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The Secret to Your 2-Year-Old’s Heart (and gaining their cooperation)

The Secret to your 2-Year-Old's Heart (and gaining their cooperation)

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.

The Secret to your 2-Year-Old's Heart (and gaining their cooperation)

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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.

7 Tips For Parenting Your Two-Year-old4. 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?

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.

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 seem to 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:

My Many Colored DaysMy Many Colored DaysThe Feelings BookThe Feelings BookThe Way I FeelThe Way I FeelIn My Heart: A Book of FeelingsIn My Heart: A Book of FeelingsToday I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My DayToday I Feel Silly: And Other Moods That Make My DayThe Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of FeelingsThe Color Monster: A Pop-Up Book of Feelings

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).

7 Tips For Parenting Your Two-Year-old

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.

To see all of my posts about toddlers click here: Whole Child Development: Toddlers

You might also like:

Four Mealtime Strategies for Kids Who Won’t Sit Still!

How to Get Your Child to Listen

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  • Reply
    Brittany Logsdon
    February 27, 2018 at 11:16 am

    Lovely article! It is very easy to get overwhelmed and frustrated with an emotional toddler, and even easier to blame it on them being in the “terrible twos” phase. Really we just have to adjust how we react and support our children during this stage of development. Of course there will still be ups and downs, but the hard times will become fewer and the joy will grow! Thank you for the great tips and information!

  • Reply
    Halfling Tamer
    February 28, 2018 at 6:44 pm

    I like this! I am going to try eliminating “don’t” and see if that helps. Our two year old likes to bite things, not people but everything else, when she is angry. Instead of “Don’t bite the chair!” What would be a good alternative outlet for her frustration?

    Thanks for the article!

    • Reply
      Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      March 1, 2018 at 6:08 pm

      Great question! I did “throw away the angry ball” which was the pretend throwing of a big ball of anger with my son at that age — there are a few related tips to that here: https://nurtureandthriveblog.com/three-quick-tips-to-help-kids-calm-down/. There is some interesting research that suggests that angry venting i.e. stomping feet, punching pillows, is actually bad for you long-term, that instead, it is better to learn to accept the emotions and work through them to let them go. Anger can also transform into the useful emotion of motivation and determination, so you never want to treat it as a bad emotion. So, I like the angry ball. It is accepting of the emotion and also a “letting go” of the emotion. I write all about anger here: https://nurtureandthriveblog.com/teach-child-manage-anger/

  • Reply
    March 3, 2018 at 8:30 am

    Wow! Great advice and tips. Thank yoy

  • Reply
    March 3, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Amazing, thank you! Having read a lot of advice as to how to deal with terrible-two behaviours, this is by far the best. My boy is exactly as you describe – I say ‘don’t scream’, he hears ‘scream’! He has a horrible habit of screaming/shrieking at the top of his voice when he gets excited. This may be watching cartoons or even when he’s just bored. It’s relentless and tiring! I’m ashamed to say he’s even had a smack once or twice on the hand when it’s become too overwhelming. But I hate that course of action and it doesn’t even change anything – he screams anyway. I have also tried getting down to eye level and firmly telling him to stop, as well as putting him in time-out which he doesn’t seem to understand and just wanders off. I have now started using positive language as you suggest above and whisper to him ‘let’s use our indoor voice please’. It hasn’t stopped him doing it completely, but he does seem to take more notice of my communicating in this way and will calm down for the while (before he remembers he has a screaming voice again!) Other times I will just ignore it. NOT EASY but it seems to make him stop eventually! I’m sharing this just in case other mums are having a similar problem.

    All your other advice is also wonderful and I’m glad to say comes naturally to my style of parenting. I am struggling with his sleeping routine however as he just doesn’t want to go to bed, but the tot-clock looks like something I’ll definitely try for that.

    Thanks again!

    • Reply
      Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      March 4, 2018 at 8:42 am

      Thank you!!! I am so glad it resonated with you! When it is overwhelming — it is all too easy to go towards yelling and harshness. Unfortunately, that sends the wrong message in more ways than one (i.e. when you’re frustrated it’s ok to hit) I’ve had to overcome my yelling and blow-ups myself. I think using these kinds of techniques teach children on many levels — to comply in the moment, but also how to handle emotions. And you’re right it doesn’t happen overnight. With some consistency hopefully, it will! Age two, really is a whole other level isn’t it? This is my article on finding my own calm in the chaos, so to speak…https://nurtureandthriveblog.com/five-steps-to-becoming-a-calm-and-centered-parent/. There is a handy printable at the end because it is a bit of a long post (as it was also a long journey for me!!).

  • Reply
    March 4, 2018 at 3:22 pm

    These are great tips! Thanks for explaining why giving a big reaction doesn’t work!!

    Now my daughter is three- yikes! This phase seems more challenging than two was for us. I’ll look forward to tips about three year olds!

  • Reply
    March 5, 2018 at 1:10 pm

    These are awesome, thank you so much!

