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August 07, 2018

The terrible twos: What to expect and how to deal

Tips for teaching good behavior and disciplining your toddler

Parenting Behavior
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Toddler terrors are a well-known rite of passage for little kids and their parents.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the “terrible twos” is a normal stage of childhood development when toddlers are torn between their desire for independence and clinging to their reliance on adults. Toddlers experience huge growth in their motor skills plus major intellectual, social and emotional development which yields new and exciting experiences but also frustration. Toddlers lack control over their emotions and can struggle with their new physicality and communication, leading to acting out and misbehaving.

Showing affection, setting rules and being present and consistent in your teaching and discipline are key to helping your little one thrive through the toddler years. And for us parents, trying to find the sense of humor in it all is also paramount.

Experts recommend a few tactics to get through trying moments with your toddler. As the adult in the situation, summon your patience and tell yourself it is important to stay calm. Distract your child from a meltdown by redirecting their attention. If Killian is on the verge of freaking out, a funny face, a favorite song or a raspberry on his belly usually works. Use a positive approach to your corrections. Say, “please sit nicely in your chair” rather than “do not wiggle around like that.”

Some experts recommend ignoring the behavior until the toddler terror storm passes and occasionally I employ this but I also want Killian to know that his feelings are respected and understood. If he starts protesting and crying when I ask him to pick up his toys, I get down to his eye level and ask him how he feels and why. I give him the opportunity to communicate and know that he is being heard by repeating back to him what he says. I empathize with him by saying I get that he does not want to clean up and I am sorry it is making him feel sad. I ask him if he wants to join me in taking some “magic breaths” to help us feel better and calm down, which he usually does. (I started doing this deep breathing technique with him around 9 months old; at that time I would blow my magic breath onto his face which would make him giggle and now he does the deep breathing with me.)

I am always careful to talk about Killian’s behavior and not him as a person. I explain that I am disappointed when he does not listen; I never say he is a bad boy.

I am kind, but firm. Mama is the one in charge and he needs to listen. I do not offer rewards like food (especially not sugar!) but incentivize the activity by explaining that once this chore is done, we can do other fun things like read a book or go outside to play.

Of course there are times when a calm conversation and deep breathing just won’t combat a toddler’s stubbornness. When all else fails, I use timeouts. That means Killian sits on the bottom step of the stairs in my kitchen for a few minutes. I explain to my son why he is going into time out, tell him how long and set a timer. If he is really worked up I will sit with him to do some magic breaths and hug him but I always explain that there are consequences to his actions. Afterwards, we talk about what we could do different next time.

I am always careful to talk about Killian’s behavior and not him as a person. I explain that I am disappointed when he does not listen; I never say he is a bad boy.

If your toddler likes to hit and bite, understand that these are normal behaviors for their age. But it is really important to curb it right away. Usually the immediate family members are on the receiving end and if a toddler does not learn that kicking and biting are not OK in the home they will most likely do it to others on the playground or in school. Public places seem to really draw the meltdown out of toddlers.

For every meme of a little one lying on a supermarket floor, there are a thousands parents who have experienced it. Wait it out. Don’t worry about anyone but your child. And sometimes, you just need to take your toddler and exit stage left.

Are there ways to prevent meltdowns? Absolutely! Be clear and consistent in your communication and encourage your child to communicate with you. Be present in your interactions so you can spot a growing frustration before it turns into a tantrum. Offer choices so your little one feels like he has a voice. Avoid inciting a problem by sticking to your child’s schedule and routine. If you want to run errands during naptime or stay late at a party, know you are setting your toddler up for a fatigue-induced meltdown. In these situations, bad behavior is really is not the child’s fault; it is the parents.

08072018_toddler_tongue_unsplashPhoto by Jelleke Vanooteghem/on Unsplash

It is just as important to celebrate your child’s good behavior as it is to correct the inappropriate. Positive reinforcement is a great technique for complimenting your toddler’s best moments which sends them the message to repeat. Everything should be applauded – eating properly, listening well, playing nicely, sharing toys. No one likes to only hear what they are doing wrong, so constantly celebrate what your child does right! And shower them with love and affection, too.

Killian’s current favorite word is NO. I am glad he has opinions and convictions. His stubbornness is something with which I can relate. I tell my son that I understand that he doesn’t want to always listen, one day he will make all of his own decisions but until then he must listen to his parents. Discipline is nonnegotiable in my house because I know my son’s happiness, health and safety are dependent upon him learning to follow rules, listen to adults, cooperate with others and behave in a kind, respectful manner.

The bulk of my toddler discipline strategies have been informed by "The Happiest Toddler on the Block," by Dr. Harvey Karp, a book I highly recommend that all parents and caregivers of toddlers read. Every child is different, but these tactics have worked very well for my sweet son. His meltdowns are few and far between. As always, if you need personalized guidance and support, talk to your child’s pediatrician.

In my next column, I am going to discuss whether or not it is appropriate to discipline other people’s children. Share your thoughts with me and other parents in the comments section below or Tweet me @ThePhillyVoice and @KathleenEGagnon.