development language parenting

Terrible Twos: Understanding toddler behavior and social emotional development.

Toddler behavior, tantrums and meltdowns

The terrible twos.  Ever wondered where that label came from?  If you have a two year old, I'm guessing you already know.  They are bossy, impatient, in to everything,  and demanding.  Despite this, I find two-year-olds absolutely delightful!  They are spirited adventurers and masters of manipulation.  During my many years as a home visitor, I have met many two year olds who clearly ruled the roost.  I find that amazing!  I mean if your really think about it, how is it that such a little thing with so little world experience can drive adults to the point of pulling their hair out? 

So what drives these little masters of the universe?  I'm hoping to uncover some of the mystery of this age group in this article.  Having a clearer understanding about what is going on with them developmentally can make dealing with those challenging behaviors a little easier (I said a LITTLE easier...unfortunately there is no magic wand!).

Egocentrism.  Otherwise known as the "Mine" stage.  Two year olds are egocentric in their thinking process.  This means that they are unable to understand the world from someone else's perspective.  They believe that the world revolves around them.   There is a great t-shirt out there that has the creed of the two-year-old:  "What's mine is mine, what's yours is mine."  That totally sums up their perspective on the world.  Given this, is it any wonder that they become so indignent when we interfere with them getting what they want!  So when your toddler hits you, be patient.  They do not have the ability to understand that they are causing you pain or hurting your feelings.  

Separation and Individuation.   Your two-year-old is going through the very important developmental stage of separation and individuation.  He is learning where you end and where he begins.  He is demonstrating an increasing streak of independence and desire to explore his world.  He is more likely to explore new settings in your presence, but still looks to you and needs reassurance.  One word can really sum up this process:  ambivalence.  Two year olds have these conflicting feelings of wanting to be away from you but recognizing that they still need you.  What is the result?  TANTRUMS!  They are inexperienced at feeling two very opposite emotions and it takes time and practice to master this skill.  For example, let's say your toddler sees someone with a cookie and, of course, he wants one as well.  You say "no" and he immediately goes into a tantrum.  He is not only wrestling with not getting the cookie, but trying to figure out how I can be so mad at my mom but love her too.  Pretty complex stuff if you really think about it from their perspective.

Negativity.  Otherwise known as the "no" stage.  Ah yes, one of the hallmark sign of a two year old.  Even our best attempts to avoid the word "no" don't keep our little ones from saying it.   Have you ever asked your two year old a question only to have respond with a "no" when you know he meant to say "yes?"   Their little brains are hard wired to say "no" and they can be quite persistent when trying to get something they want.   This can be quite challenging as parent, eh?

So what is a parent to do?  Here are a couple of tips:

  • Give lots of choices throughout the day.  For example, "do you want juice or milk," "do you want the red cup or the blue cup," "do you want to play on the swing or on the slide," and so on.  Make sure that both choices are something you can live with.   You probably wouldn't want to give your child the choice of ice cream or a banana for a snack (unless you are ok with him having ice cream).  By doing so, you are sharing control with your child which can ultimately help decrease his need to seek it out other ways.  If he wants something other than the two choices offered, you can say something to the effect of "Nice try, but that wasn't one of the choices.  Now, do you want A or B?"  If he doesn't choose, you choose for him.  He will learn quickly that it is in his best interest to speak up. 
  • The quickest way to extinguish a behavior is to ignore it.  Walk away from tantrums or separate your child by putting him somewhere else like his room until he calms down.  For more info on this technique, download my Tantrum Tamer Tip Sheet here.   Avert your eye contact and don't engage in discussion during the tantrum.  I see parents do this frequently when their toddler has a meltdown.  Unfortunately, they are inadvertantly reinforcing the behavior.  Kids will take whatever attention they can get, negative or positive.  Without either, they quickly learn to eliminate behaviors that don't get them either. 
  • Be patient and understanding.  Two is a difficult age and your little one is lacking the vocabulary and life experience to make good choices.  Your gentle and empathetic guidance during this phase along with good modeling will help him navigate this difficult stage. 
  • Catch them being good!  So often it is easy to focus on the negative behaviors, but positive praise is like putting money in the bank of self-esteem.  

One more thing to consider, your child will be going through the separation and individuation phase again as an adolescent.  How you navigate with your child as a toddler will have a big impact on he goes through this as an adolescent.  Another reason to figure them out!

In conclusion, your two year old is working on some complex emotional skills during this phase of his life.  Understanding what is going on in that little head can help you as a parent plan strategies to deal with challenging behavior that work for you and your child.  If you want more information, check out my YouTube video here.