    My daughter just turned 2, and she loves to run away. She’ll be helping us wash the cars, next thing before you know it, she’s running down the middle of the street! We have tried stern voices, trying to get her to chase us back, and even acting like it’s not a big deal. I’m at a loss and this concerns me as could be really dangerous. She’s done this at the fair, in the grocery store, you name it. I practice hand-holding and the proper way to walk with us in the mall, but that seems to be the only place she’ll listen. What should we do to correct this?

    • Reply
      Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      March 5, 2018 at 1:34 pm

      Oh yes — we had this too. It’s pretty common and you’re right it’s scary! Two things that helped us were playing the go-stop game and find my face. The Go-stop games you play in a safe area first before using it in the parking lot or on the street. Practice it several times. This is also good for impulse control in general. Basically, you shout red and they stop, you shout green and they go. And have them say it to you as well. This worked well with my son when nothing else would — I’ve cried out on panic “Red means Stop!!” in a parking lot more than once. The other one my sister told me about and we used as well. When she couldn’t get her son’s attention she started playing the game “find my face.” Again, just as a game. Then when she really needed his attention, find my face became a good way to initiate listening. I find that eye contact does help toddlers realize that it is important. Here is more about go-stop and a good book, plus 6 other games for impulse control: https://nurtureandthriveblog.com/7-ways-to-turn-power-struggles-and-over-excitement-into-cooperation-and-joy/

      • Reply
        March 7, 2018 at 3:46 pm

        My son likes to run off in parking lots, as soon as he gets out of his seat or while I am switching him into the car. One thing I have started doing that works really well is having him touch the car. I only have to say touch the car and he puts his hand there, and stays until I am ready. I have found it works for other things as well, like touch the building or touch the house. I have seen on Etsy that there are magnets or car decals with a hand print to help your child know where to touch on the car. I just have my son touch the wheel well though.

        I do struggle with bed time though, even more so lately. My son is 2 (27 months) and a lot of “bad” behaviors are starting to show. I have a very strict bedtime routine, and we start about 2 hours before bedtime. Snack and a movie or quiet play. Then we brush teeth and go in bed and read some books. As soon as I turn the light off he is running around the room, hiding under his bed, or out back on the couch. He will stay up until 1am sometimes! I work so I am exhausted. I dont even know what to try anymore.

        • Reply
          Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
          March 7, 2018 at 8:14 pm

          Hi Kristen,

          I love the idea of touch the car! Thank you for that tip! Isn’t funny how something like that will work?

          Oh I hear you on the sleep!!! Hang in there — it will get better!! It sounds like he is getting a second wind and possibly getting overtired. I would let up on your bedtime routine — keep it short and sweet– predictable — brush teeth, story and song and a guided relaxation or massage (read about massage here https://nurtureandthriveblog.com/three-tips-for-a-better-bedtime-routine/). But keep the massage short.

          I would cut out the movie as well — there are lots of studies showing that blue light from electronics is stimulating. Instead, try free play, roughhousing, high energy play, playing outside etc. Whatever your family enjoys that is somewhat active for him. Then take the pressure off yourself and do a short bedtime routine. Move his bedtime up by 20 minutes and if that doesn’t help, another 20 minutes.

          The best resource for good sleep help is Dr. Nicole Weeks at Practical Research Parenting. Here is a referral link to her sleep wizard: https://www.practicalresearchparenting.com/?ref=2
          I used this for my own son as well when he was younger (sleeps so well now).

          Here is Dr. Week’s video on how kids get that second wind. She uses the analogy of the sleep bucket: https://practicalresearchparenting.wistia.com/medias/3eicz95nez

          I hope this helps!!!

  • Reply
    March 13, 2018 at 5:27 am

    Thank you so much for this article.as the age category suggests, my son has an independent mind right now and I am. Having a problem with making him change clothes while going outside, specially to the mosque as we have specific clothes for that place and he just doesn’t want to wear anything but shorts! And that too one or two Of them out of a dozen I’ve bought. We’ve tried to make him understand, divert his mind but nothing works except force for this. Pls suggest for this unusual problem

    • Reply
      Ashley Soderlund Ph.D.
      March 13, 2018 at 12:09 pm

      Hi Alefiya,

      It is actually pretty common for toddlers to refuse to get dressed — it is one way they are asserting their independence. It also seems that he doesn’t like the feeling of certain clothes. First, make sure you acknowledge how he feels — I can see you don’t like to wear pants, I don’t like to wear some things either, but if we don’t wear these, then we can’t go to Mosque. I need you to wear these now and we can bring your shorts and change into them as soon as we leave, deal? Let’s get dressed to a funny song!! Try to make it fun. Sometimes battles become so habitual it’s hard to break them — so it might take some time. Maybe even let him wear his shorts under his pants if possible. Hope this helps!

  • Reply
    March 14, 2018 at 3:22 am

    Thank you so much for your help and insight. Will do my best to try to keep. Patient and calm and imply this and see what happens! ❤

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