When my son Miles was two, (and actually still now at 3) he loved oatmeal for breakfast. It was the go to. I always give him a choice of something else, but he usually chooses oatmeal.
One morning, he chose oatmeal as expected. But then when he got it in front of him, he gave it a big push away and yelled “I don’t want this! I hate oatmeal!”
Um, wait. No you don’t. And I gave you the choice of eggs or cereal and you chose oatmeal! The response was lots and lots of tears. “I don’t like this!”
There is not much logic when it comes to two year olds- emotions take over and something that typically happens well can go completely wrong.
He also went almost 6 months hating pictures. Of course, at the beginning of this phase, we had a family photo shoot scheduled that he screamed and cried through for half an hour.
This is just the life of a two year old (and probably 3 year old). Two year olds are figuring out their world. They push boundaries to see what their limits are and they are driven by their emotions. Which is the perfect storm for tantrums and power struggles.
One of the best things for two year olds is a consistent routine. I’m a broken record I know, but it just works! Their personalities and possibility for tantrums adds another level of urgency to keeping routines in your home.
They need our help in regulating their emotions and feeling safe with predictable boundaries. These are some tips and strategies to help discipline your two year old and make life a little bit easier.
Communicate What is Going to Happen
One of the things two year olds are working through is dealing with transitions- it’s hard for them to accept change. Tell them what is happening next. Doing it ahead of time can work wonders. Make sure to also include what is expected of them!
I still do this with Miles who is 3. In the car after preschool pickup (at noon), we recap what is coming next.
Me: “Miles, I’m going to finish getting lunch together. While I do that, you need to go inside. take off your shoes and coat- hang them up, go potty and wash your hands. Afterward, we will all eat together before nap.”
Since we do this everyday, I sometimes ask him instead of tell. I also don’t need to say the coat and shoes anymore because he automatically does it.
This is especially helpful for new situations or places. We’ll tell him where we are going and who’s going to be there. At two, he didn’t always remember all of our friends’ kids- so we’d show him a picture and describe what we are going to do. It helps make the transitions a lot easier!
My husband is a pro at this. He is an all around silly guy, but it always reminds me how effective it is! Being silly or turning something into a game can wipe out power struggles. An easy but nightly favorite for us is seeing who can pick up toys the fastest. A little speed competition to make the chore not so boring.
Another funny distraction happened randomly one night and now we use it all the time.
For a while, we were putting our second son Ellis to sleep about 30 minutes before Miles. He wasn’t one yet and didn’t really have the attention span to read as a family. So the boys would take a bath together, put on pjs, but then we’d read to Ellis and put him down first.
Let me tell you these 30 minutes could be hell some nights. Miles would start chasing the dog and laughing- even though he had no desire to do that before there was a sleeping baby in the house.
Or he would start yelling random things, it could be because he was happy or resisting bedtime- either way it was loud!
We were constantly telling him to use an indoor voice and what that sounds like, how we whisper at night because the baby and all the neighbors are already sleeping. Etc, etc.
Yeah that didn’t work. Maybe for a second, but then he remembered that he didn’t care about any of those people (because he’s two and they aren’t him) and continue on.
One day my husband taught him how to “whisper laugh”. It was a very exaggerated facial expression, with silent knee slapping and a wide grin laugh- except it was a whisper.
Miles thought this was the BEST thing ever- it was fun and it made him happy to see us doing it. You better believe I stole that and use it all the time. It has expanded to lots of whisper role plays, acting out different things without noise.
What is hard for me to remember sometimes is that it doesn’t have to be so serious. But when you are telling someone to do something- you’ve repeated yourself multiple times and they’re STILL not doing it. You can really start to boil over, and this feeling easily leads to a power struggle with a toddler that you may not win. That will leave you feeling worse than before!
Sometimes taking a step back and finding the humor in a situation or approaching it in a joking way- will get you so much farther.
We have this classic typical bath time struggle. It’s not every day, usually if my son is extra tired- he fights sleep. He went through a phase when he was napping every other day- even though he clearly needed it. In true toddler fashion, it doesn’t really make sense to fight sleep when you’re exhausted but there it is.
Bath time is the beginning of bedtime and of course my son knows it. He loves bath, but fights the beginning of this transition. He’d run around, throw himself on the floor, say he was hungry or thirsty- you name it. Of course, we are also tired at this point so resorted to “threats” like no bedtime books or counting to ten. Don’t ask me what happens after we got to 10. Nothing was really working well.
Then one day, Miles is doing his classic “I don’t want to take a bath! No!” Picture lots of whining, some tears, flailing of the body.
I paused and looked like I was thinking, “Hmm, I’m wondering if we should make a lot of bubbles for bath tonight or just a little bit? Or maybe none at all right? I’m over having bubbles in the bath.”
