Ages & Stages > Toddlers

Toddlers: Your Game Plan for the Terrific Twos

How to manage your toddler and stay a positive parent?

Most children become harder to manage at around fourteen months. That's because they make a huge developmental leap at this point. They're not so easily distracted. They realize that you're a separate person, who can sometimes--but not nearly often enough--be influenced to do things their way. They realize they have some influence in the world, but not a lot of power, and they start experimenting to see how they can get their needs met and their desires fulfilled.

This can be a maddening time for parents, or it can be a Photo: Angela Sevinwonderful time, watching your child blossom into a person in her own right.  How difficult the phase from 15 to 36 months is depends mostly on the parent's attitude. Your child's rebellion will be inversely proportional to the freedom she’s given to do her developmental work.

How much is he allowed to explore? To set his own pace?  To feel in control of his world?  To discover that he is a competent person? 

Much of this depends on the parent.  Are you sensitive to your child's readiness for independence, supporting but not pushing? Can you appreciate your child's bids for independence without taking them as personal insults?  Can you give up some control so your child can develop some sense of mastery over her world? Can you set whatever limits are necessary for her safety and your sanity, while empathizing with her disappointment when she doesn't get what she wants?

Your Toddler's Developmental Tasks:

Rapid physical and brain development.
Rapid acquisition of vocabulary and verbal rules.
Learning how to stay connected to you while he asserts his own needs and wants.
Development of Agency (sense of oneself as a powerful, competent person able to act upon the world).
Learning that other children are people too, and that he relate to them safely, so he doesn't have to be aggressive with them.

Your Parenting Challenge:

Keeping your sanity while your baby increasingly expresses herself and engages with the world.

Your Parenting Priorities:

1. Keeping your child safe as she explores.
2. Giving up some control so he can develop some mastery over his world.
3. Enjoying her emerging independence and curiosity.
4. Staying positive!

"The first three years of life establishes the blueprints for all of our future relationships." -- John Bowlby

What toddlers need from their parents:

1. The validation of her own agency.  She needs to learn that there are things she is in charge of, such as her own body, and she needs to experience herself as competent and powerful.

2. Structure, Limits, Routines and Security:  Toddlers are beginning to grasp that it's a big world out there.  Even their own  feelings seem overwhelming to them at times.  They need the reassurance that the parent is in charge and can keep them safe  -- from the world, and from their own big feelings and lack of self control.

3. Help understanding and structuring time so he feels less out of control and pummeled by circumstance ("After lunch it's nap time, and then we'll drive to Grandma's.")  Toddlers need to know what to expect and do better with a definite routine.

4. Your empathy: Look at it from his point of view, and you'll see it makes sense.  Even if you can't do what he wants, it will help him to cooperate if you can understand and sympathize with his unhappiness.

Gameplan for a Fun Toddlerhood:

Photo: Crushed Red Pepper

1. Let your child be in charge of potty training.  They all get out of diapers sooner or later. Fights with your child about his or her body are fights you will never win.  Toilet training can actually be empowering for your child, an important step in independence, but it depends how you handle it.  If your child shows zero interest in toilet training, find opportunities for him to be around other kids who are using the toilet, and he'll quickly want to emulate them. For more on easy potty learning, click here.

2. Sidestep power struggles.  You don't have to prove you're right. Your child is trying to assert that he is a real person, with some real power in the world.  That's totally appropriate.  Let him say no whenever you can do so without compromise to safety, health, or other peoples' rights.  You'll be glad to know that since tantrums are an expression of powerlessness, toddlers who feel some control over their lives have many fewer tantrums.

3. Pre-empt tantrums.  First, know that tantrums are normal for kids this age.  Second, since most tantrums happen when kids are hungry or tired, think ahead.  Preemptive feeding and napping, firm bedtimes, re-connection with you,  cozy times, peaceful quiet time without media stimulation --  whatever  it takes to calm down and rest --  prevent most tantrums, and reground kids who are getting whiny. Learn to just say no  -- to yourself!  Don't squeeze in that last errand.  Don't drag a hungry or tired kid to the store. Make do and do it tomorrow.  For more on taming toddler tantrums, click here.

4. Use play to "manage" your toddler.  Toddlers don't like to be ordered around any more than you do.  What they do love is to play.  Want cooperation? Fly your toddler up to her bath.  Get him to finish his milk by pretending to be a puppy who loves milk.  Get her into her carseat by pretending to be the flight attendant preparing for takeoff.  Race him to the car.  

5. Don’t take it personally.  Your toddler will at times reject you or be hurtful in some way.  Don’t take it personally.  She’s learning from you how to modulate her anger.  This is your opportunity to grow, and teach her at the same time.

6. Allow time in your schedule for your toddler's need to explore the world.  That's his job, after all -- exploring, experimenting, learning.  That's how his brain develops.  Rushing toddlers is one of the common triggers of avoidable tantrums.

7. Cultivate empathy for your child.  Social skills start with your empathy.  Kids begin to develop empathy for others (and therefore, the ability to share, not hit, etc.) as they themselves feel understood. Click here for more on what empathy is and how to use it to raise great kids.

8. Don't force her to share.  That actually delays the development of sharing skills!  Kids need to feel secure in their ownership before they can share. Instead, introduce the concept of taking turns. (“It’s Crystal’s turn to use the bucket.  Then it will be your turn.")  Help him wait for his turn with empathy. Help him put his favorite toys away before another child visits.  When he does share, out of the goodness of his own heart, empower him to make that choice again by observing, aloud, the effect of his choice: "Look how happy Michael is that he gets a turn with your truck."

