On Psychology

Jewish World Review May 6, 1999 /20 Iyar, 5759

Dr. Wade Horn

Terrible Twos Signify Time of Important Growth

By Dr. Wade F. Horn

Q: My son is just about to celebrate his second birthday. So far, things have been going along pretty smoothly. But lately, he has been starting to refuse to do things that he used to do without an argument. Is this the beginning of the "terrible two's" my wife and I have heard so much about? If so, any advice as to how we deal with this relatively new, and I must admit, frustrating behavior?

A: At around the age of two, "no" becomes most children's favorite word. Almost everything, it seems, is a fight. "No" is such an important word to two-year olds, that sometimes they might say "no" or shake their head "no," even when they mean "yes."

Econophone Many parents dread the terrible twos. In fact, one of the most frequently asked questions of child rearing experts by parents of toddlers is: What can we do to avoid the terrible twos?

The answer is very little -- and thank goodness. The fact is that the terrible twos are an important stage in the development of a healthy child.

By about the age of two, children have developed the physical and language skills needed to begin mastering their world. Children at this age are busy building their sense of independence, while also learning the limits of that independence.

Unfortunately, at two years of age, children are quite capable of getting into serious danger -- dashing into the street, for example. Your child needs to know that you and your wife will keep him safe. In fact, it's this blooming sense of independence, combined with the knowledge that his parents will provide needed protection, that encourages your child's explorations of the world.

A two-year-old's growing independence also means "testing" the limits. Your two-year-old has lots of new abilities, but he doesn't yet know what he is allowed to do with those new abilities. Thus, all that testing behavior, including saying "no" to things he used to do without any protests at all. It's your child's way of learning which behaviors you will allow and which you won't allow.

Keep in mind that all of that drive-you-crazy, two-year-old behavior isn't about purposefully being a brat -- at least, not most of the time. It's about your child learning important lessons, like becoming independent, feeling safe to explore the world, and learning what's allowed and not allowed. It's really your child's first experience with that weird dichotomy of childhood: hard charging independence coupled with scary vulnerability. But your son's lucky. He has you and your wife to help him through this difficult, yet exhilarating, stage.

For you and your wife, the terrible twos are about maintaining your patience under a constant assault of "No," "Me do it," and some inevitable tantrums, usually in some public place with that nosey neighbor of your's looking on.

Here's a few tips for surviving the "terrible twos":

Praise the good. Work at paying attention to, and praising, your child's good behavior. A good rule of thumb is to work at giving at least twice as many praising comments as critical ones.

Give choices. Rather than asking, "Do you want cereal for breakfast?" to which your two-year-old will invariably respond by saying "no," ask, "Do you want oatmeal or corn flakes for breakfast?" At the same time, don't overwhelm a child with too many choices. "Do you want to wear your red shirt or your white shirt?" is better than "What do you want to wear today?"

Pick your fights. Not every negative behavior needs a response. Sometimes, the best response is to ignore the behavior. Of course, you shouldn't ignore refusals to comply with direct instructions or commands. That would only teach him that he doesn't really have to listen to you.

Be consistent. Don't change rules from one day to the next. Consistency gives kids a sense of security. It also makes it more likely that your child will obey household rules.

Look for positive times together. Try not to let an entire day or evening get defined by your child's negative behavior. Get out of the house and go do something your child enjoys, like a trip to the park. You won't be rewarding bad behavior; you'll just be creating a new opportunity for enjoyable time together.

Make sure your child gets plenty of rest. Here's a simple equation: Tired kids = more tantrums = tired parents. The same goes for hungry kids. So make sure your child gets plenty of sleep and eats nutritious meals.

Take a break. Give yourself and your wife as many breaks as possible. Two-year-olds can be very tough. So, hire a babysitter every so often and go on dates with your wife. Remember, if you're going to defeat these terrible twos, you going to need an ally. Hint: That ally is not your two-year-old.

Of course, the terrible twos are not all about tantrums, oppositional behavior, and negativism. The terrible twos are also filled with moments of great joy. Try to keep that in mind the next time your two-year-old suddenly announces in a voice loud enough to be heard all the way to Europe that he's not going to budge from the middle of the shopping aisle at the local supermarket.

JWR contributor Dr. Wade F. Horn is President of the National Fatherhood Initiative and co-author of The Better Homes and Gardens New Father Book. Send your question about dads, children or fatherhood to him C/O JWR


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© 1998, Dr. Wade F. Horn