Parenting Through the Terrible Twos

By Amy Heiman*, M.S., LCPC


Patience, flexibility, deep breaths. No, it's not a yoga class. Rather, these are the skills required to parent your two—year—old. And I am smack dab in the middle of the so—called "terrible twos" at my house. But let's find a better phrase for this year of development. I want to challenge you to redefine this stage as the "terrific twos." For while it may be challenging for you at times, TWO is a time of wonderful adventure and learning for your child.

Two is an age of increasing competence in all areas of growth: cognitive, emotional, social and physical. It is also full of contradictions. Two—year—olds want independence, while at the same time they need their parents for so much. I often hear, "Can I do it?" and "Help me!" within seconds of each other at my house. The task for the parent is to foster this newly discovered independence and experimentation while at the same time maintaining some form of structure and safety in our homes.

As a marriage and family therapist with years of training in child development, I have read plenty of books over the years on this topic. But I must admit I read them with added interest now that I have a living, breathing human subject in my home with me every day. Two of my favorite books are The Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers, by Tracy Hogg, and Parenting Young Children, by Don Dinkmeyer and others. The latter book is from a series of books called S.T.E.P or "Systematic Training for Effective Parenting." I taught parenting classes based on this program for a number of years.

In Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers, Tracy Hogg outlines the foundational principles for good parenting:

  1. Every child is an individual. Therefore know not every strategy works for every child. Take your child's temperament and personality into account when helping him learn.

  2. Every child deserves respect — and must learn to respect others as well. Imagine drawing an invisible boundary around each child — a circle of respect. To demonstrate this respect, initiate an active dialogue by telling your child what you are about to do to her ahead of time, i.e. "Mommy needs to change your diaper because its wet."

  3. Take time to observe, listen, and talk with your child, not at him.

  4. Every child needs a structured routine, which gives her life predictability and safety.

Parenting Young Children presents the basic principles of positive discipline. Positive discipline first seeks to create an environment where the need for excessive correction can be reduced. The principles of positive discipline are:

Distract the child.
This is a great first line of defense for many discipline issues. Redirect the child from the current negative behavior to a different activity. Ignore the misbehavior only if the child is not hurting others or in danger. Remember that for a child, negative attention is better than no attention; we don't want to reinforce a behavior with negative attention.

Structure the environment.
Children of every age need structure and predictability. Think what it would be like if every day when you woke up you had no idea what to expect because every day was completely different. How anxious would you be? Parents need to provide the stability and consistency that will allow their children to feel secure. Children also need the freedom to explore their world safely, so make sure your home is adequately childproofed. (When I think about all the childproofing parents do today, it is a wonder any of us survived our childhood.) Control the situation, not the child. Set limits — children need them. Have you ever seen a small child approach an electrical outlet? They will usually look at their parents as if to inquire, "Is this okay?" Setting limits also reduces anxiety in children and is a good precursor in life. Don't we all have limits or rules as a society?

Give choices.
This works at any age to help prevent power struggles. Offer two choices that are acceptable to you. "Would you like an apple or a banana for your snack today?" Involve the child. Use natural and logical consequences. A natural consequence is something that occurs without intervention from the parents. Example: If you pull a cat's tail, he may bite you. A logical consequence is given by the parent and should be related to the misbehavior. Example: If your child draws on the wall with crayons, they lose their crayons for a period of time and have to help clean it up. Small children might be allowed to pick from two rewards for good behavior. "Would you like a sticker or a stamp for going potty?"

Plan time for loving.
Studies have shown that it is not the quantity so much as the quality of time that parents spend with their children each day that is important. Make sure that your toddler gets some of your undivided attention every day. Show and tell your children every day how much you love them. Play is how toddlers learn about their world as well as how to interact with other children. Two—year—olds are really into imitation, so make sure you have toys that promote this like miniature kitchens, tools, doctor kits, trucks, dolls, etc. I really love the Little People play sets. At this age, children can also benefit from social interaction with other children their age, so you might want to consider joining a play group or taking a class through your local park district, especially if your child does not attend daycare or have a chance to interact with other children much.

Let go.
Just as your child never learns to walk if you don't let go of their hand, they need to be given supervised, age-appropriate opportunities to practice their skills (even if this means making a mess or taking extra time).

Increase your consistency.
Children need consistency in all areas of their lives, including discipline. They need to know that every time they hit, for example, they will go to a time—out. If they only have a consequence once every three times they hit, why not chance it? I often use the example that if you knew every single time you drove one mile over the speed limit you would get a ticket, would you ever speed?

Notice positive behavior.
Catch your child being good. Encouraging positive behavior reinforces it. Make sure you are sending the message that they should be proud ofthemselves, not just that you are proud. This helps build self—esteem. Excuse the child with a time—out. Make sure that when you do enforce limits with your toddler, you separate the deed from the doer. Don't ever tell a child they are bad. Tell them their behavior is unacceptable. Time—outs can be extremely effective at this age, as long as you are consistent with their uses. As a general rule-of-thumb, a time—out's length should be one minute per year of age. So for a two—year—old, their time—out should be two— minutes long. Time—outs should be a boring, but safe place. Set the timer once the child is quiet.

Two—year—olds can be both challenging and rewarding. There are days when I am exhausted by my son's bedtime; but I am also so excited when he wakes up the next day and we get another chance to play and learn! So, cherish your terrific two—year—olds! After all, soon enough they will be dying their hair purple and listening to rap music, right? But that's a topic for another day. . .

Recommended Reading: Secrets of the Baby Whisperer for Toddlers; by Tracy Hogg; The Everything Toddler Book; by Linda Sonna; Toddler Play (Gymboree); by Wendy S. Masi: Parenting Young Children; by Don Dinkmeyer et al.


Amy sees clients in the Yorkville office*

The Sandwich office supports Sandwich, Somonauk, Plano and surrounding areas.


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