally or physically harm your child. Spanking, slapping and screaming at a child are never appropriate.
Setting a Good Example
Children learn how to act by watching their parents.
The best way to show your child how to behave is to set a positive example for him or her to follow.
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