So, my husband and I are about to be in the thick of it with two almost two year olds. And, inevitably those other lucky new parents who had kids around the same time as we did are beginning to get that deer in a headlight look about them. Holy cow—now that they can move! How in the world do we get some sense of control? How can we get started on the right track so that we don’t have Tasmanian devil 5 year olds? Believe it or not, there’s a lot we can start doing as early as they start to crawl. Here are some of the strategies we’re using at home. I hope they can be helpful to you.
Notice and Praise For What You Want To See More Of:
Kids begin to understand praise, acceptance and even language far before they can speak in full sentences. Because they can’t talk I find that many parents don’t think to be praising for specific skill sets this early. We might say “good job” when they learn a new physical task, but we forget to do the same when they learn a new behavioral task. So pay attention to the following things and praise like crazy:
- Following Instructions: This starts happening around 17 months typically when you say “Time for a bath” and they start walking towards the bathroom or “follow me” and they trail behind you like a little duck. This is a great time to say “Great job following instructions”. Maybe even make a habit of giving a hi-five or a hug.
- Asking For Help Instead of Whining and Crying for Help: Toddlers can learn simple signs as soon as they learn to wave hello and goodbye. One of the most helpful signs that our kids have learned is “Help”. In our house we call it “Help Please” and so it easily doubles for “Please”. Begin expecting that your toddlers use this sign when they need help with something or when you might typically expect a child to say please. Then praise, hug, hi-five!
- Accepting No: It is typical for toddlers to throw a tantrum when they hear “no”. The cool thing that happens when you are consistent with not giving in to the tantrum is that they begin to accept “no” without tantrums far more often. When this happens praise, hug, hi-five. Make a big deal out of it.
- Being Gentle: Any time your toddler touches you, the dog, his/her sibling or anything with a pulse (I even do it with my plants), make a point to show them what gentle looks like. Then praise every time they touch something in a gentle way. “Great job being gentle”
Focused Attention/Quality Time:
Nine times out of ten when parents tell me their child has begun to act up more than normal even though expectations remain clear and consequences are consistent it can be resolved by consistent focused quality time. For toddlers, this means that every day you spend focused quality time on the floor following their lead on play. I like to sit in the beanbag chair and let them bring toys or books to me. Then I let them grab my hand if they want to show me something. No phone, no ipad, no laptop--- just sit there and be present. The more you do this and the more consistently you do this the less they will throw tantrums just to get attention. Then we can be more assured that a tantrum is really because they are upset. Then we can be less worried that attending to them during a tantrum will increase tantrum behavior.
Connect At the Beginning and End of a Tantrum:
Tantrums are part of toddler life. Some folks will tell you just to ignore during tantrums, but I suggest a different approach. Simply ignoring the behavior may discourage them from expressing themselves, but it’s more likely to lead to escalated behavior to be heard and to feel connected in the long run. If you are attending a lot to the behaviors you want to see, you don’t need to worry that connecting with your child when they are upset will reinforce the tantrum. In fact, it will calm the situation down enough to give them space to find new ways to say what they need.
First allow connection through reflection and physical touch, then attempt to problem solve with them, give space if that doesn’t help and then re-connect once the tantrum is done. For example:
“You’re very angry that we can’t go outside right now! I know it’s hard to not get what you want. Would you like a cuddle?”
“You want something right now. It’s hard to tell me, huh? Let’s try to figure it out together.”
If they escalate or refuse a cuddle or there is clearly no solution that will help them out, then:
“Okay, you let me know if I can help.” And then get involved in something else until they calm down on their own and come to connect again. When calm, give a cuddle and re-connect.
This is a great time to start the old Love and Logic trick of giving choices. “Do you want to wear this shirt or this shirt?” “Do you want this sippy cup or this one?” “Do you want to go outside or play with your trains?” The more options you give the less they will feel the need to be in control of things that they don’t get to be in control of.
Kids are calmer when they know what to expect. You don’t have to schedule out your whole day, but keep things as consistent as possible. For example, when we wake up, we do the same thing each time. We don’t go downstairs until we are in our new clothes. We take a bath before bed. We only watch TV in the evening and we always turn it off an hour before bed. These routines avoid power struggles and give structure to their day.