9. Use age-appropriate "discipline."  For toddlers, that means empathic limits, information, redirection, and help with emotions.  Researchers compared two groups of toddlers who were rated as behaving about the same. They watched what happened when parents spanked them.  The children who were spanked behaved worse a year later than the kids who weren't.  Even yelling at toddlers has a negative effect, causing them to harden their hearts to you and become defiant.  Toddlerhood is where violence starts: Are you unwittingly teaching your kids that might makes right? (See Positive Discipline, for help in managing your toddler.)

10. Be the person you want your child to be. Children learn to interact with others by experiencing relationships, and then they recreate them.  Remember that your toddler is learning both sides of any relationship she’s in.  If you don’t want her to tantrum, don’t lose your temper at her. If you yell at her, you're teaching her by example that tantrums are ok.

11. Eliminate visual electronic media.  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of two not watch TV or videos at all because they have other important developmental work to do and because it impacts brain development.  The AAP recommends that older children watch AT MOST an hour or two per day of nonviolent, educational TV.  I recommend TV and movies only for special occasions. I know we’re told that Sesame Street is good for our children, but research shows that it influences brain development and shortens the attention span. It starts an addiction in kids who are prone to it. When they’re a little older, they'll want to watch other TV. And before they’re much older, you'll wonder why they flip on the TV instead of reading a book. Not to mention that you will have stopped being able to monitor what they watch by the time they’re eight.  For more on TV, see Why Your Toddler Shouldn't Watch TV -- and What to Do Instead.

12.  Feeding is the toddler’s job.  You provide the healthy food.  She feeds it to herself.  Put a mat under the high chair.   Don’t obsess about how much she eats. Kids don't starve themselves. Many toddlers are too busy during the day to eat enough and ask for food at bedtime.  This can drive a parent around the bend, unless you build a bedtime snack into the schedule – which also often helps kids settle down and sleep better.  If you make sure the snack is healthy, you take the pressure off dinner so you can enjoy your child more at dinner without prodding them to eat. You can combine it with the bedtime story if you’re short on time.  Click here for more on feeding your toddler.

13. Forget about stimulating your child's brain by teaching her the alphabet.  The intellectual work of toddlers is about exploring, observing the world, talking and being listened to, being accepted, validated and acknowledged. Emotional self-management lays the foundation for intellectual development. It's never too early to develop a love of books, but that doesn’t happen by learning the alphabet.  If you want your child to love reading, then read to her and tell her stories.

14. Pre-empt whining.  Whining is an expression of the child's feeling of powerlessness.  It can become a habit.  To nip whining in the bud, avoid letting your child have opportunities to learn that whining gets her what she wants.  In other words, try to avoid making whining necessary, and if it does happen, try to avoid rewarding it. Instead, help your child with those helpless feelings.  Click here for more on how to stop your toddler's whining.

15. Use routines.  Kids develop self discipline partly by living in a safe, predictable structured routine where they know what to expect.  When you disrupt routines with travel,  Grandma’s visit, or simply exceptions for your own convenience, you can expect tantrums, difficulty falling asleep, and other challenges. Grandma, of course, is worth it, but choosing disruptions wisely is part of protective parenting. Click here for more on schedules and routines that toddlers can understand.

16.  Give her the opportunity to experience competence. Toddlers tantrum less and cooperate more when they feel more powerful.  How can you help your toddler feel more powerful?  Three key ways: Listen to her, Let her make decisions whenever possible, and give her the opportunity to experience competence.

Toddlers need daily experience with work to gain confidence in their own capabilities and begin to think of themselves as competent people.  I don’t mean burdensome work, I mean work in the spirit of Maria Montessori, and Tom Sawyer making the other kids think that white-washing the fence was the world’s best game.   In other words, toddlers LOVE to understand how the household functions, and to participate.  They LOVE to contribute.  They LOVE to learn.

Invite your toddler to be involved with whatever you're doing.  Ok, so the help will make your job harder, but he's learning and gaining skills for the future, and you're bonding.

What kinds of household tasks?   They can stand on a stool or bench in the kitchen to help.  They can help you as you run errands.  They can help in the yard.  Specifically,

Make themselves a snack, such as peeling fruit or an egg, or slicing soft cheese and making sandwiches with crackers. 
Help wash pots and pans or other unbreakable dishes. 
Wash vegetables in the sink
Wipe the counter off
Help you clean the refrigerator
Help set the table
Help clear the table
Help you by turning lights on and off.
Dust
Scrub the tub (from inside, barefoot!)
Pair the socks as you fold clothes. 
Sort clothes (which clean clothes belong to which family member?)
Help you transfer clothes from the washer to the dryer, pull clothes out of the dryer, or hang them on a line.
Pick out fruit at the grocery store. 
Wash the table or floor.

These activities are ultimately more educational and satisfying than TV, and most young children love them.  After completing such a task, the toddler says "I did it!"  and feels like a more capable, powerful person. (Compare that to how they feel after they watch a TV show.)  Sure, it's more work for the parent than just doing it yourself.  That's not the point.  Toddlers and preschoolers who feel competent and powerful don't need to assert their power by being contrary.  They're more confident.  And they're more helpful! That's what I call win-win.

Click here for more on helping your child develop Competence.