Parents discover early on that the terrible twos start well before age 2 and don't end when their child turns 3. But simply knowing that your toddler's difficult behavior is a normal part of early development may make it easier to manage, especially if you can understand how a toddler thinks.
This month, Dr. Lewis First, chief of pediatrics at Vermont Children's Hospital at Fletcher Allen Health Care, offers some advice for surviving an aggravating age.
KIDS VT: Why are toddlers so frustrating?
LEWIS FIRST: Toddlerhood is a time of push and pull between parents, who are establishing limits, and children, who discover at about age 1, as they learn to walk and talk, that they can try to be just like their parents. The secret to parenting at this age is choices. Parents should offer their toddler choices as often as possible instead of constantly saying "No!" For example, asking "Do you want the apple or the banana?" allows parents to give their child autonomy while also limiting the snack options. Until about age 2, a toddler will almost always take the second choice you offer. The reason is language development. It's easier for them to remember the last words you just said.
KVT: Is there a secret to controlling toddlers?
LF: There are three things parents can try to control: their child, their child's environment and their own behavior around the child. The fact is, you can only control two of those areas. Parents can control themselves and their child's environment, but a child has to develop his or her own self-control.
KVT: Any tricks to getting toddlers to follow instructions?
LF: After age 2, when kids begin to understand cause and effect, you'll make more progress with the things you want them to do by identifying the things they want. So let's say they want you to read an extra bedtime story and you want them to brush their teeth. Say, "If you brush your teeth, I'll read you the extra story." That's a lot better than saying, "Why aren't you brushing your teeth? They're going to fall out!" which engages the child in an even greater battle to test the limits. Once their teeth are brushed, celebrate the occasion with praise, and they'll want to brush their teeth even more.
KVT: How can parents deal with a picky eater?
LF: Offer choices: "Do you want spaghetti or tuna?" If they pick tuna only to throw it on the floor because they want attention, the meal is over. At the next meal, try again: "Do you want pasta or chicken?" If your child again refuses to eat, don't worry; wait for the next meal. If you go through three meals like that, giving choices and setting limits, by the third meal your child will sit down and eat — because now they're hungry and understand what is acceptable behavior. Keep in mind that between ages 1 and 2, a child normally gains only two to three pounds; they won't melt away from one, or even two, missed meals.
KVT: Any advice for quelling tantrums?
LF: Give your child a predictable schedule. If your toddler doesn't know how to tell time, and all of a sudden they go from working on a puzzle to being whisked off to the store, they're going to be upset. Build in transition time. "After you finish the puzzle, we're going to go to the store." Finally, when you see a tantrum revving up, provide a distraction. Have your child's special toy in your pocket and say, "Look, Billy the bunny wants to go to the store. Are you coming, too?"
KVT: What if the tantrum occurs in public?
LF: If a tantrum starts up in a store, simply leave the store and go home. Don't try to put out the fire there. Parents should never feel embarrassed or think it's a reflection of bad parenting. It's about establishing and reinforcing limits so your child learns self-control. At bedtime, when your toddler has your unconditional attention, talk about what happened and why you had to leave the store. Next time, when your child behaves better in the store, offer positive reinforcement, like a trip to the playground.
KVT: Any advice for keeping kids in bed at night?
LF: Before going to bed, give them a "golden ticket." Tell them that if they come out of their bedroom during the night, they'll have to give up the golden ticket. Warn them that if they come out a second time, you're going to close their door or turn off their nightlight. Once kids have the golden ticket, they'll stay in their bedroom and won't surrender it. And, if they stay in the room all night, praise them the next morning.
KVT: Disciplinary no-nos?
LF: Never feed into a child's tantrum. If your child says he's not happy with you, don't say you're not happy with him. A child is saying this because they love you unconditionally and are testing you. Parents should remember that saying no and setting limits is OK — it's how kids learn self-control — as long as they also praise the positive.