Terrible twos: toddler trouble

Terrible twos
Terrible twos

You can tell it’s been a few years since we had a 2-year-old, because my husband and I chuckle affectionately when we recall some of the real humdinger tantrums we were subjected to by our kids. One clearly stands out in family folklore and gets a good laugh every time we tell it.

Our son Joe had developed one of those peculiar 2-year-old’s fixations: he wouldn’t eat anything that was broken or bruised or in any way imperfect. Trouble was, he wanted a biscuit with his tea and the only biscuits we had, a packet of Maries, had been a bit crumpled in the journey from the store. Not one would pass the beady-eyed-2-year-old test. I fished out the least broken one, with just a little edge missing, and handed it nervously to Attilla the Hun.

“Not broken one. Want fixed one,” he announced, staring me down with his icy blue eyes. I explained our biscuit situation and made the rather obvious point that as there were no unbroken biscuits, anyone wanting a biscuit would have to make-do with a slightly damaged one, which in any case would taste perfectly fine.

This kind of logic doesn’t fly with a 2-year-old, I can tell you. Oooh he was cross! His voice rose with each demand for a “fixed” one. In a final act of frustration, he tossed the offending biscuit on the floor and jumped up and down on it. “Don’t want broken one! WANT A FIXED ONE!” he bellowed, his little feet pulverizing the poor blameless Marie biscuit into dust.

That pretty much sums up toddlers for me. Unpredictable. Completely unreasonable. Infuriating. Loud and demanding. Inexplicably ritualistic. Non-negotiable. With a determination that, honestly, you cannot help but admire. But also, rather funny and sweet and touching, trying to control little bits of their world from a foot off the ground.

Of course when you’re in the eye of the storm, it doesn’t seem funny and sweet and touching at all. You are amazed, shell-shocked, frustrated, angry and without a clue what to do. You worry seriously whether your child will land up being the school bully, or one of those road rage idiots, or even whether he has some sort of problem.

A friend spent weeks trawling the internet until she finally found a diagnosis for her totally impossible 2-year-old: Oppositional Defiance Disorder. “Oh don’t be nuts,” scoffed Gail, who had older kids. “You want a diagnosis? Here’s the diagnosis – being 2.”

It is normal. That’s the good news. To a greater or lesser degree, all 2- to 3-year-olds are tricky. Here’s why.

Inside the 2-year-old mind

A small baby has fairly simple needs. Love, warmth, food, and so on. So long as those needs are met and he feels physically comfortable and emotionally secure, your baby will likely be quite happy. As he grows up a bit, things become more complex.

Your child is developing autonomy. He is becoming aware of himself as a person, separate from others, particularly you. As he exercises his autonomy, he comes across barriers – there is much he can’t do physically, or that he’s not allowed to do, and that may make him frightened and frustrated.

Meg Faure, co-author of Baby Sense and Toddler Sense says as parents we need to encourage our children at this stage and support their need to make decisions. She says: “Respect their autonomy. Give control in areas where they can be autonomous – what they want to wear, for example. In other areas, for example when safety is an issue, they cannot have autonomy. Pick your battles and let some go.”

Your toddler becomes angry and frustrated because he can’t always control the world and he can’t always have what he wants. He doesn’t get to make the choice between staying at the party or going home, between the apples and the Smarties at the checkout aisle. He needs to feel the power of saying “No”, even if it doesn’t work out so well! He likes to boss you around, ordering his little world the way he wants it.

At this age, your child is also starting to become more aware of himself and his emotions. He will feel anger, hurt, fear and jealousy, and those emotions are real, powerful and hard to control. He has not yet learnt to name them, nor to exercise some measure of control over them.

You can help him with that, not by denying his strong feelings (“Oh don’t be silly, you can’t be scared of that little birdie”) but by helping him understand them (“I can see you feel scared of the bird. Why don’t you hold my hand and we’ll go and have a look at it together?”)

Your baby’s ability to understand language is about eight months ahead of his speech. This is a major source of frustration, says Meg, as your toddler feels he is not understood.

Some parenting authors refer to the toddler years as the “first adolescence”, and indeed, there are some parallels to the teenage years – power struggles, defiance, self-centredness, manipulation and exasperation (that last one is you!) characterise both periods in a child’s life.

Why 2-year-olds are great!

Check out the parenting books and you’ll see lots of titles like Surviving the Toddler Years and Toddler Taming and What to do with the Terrible 2s. It makes little kids sound like wild animals, or perhaps an epidemic of some nasty disease. But they are not the hopelessly unreasonable little monsters that they are made out to be.

If you have one of these little people, you’ll know that not a day goes by without an amusing comment, a new skill or a moment of pure bliss. Meg, herself a mom of three, agrees: “It is such a special age. Everything is exciting for them. They approach life with a thirst for exploring and an inner drive to do something with the world – climb higher, push harder.”