Wise Use of Time Outs:
Time outs are a frequently used tool and not one I’m opposed to, but I don’t think they are often used wisely. When we use time outs as punishment, we tend to find ourselves using it non-stop and feeling like it’s not at all helpful. We keep doing it because we feel like we need to set limits and this is the only way we know how. Time outs are only truly helpful if they give the child space to get their logical brains involved. For this reason, I don’t really suggest time outs until our kids are verbal and can better make sense of what’s happening. Here are some ways to wisely use time outs when you do:
- Create a calming space for time out. Cuddly toys, music, dim lights, calming scents. Free from overwhelming stimulus. So, a time out chair in the kitchen is not going to do the trick.
- Do time out with your child if possible. Use this time to deeply breathe. Hold their hands if they will let you. Cuddle if they will let you.
- Explain that it’s time to breathe and feel calmer. Avoid “All right, you’re in time out!”
- Be excited when they come out of time out to play again and let them know that you aren’t holding a grudge.
- Model time out for yourself “Mommy needs to breathe for a minute, she’s going to take a time out.”
Make it Better Instead of Time Out:
When your child does something that you would typically punish them with time outs for, instead ask them to make it better. “Yeah, right, Lara, I can’t get them to sit still let alone make it better!” That’s when you say, “I’m sorry, we can’t play with our toys until you make it better”. This is where you set limits. This is why it’s helpful to have at least one room in the house where there are not toys. Sit in that room together with them. If they have a twin or another sibling who’s not in trouble, let that sibling play with a toy or two in the room or in another room if that’s safe, but then you just wait them out. Reading a book with the other child is a great plan also. It’s a motivator to join the crew. It’s all up to them to get this thing resolved.
Making it better doesn’t always mean saying sorry. Sometimes it’s giving a hug. As they get older it could be doing a chore for the person that they hurt. Sometimes it will be giving someone his or her toy. As long as they are making it better.
There are a million books on child development out there—understand the stage your kids are in. This information is so easy to find, just Google it. Developmentally, it’s not important for a 2 year old to sit at the table every time their parents eat. It is developmentally appropriate for them to sit at the table when they are hungry—but expecting that to always be on your schedule is not really necessary at this time. That’ll come. So don’t stress yourself on that one. Try for as many times as you can and praise for it, but don’t force it until they are super stars at following instructions. Developmentally, it is expected that 2 year olds will explore their world with absolutely no concept of the consequences (with the exception of automatic responses due to experiences like falling a lot). So, make their space as unbreakable as possible until they are better able to understand consequences. Don’t hold yourself and them to a standard that’s simply not achievable.
This is also helpful when avoiding command language. Developmentally, a 2 year old wants to be close to his or her parents. So, when I say, “It’s time to go upstairs.” And my little guy is not at all interested in walking away from his toy, it’s pretty darn likely that he’ll follow me if I just start walking upstairs. That way, I avoid a huge power struggle where I grab the toy from his hands and say, “Mommy said we’re going upstairs!” and drag him kicking and screaming up the stairs. Instead I get to praise him when he follows me upstairs and act like it was all his idea. Knowing that he’s likely to follow me allows me to play with both toddlers, by myself at the park with no fences without any concern. They explore widely and with wonder, and they also follow me like little ducks.
Know Why You’re Saying No:
You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s the thing I find most parents forget about. If you say no, you sure as heck better stick to it. So make sure you know why you’re saying no before you do it. Do you really need to tell your toddler not to put the butt paste in his mouth? Okay, yes, it’s gross but they’ll figure it out better on their own and they’re definitely not going to get hurt. Do you really need to tell your toddler that you can’t go outside because it’s cold? Why not let them go outside and decide that it isn’t very fun? Get into the habit of waiting 30 seconds before saying yes or no unless there is imminent danger. Ask yourself the benefits of yes and the benefits of no and choose yes whenever possible. We learn better from experience than we do from “no”.
Be The Anchor:
When your world feels like a tsunami, use this chant “I am the anchor in the storm”. Toddler emotions can feel like a tsunami, but that’s really normal. We can’t and shouldn’t control that. We just need to stay steady. The steadier we are, the safer they will be. The safer they are, the more likely they are to use the new skills you teach them to communicate their needs.