The year between age 2 and age 3 is an exciting one. Toddlers are realizing that they are separate individuals from their parents and caregivers. This means that they are driven to assert themselves, to communicate their likes and dislikes, and to act independently (as much as they can!). Toddlers are also developing the language skills that help them express their ideas, wants, and needs. At the same time, toddlers do not understand logic and still have a hard time with waiting and self-control. In a nutshell: Two-year-olds want what they want when they want it. This is why you may be hearing things like “no” and “me do it” and “no diaper change!” more than ever before.
Learning to Handle Strong FeelingsAs a parent, your job is to help your young toddler navigate the tide of strong emotions she is experiencing this year. This is no small task, because the emotional lives of 2-year-olds are complex. This year they are beginning to experience feelings like pride, shame, guilt, and embarrassment for the first time. Older toddlers are a lot like teenagers. Their feelings may swing wildly from moment to moment. They may be joyful when getting a popsicle and then despair when it drips on their hands. So toddlers really need your loving guidance to figure out how to cope with their emotions. Your child is struggling with this when:
- He has a meltdown when you can’t understand his words
- She says no when she means yes (you are offering her a favorite treat)
- He gets so angry that he might throw a toy
- She cannot settle for a substitute—if the purple pajamas are in the wash, she is inconsolable (even though you have offered the pink ones, the polka dot ones, the ones with the cupcake patch on the front, etc.)
- He acts out when frustrated—will give up or get angry when he can’t figure out how to make the jack-in-the-box work
- Uses words or actions to get your attention or ask for help
- Talks to himself in a reassuring way when he is frustrated or frightened. For example, he might say to himself, Daddy will come back, after you drop him off at child care. Or, I can build this again after his block tower collapses
- Re-enacts a stressful event, like a doctor’s visit
- Uses words like I’m mad rather than throwing or hitting
- Tells you the rules or shows that she feels badly about breaking rules. For example, your child might say no to herself as she does something off-limits, like opening the fridge. Or he might tell you at the park, Don’t walk in front of the swings.
Practicing Self-ControlWhen you see challenging behavior, it usually means that your child can’t figure out how to express her feelings in an acceptable way or doesn’t know how to get a need met. What helps your child learn is when your response shows her a different, more constructive way to handle these feelings. Learning to cope with strong feelings usually happens naturally as children develop better language skills in their third year and have more experience with peers, handling disappointment, and following rules. Although children won’t completely master self-control until they are school-age (and practice it all their lives!), here are some ideas for helping your toddler begin to learn this important skill:
TALK ABOUT FEELINGS AND HOW TO COPE.
Read books and notice aloud how the characters are feeling: The dog is really happy that he got a bone. And share your own feelings: I just spilled the baby’s milk. I feel really frustrated! Will you help me wipe it up? Wow, it feels so good to have your help. When your child can label how he is feeling, it helps him gain control over his emotions and communicate them to others. Once your child has named his feelings, you can suggest what he might do to feel better or solve the problem. This helps him learn what to do in the future when he faces a similar challenge. For example, if he is sad because his grandparents just left after a 2-week visit, you can suggest looking at photos of them or drawing them a picture.