Just over one year ago, we embarked on an incredulously challenging journey known colloquially as the “Terrible Twos.” And we have survived to tell the tale. Addie celebrated her third birthday just last week and this has given me a little bit of time to reflect on experience gained and lessons learned.
Fellow dad blogger James R.C. Smith is about to enter this new phase in his life as a parent and he’s asking for advice for how best to prepare for and deal with the Terrible Twos. Here’s what comes to mind for me.
Encourage Clearer Communication
The typical expected milestone when a baby reaches one year of age is that he or she will have a vocabulary of about five words. Communication skills continue to improve and — yes, it’s one of those one of those parenting cliches — kids really do grow up right before your eyes. This includes their ability to vocalize their wants, concerns and frustrations.
This becomes increasingly apparent when the kid is two years old as those single words get strung together into increasingly complex sentences. Encourage this as best you can. It’ll minimize frustration on their part, which in turn alleviates some confusion on your part.
Choose Your Protein Wisely
Perhaps the situation that most escalated the Terrible Twos to unfathomable levels was mealtime. As parents, many of us stress over whether our kids are actually eating enough. You want them to grow up big and strong, and you see how much energy they burn through during the day. We’ve got to get something in their bellies, right?
Some toddlers will gobble through just about anything, whereas others can get remarkably picky. Try not to set yourself up for unnecessary frustration. Depending on how they are prepared, meats like beef and pork can oftentimes require a lot more active chewing. This can prove both difficult and boring for some two-year-olds. Maybe start with fish or cut up some chicken into tiny bite-sized morsels, graduating to other proteins as you move on.
Take the Tantrum Outside
Ah, the tantrums of the Terrible Twos. These can spring up at any time and in any place, so you’ll need to be on constant alert and be prepared to jump into action on a moment’s notice.
Difficult as it may be, I’d also try to stay calm and assertive through the whole process. I’d fail from time to time, of course, but that was the objective. No one wins in a yelling match, as all you end up doing is escalate the problem even further.
If we’re in a restaurant, I’d take her outside. And that’s when we’d have our talk about why such a tantrum is unacceptable and inappropriate. I’d tell her it’s okay to be mad, but we cannot tolerate such behavior. Maybe she was bored. Maybe she wanted something she couldn’t have. It doesn’t matter.
Should the tantrum take place at home, you might try to ignore it. Kids still crave your attention at this age, so ignoring can help to discourage such behavior. Barring that, a “time out” in their room for about five minutes usually gives them the opportunity to belt out that energy. Then, you can enter the room and tell them what’s what.
Open the Lines of Negotiation
In line with the improved communication and dealing with tantrums, I found that Addie was much more open to negotiation when she was two. She could not only understand what I was offering, but she could also better vocalize what she wanted out of the deal.
So, using the example of a meltdown in the middle of a restaurant, I’d take her outside (sometimes kicking and screaming). I’d then tell her that she could not go back inside until she calmed down and stopped crying. If she continue to yell and kick, we’d stay outside, keeping as calm and assertive a demeanor as I could.
Confirm with Eye Contact
I can only speak from my experience, but this has been doubly confirmed by a few other parents I know. Toddlers develop this habit of automatically saying “yes” to things without listening. They also develop a habit of automatically saying “no” to something without listening.
This is why eye contact is so critically crucial. With her either in my arms or with me down on one knee, I’d tell her that she couldn’t go back inside the restaurant until she calmed down. Sometimes, she’d say “yes” or “okay” without glancing up. At that point, I’d always tell her to look at me first.
Sometimes, I’d lift her chin with my hand so that we could make eye contact. I’d then reiterate the terms and get her to agree. This usually worked.
Refuse to Give In
Here’s a big one. When you’ve got a two-year-old throwing the most epic of tantrums, creating the most embarrassing of scenes in the middle of a public place, the first temptation is to stop that situation by any means possible. Even when you’re at home and you’re at wit’s end, you just want it to stop.
The thing is, if you give in when your child throws a tantrum about whatever it is that they want, all you’re doing is reinforcing that behavior. The next time that they want to have that thing, they’ll throw another tantrum because it works. Each time will just get harder for you. In the long run, you need to stand firm.
Be consistent. Say what you mean and don’t throw out any empty threats. If you say that you’re going to take away X if they continue to display an unwanted behavior, follow through and do it. Every time.
Maintain a Predictable Routine
The insanity of the Terrible Twos can lead us to believe that two-year-olds are completely unreasonable and utterly illogical. Nothing makes sense. There’s some truth to that. At the same time, you can mitigate the risk of a tantrum by setting up a situation where it’s less likely to happen.
What you’ll find is that children get cranky because they’re sleepy. Or hungry. Or bored or overwhelmed. Where you’ll find a great deal of relief is with a predictable schedule and a set routine. If you know that lunch is at this time, a nap needs to happen around this time, and so forth, you can better prepare yourself for what will be needed at what time of the day.
A sense of structure can offer tremendous stillness among the haphazard chaos of toddlerhood.
Offer the Win-Win Decision
Do you want chicken or fish for dinner tonight? Do you want to read Curious George or Dinosaur Rocket? Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your red shoes?
Open-ended questions with too many choices can cause frustration and confusion, even in adults, so limit your questions to that of a binary decision where you’re happy with either choice. This allows the two-year-old to exercise their sense of independence and autonomy, because they’ll feel like the decision wasn’t forced upon them. But you still got what you wanted in the end anyway.
Take It One Day at a Time
Yes, you will certainly face your fair share of struggles with the Terrible Twos. It can be a difficult, stressful, and frustrating time for everyone involved. Just take a deep breath and count to four, as Daniel Tiger once told us. And then you get those glimmers of bliss that feel more like the Terrific Twos. Life is all about balance (and keeping you on your toes), right?
But we now have a “threenager” on our hands and veterans in the field warns us that this could be at least fifty percent worse. Wish us luck.