Miles slowly looks at me and says, ” I like A LOT of bubbles.”
Me “Really?! You do?!” (Duh, lol)
Miles: “There should be a lot of really big bubbles!”
Me: “That sounds like a great idea! Do you think you can come help me since you are so good at making them?”
You know what the best part is? I have used this sooo many times! It’s like he forgets that I’m distracting him with a story of bubbles- or I ask him which bath toys he wants to play with. We also give him choices that we can work with- like brushing his teeth before or after bath. This way everything we need to get done happens, but he feels like he has some power in all of it.
Which leads me to…
Choices are another life saver! But they can also get tricky, because you really need to make sure that they actually have a choice. For example, “Do you want to wear a coat or a jacket outside?” Ummm. That won’t work in winter weather so it’s not really something you can give as a choice. I haven’t done that one in particular, but I have many times wanted to kick myself after a question came out of my mouth. So it’s good to think these through beforehand and give choices that are within reason.
Have some go tos- like our toothbrush one at bedtime, we use it all the time. We also let him pick his pajamas. I usually pull out a couple and have him choose between those. And of course which stories he wants to read. If you’re really really sick of a book- just hide it for a while! We’ve soo done that. He was requesting it every singe night for weeks and it was boring! That’s not really for your two year old; bonus tip for parent sanity in general. 🙂
Make sure to give 2-3 choices when you can and avoid open ended choices like, what do you want for lunch?” It’s hard for them to think of all the options and they can very well say something you don’t have and it turns into a tantrum. Because that is just how their little heads work. They don’t understand that your absence of macaroni and cheese wasn’t a direct plan to make their lives miserable.
Speaking of eating- oh man that deserves it’s own blog post- or even it’s own book. We all have different philosophies on this, but just speaking on choices. For breakfast and lunch, we’ll give food options. I have meals that I cook and plan out for dinner- so there is no choice there. He chooses what to eat on his plate. The rule I’ve tried to instill is that you have to at least try everything. This is a work in progress.
To still give him a sense of control, we just have him pick out his fork and plate, or little things like that. Around 2 and 1/2 he started getting his own drink that was low in the fridge- that makes him feel pretty special and independent since he is doing stuff for himself.
Validate Feelings and Emotions
Have you ever looked at a toddler and said, “Why are you crying?” or “Stop crying, There is no reason to cry right now.” Do they usually start yelling even more? Regardless if it makes sense to us, they want to feel heard and understood.
Acknowledge what they are saying and feeling. Again, two year olds don’t run on logic like we do- they are primarily running on emotions.
Really big, quickly developing emotions. Even if you aren’t going to back down on what you said. “I know that it’s really frustrating to not get a new toy every time we are at Target. We can’t always buy new stuff. Would you like to see some of the toys I have in the diaper bag?”
Instead of saying don’t, it helps to say what they can do. Instead of don’t run, “I need you to walk right now, while holding my hand. As we go across the parking garage, it keeps us safe to walk carefully and together.”
When your toddler gets something they love, they are going to want it again and again. If you give them a cookie after dinner, then the next night they are going to want a cookie again. Then when you don’t give it to them, it becomes a huge deal!
My husband probably thinks I’m a little extreme with this following example, but I rather not give him random treats where it can turn into a problem. Now when they are with grandma, I don’t micro manage what she does or gives them.
After his afternoon nap is the only time Miles has juice. He loves juice and wants to request it at every meal! In order to not discuss juice with him at every meal- we made it his after nap drink. It would still come up for a while, but after he saw I was consistent with it- he stopped asking for it at meals.
He gets really excited after nap and never forgets that it’s juice time. Even though I dilute it with water, lol. I know I’m terrible, don’t tell him I do that. 🙂 Unless it’s Honest juice, theirs’ isn’t too sweet so I let it be.
If there is something that keeps coming up as a constant struggle with your child, maybe think of a “place” to put it so it doesn’t have to be a constant point of discussion.
State the Positives
Finally, don’t forget the positive stuff! Make sure you tell your child what you like about what they are doing. “I loved how you shared your goldfish with your brother without anyone asking you.” “You did such a good job cleaning your books.”
They need to hear they have strengths and are doing great things in addition to being redirected in undesirable behavior.
Enjoy this time! It can be a rollercoaster and your patience will be tested like never before. But they will say the funniest things and the world is so new and amazing to them. Seeing things we take for granted is pretty marvelous through a toddler’s eyes.
Disciplining a toddler takes time. Be patient with yourself. We all make mistakes. I have yelled and lost my temper quite a few times. Nobody is perfect. All we can do is grow and learn- to understand our kids and be their best support.
As my second son gets closer to two, I’ll be testing these strategies out on a completely different personality. Will for sure update as I learn more!