Susy, would you like some cereal? NO!
Do you want to play? NO!
Share your toys, O.K? NO!
Do you need to go potty? NO!
Ready for your bath? NO!
Can you get ready for bed? NO!
We're going now, O.K? NO!
No biting, understand? NO!
If your child is somewhere between the ages of one and three, these conversations may sound all too familiar. We expect toddlers to be belligerent and have tantrums, but do they really deserve their bad reputation? What really goes on during the "terrible twos?"
Every toddler strives for autonomy, the sense of having control over his own body, mind, and emotions. A toddler must test his own power in order to become a separate person. During this stage, you have your first real glimpse of the person your child will become. Until now, your child was a helpless, easy-to-control infant. You loved him unconditionally, and he made no demands. Now you're trying to wean him, get him to use the potty, share his toys, and behave in socially acceptable ways. No wonder there is often a clash of wills!
The key to making this stage of development positive is to avoid the "them against us" attitude. Become your child's partner in the adventure of learning about the wonder and complexity of life. As you spend time with your child, you will find that behind every behavior there is a need waiting to be met. In fact, most problems can be solved by identifying the need and looking for appropriate ways to meet that need. This is called setting limits. Help your toddler get her needs met by listening to her and asking yourself, "What is the need behind this behavior? What are the alternatives? Can she learn from this? Is this for her benefit or mine?"
Are the terrible twos inevitable? No, but so much depends on your attitude. Every child is born with an individual temperament. As a parent, you need to help your child find positive and appropriate ways to express her unique temperament. By using the problem-solving approach you can help your child get through the autonomy stage while preserving a strong, close bond and eliminating negative patterns that can last a lifetime. Remember the most enduring reward of "those terrific twos" is the relationship between you and your child.
Problem-Solving Solutions for Negotiating With Toddlers
Tantrums. It's bewildering and embarrassing to see your toddler kicking and screaming, often in public. During a tantrum, a child is overwhelmed and frightened by his own strong feelings. He needs understanding, not punishment. Tell him gently but firmly, "I see how frustrated you are, but I can't let you _________. If you want to kick and scream, I'll stay close until you're finished." Never argue or try to reason during a tantrum. If tantrums become a habit say, "I'm going to leave the room, but when you're finished you can come and talk to me about it." Teach your child the words he needs to express his strong emotions authentically.
Sharing. Imagine a neighbor coming to your house and demanding to borrow your new car. Can we expect children to be more generous and altruistic than we are? Toddlers can't understand the concept of sharing until they've experienced the concept of ownership. When playmates visit, ask your toddler ahead of time which toys she wants to put away in the closet and which ones she is willing to share. Let her know that she's in control of her toys. When you respect her rights, she'll learn to respect the rights of others, and eventually she will learn to share.
Toilet Learning. This is the battleground where many ongoing power struggles begin. You may have a deadline in mind but your child simply is not ready. Some toddlers won't even try until they are sure they can do it perfectly. Leave this decision up to your child and you will avoid unnecessary resentment. Show him how to do it, ask if he wants to, but avoid forcing or pressuring him. Most kids are ready some time after age three. Even if your friends' children start earlier, control yourself. Every child learns to use the toilet and yours will, too.
Eleanor Reynolds is the editor of The Best of the Problem-Solver: Articles for Parents and Teachers and the author of Guiding Young Children: A Problem-Solving Approach. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.