Inside: 7 science-backed tips for parenting your two-year-old. The early toddler years are both joyful and difficult, but once you understand their development, it puts it all in perspective.
The first time I did research with two-year-olds was a wake-up call. Previously, I had only worked with little babies and older children.
It is quite challenging to study the development of emotions and cognition in babies, but believe me, two-year-olds, were a whole other level.
A two-year-old’s newfound sense of independence and self-hood make them primed to challenge rules.
And test and challenge they will.
I remember it like it was yesterday when the senior researcher told us during training, “Two-year-olds require us to speak a different language.”
He said if you a tell a two-year-old “don’t bang on the table” they will only hear “bang on the table.”
As if it is a prime directive, they will be contrary to what you say, so, you have to find ways to encourage them to cooperate while allowing them to fulfill their need for “I do it myself!”
Here are some of the things I have learned over the years — from doing research with two-year-olds to having my own– that will win your way to your two-year-old’s heart and their cooperation.
7 Tips For Parenting Your Two-Year-old
1. Ignore Unwanted Behaviors
Two-year-olds are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development. They literally learn by repeating behaviors over and over.
They will especially repeat behaviors that result in an unexpected behavior or a big reaction.
If they have picked up a bad word from you (never!) or your husband — or the older next-door neighbor kid, ignore it — act like it’s no big deal.
If you act like it is a big deal — they will repeat it — again and again and again. Because they want to see your unusual reaction to them simply saying a word.
Two-year-olds aren’t quite capable of thinking through that saying the word makes you upset, they will only think about your immediate reaction. Which is different to how you normally act. So, they will say that word over and over because your reaction is so interesting.
Keep in mind that this is how they are learning, through repetition. For example, they might want to play the same game over and over. And while it is boring for us, they are literally strengthening connections in the brain through repetition.
Normally, we want to encourage their behavior and exploration and play along when we are the fairy godmother for the fortieth time in a row.
Only ignore them when it is truly an unwanted behavior.
When my son was 2, he started hitting. We got a book about it, we talked to him, we got emotional and tried to show him how upset we got when he hit. None of that worked. Then I remembered my training from all those years ago and I said to my husband, let’s try not reacting.
We stopped having those big reactions. Instead, we said in a neutral tone of voice, It seems like you are trying to get my attention, can you try to get it in a better way?
And it worked! Ignoring and not giving a big emotional response made him lose interest in hitting. He had no underlying behavior issues, he didn’t want to hurt us, he wanted a reaction, plain and simple.
2. Surprise them with the Unexpected
On the same token, they are completely delighted by unexpected reactions. So, as long as it isn’t a behavior you don’t want to reinforce — surprise them will silly antics.
Trying “sneezing” with a hat on and have it fly off of your head.
They will reward you with peals of laughter. And ask you to do it again and again and again.
Or pretend something is really, really heavy when it’s obviously not.
Anything unexpected will delight your two-year-old and again, it’s how they learn, so you are laying the foundation for a good sense of humor.
3. Tell Them What They Can Do
For the entire year that your child is two, or three for that matter, perhaps even when they are four, forget the word: don’t.
Always tell them what they should do, not what they shouldn’t.
Instead of don’t run — use your walking feet.
Instead of don’t yell — use your inside voice.
And even better — make it fun. Instead of walking feet — say let’s waddle like a duck.
Or just refocus or redirect them by telling them what they can do:
Instead of don’t jump on the bed, say — You have a lot of jumping energy, jump on these pillows on the floor!
Using positive language helps to direct or redirect their behavior — gives them an action to comply with, something to do, rather than having to stop a behavior or inhibit an impulse.
4. Give them Jobs
Harness their newfound sense of self by putting them in charge of something. This will build up their sense of mastery.
This is a great tip for gaining two-year-olds (and older kids too!) cooperation.
Whatever it is you need to do, have them be a part of it. Put them in charge of the garage door opener when you need to leave the house. Or, at the grocery store, have them point to the items that you need, Can you find the bananas?
Research shows that if we allow toddlers to help, even when helping might mean more of a mess than if you did it yourself, really pays off in the long-run. Toddlers are naturally inclined to want to help and when nurture that instead of stifling it, they are more likely to volunteer to help around the house when they are much older.
This works around the house as well. They can be in charge of picking up lost toys and putting them back where they belong.
They can help their clothes leap into the hamper.
They can use a dustpan to catch all of the runaway crumbs on the floor in the kitchen.
Describe the chores in ways that tell a story and you will capture their attention and cooperation!
5. Break Down Big Requests
Instead of asking your child to put on their shoes — which involves a few steps, break it down into one or two step at a time.
First Get the Shoes: Let’s hop like a bunny to the shoes!
Encourage them to want to put on their shoes: Which shoes will you choose today? The orange ones or the blue ones?
If they refuse, do something surprising — Okay, I’ll put the shoe on — where does it go? Here on your hand.
When they have stopped laughing — I have forgotten where to put the shoes. Do you know where to put your shoes? Do they go on your nose? On your head? Oh, your feet!! Do you know how to put them on your feet?
6. Name and Acknowledge Their Emotions
Two-year-olds are learning what emotions are and they are expressing them in primal ways, not in socially accepted ways. It is important to teach them that what to call their emotions and that emotion are always okay.
How they express their emotions might not be okay, It’s okay to be angry, but it is never okay to hit.
Naming the emotion is the first step in learning how to express emotions in better ways.
Acknowledging children’s emotions help them understand emotion and leads to better empathy and prosocial behaviors, especially in boys.
Talking about emotions is also associated with more sharing and helping behaviors in toddlers.
When you start this conversation about emotions you are listening to their hearts.
In response, they will feel like it is safe to express those emotions to you. Here are some of my favorite books to help two-year-olds understand emotions:
7. Give Them Predictability
One of the most challenging times for kids is transitions. Getting ready to leave or come back home. Getting ready for bed or getting ready in the morning.
Two-year-olds do not have a real sense of time. To them, it can seem arbitrary and controlling when we say, It’s time to turn off the TV and come eat dinner.
And so they protest (understatement!).
Having some predictability in their life will help them have a sense of control and lead to fewer tantrums. I don’t like to have a rigid routine, but having some anchor points that they can count on can go far in reducing transition-time tantrums.
Anchors can be daily or over long periods of time. Taco Tuesday or pizza night is an example of weekly anchors. For picky eaters or kids with mealtime sensitivities, some predictability in what they eat can work wonders.
I also recommend a toddler clock. These are great for signaling when its time to wake-up (not too early), time for nap, quiet play, and bedtime. This one is our favorite: My Tot Clock (you can read my full review here).
A flexible routine would include some things a two-year-old can count on: a relatively consistent time to eat, nap, and play. A consistent series of steps for getting ready for bed and for getting ready to leave the house.
In a large study, researchers found that having a consistent bedtime routine is directly related to better sleep. Children who had a regular bedtime routine fell asleep faster, had an earlier bedtime, had fewer night wakings and slept longer than children who did not have a regular bedtime routine!
For more about our bedtime routine, check out this post: Building a Better Bedtime Routine.
I love these printable routine cards (pictured above-affiliate link). You can set them up how you want in the way that works for your house. It is also easy to change it up if you need too. I wish I had these when my son was two!
Giving children some predictable anchors helps them to have a sense of control and thus fewer tantrums.
Two-year-olds are special. Trust me, it won’t be long and they’ll be six and you’ll be wishing you could still fold them up in your arms and carrying them around when life gets hard. As much as this time is challenging, it is also joyful. Connect to their heart, listen to their soul, and the “terrible” twos won’t seem terrible at all.