Here are some things we love about 2-year-olds:

  • His vocabulary is increasing at a rapid rate and he is able to construct increasingly complex sentences.
  • It’s amazing to see his intellectual development over this time. Conversing with your 2-year-old just gets better and better, and his quirky little world view will make you laugh.
  • He’s a good companion. He’ll love to help you in the kitchen or the garden, accompany you on your errands, or snuggle up with you for some down-time.
  • He’s active, busy, exploring, developing his physical skills.
  • He’s wonderfully physically affectionate and loving.

Negotiating the no

It’s hard for us, as parents, to have our authority questioned, and children of this age can be extremely oppositional. That stern “no” uttered from that cherubic little person often makes us feel angry or powerless or inadequate.

Particularly if you are tired and frustrated yourself, after yet another argument over brushing teeth or wearing shoes, you may over-react, overpowering the child with your adult will and anger. “Well I’m your mother and you’re going to do it whether you like it or not, otherwise you’re in big trouble.”

Take a moment to see the “no” differently. Remember it’s good for a child to feel powerful, to make decisions, to take responsibility for his piece of the world. Our job as parents is not to crush that spirit and that exploration of power, but to help our kids make choices and express them in a positive way.

We want them to be able to say “no” in life – no to peer pressure, no to drugs, no to choices that aren’t right for them. That “no” is not simply your child being difficult and disrespectful. It is him testing his authority and his autonomy. In time, and with your help, he will learn to disagree more appropriately, but disagree he must!

Avoiding the tantrum:

Watch sensory signals

If your child is overstimulated, tired or hungry, the chances of a tantrum sky-rocket! Take care of the physical needs. If you are planning an outing to the zoo, schedule it for after nap time and make sure your child has a snack before you go.

A predictable routine that ensures your child is well-rested, well-fed and sure of his boundaries is an excellent foundation for a happy toddler. Megan Faure, author of Toddler Sense, says, “A rule of thumb is for a social outing to be one hour per year of baby’s life. A 2-year-old can cope with approximately two hours of being out and stimulated without the wheels falling off.”

She advises parents not to try and stop daytime naps too early in an effort to get a longer night’s sleep. In addition, she advocates down time in a calm space. “Watch your toddler for signs of overstimulation and before a tantrum starts encourage him to go into his quiet space and do something calming, like looking at a book.”

Allow and encourage your child to make choices

The trick is to provide a limited set of choices that are acceptable to you too – do you want an apple or a naartjie? Should we read this book or that one? Too many options and he’ll find it hard to decide. With a set of options, he feels the freedom of being in control

Let him take control in positive ways

Encourage independence. Let him put his jacket on instead of doing it yourself. You’ll need patience, but it helps your child feel powerful and become self-reliant and confident.

Prevention is best

If your toddler is struggling with his building blocks and you can see he’s getting frustrated, go over and gently give him a hand. Heading off a tantrum is easier than getting good humour back.

Side-step the struggles

You can’t just give in to every demand, but you don’t want to meet every challenge head-on either. Quick creative thinking and fast foot-work can make a big difference here. Here’s an example: you tell your 2-year-old it’s time to leave the house to fetch his brother from school. You get an adamant “No”. Instead of saying: “Well, you have to, so get in the car”, you could try: “Let’s have a skipping race to the car.”

Pick your battles

Know which fight is worth fighting. If he goes off to playschool in pajamas occasionally, really, who cares? The seat belt rule, on the other hand, is a non-negotiable and you will have to enforce it even if it means a tantrumming, squirming little person in the back seat.

Watch the TV

Or rather, don’t. This is the age children are generally introduced to TV, and it can have a negative effect on behaviour. Ditto the sugary foods that are suddenly within your toddler’s grasp.

When a tantrum strikes

Stay calm

While the temptation to tantrum right back is quite understandable, having two angry, irrational people in the room is definitely not going to improve matters.

Be understanding

Meg emphasises the need to acknowledge your child’s feelings, even though you don’t give in to the demands. She recommends the 3 A’s: “Get down to the child’s level, maintain eye contact and acknowledge his feelings and wants. Agree – ‘I can see why you would want that’ – and offer an alternative.”

Don’t reinforce the bad behaviour

If you give in to the tantrum, the message is: “If you make enough of a fuss, you can get whatever you want.” It’s generally a good idea to try and ignore bad behaviour and reward good behaviour. When your little one makes choices, or handles frustration well, compliment him and give him a big hug.

Don’t negotiate in the heat of the battle

Rather help your child calm down. Try and sit with him, give a firm hug, make him feel secure and loved. In some cases, your toddler will resist your touch. The only thing to do is let the tantrum run its course and be there to show love and forgiveness afterwards

Don’t take it on

You’re standing at the supermarket checkout and your tired toddler demands a sweet. Your “no” is met by shrieking that brings the store to a standstill. You know the other customers are thinking: “What a brat. Why doesn’t that woman give her a good smack!” A temper tantrum doesn’t mean you are a bad parent and it doesn’t mean your child is a brat.

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