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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

A Toddler's Struggle for Independence: Dealing with the Terrible Twos and Threes

Everyone talks about the infamous "terrible twos", but in my house "three" has been the age of terror. For some reason, the day our two year old turned three, he became a dictator and a terrorist. It was going to be his way or the highway, and we had better get used to it. (That was his thinking.) 

But no one can live peaceably with a terrorist, so we calmly burst his bubble, one meltdown at a time. This child I speak of is number five for us, so I can recognize his misbehavior as a passing phase and not take it personally. This was not always the case!

Recognizing a behavior, however, is not the same as accepting it. As a seasoned parent, I knew that it was not in the family's best interest to let our little prince become king of the household. Nor would it do the child any good to give in to his every demand. The world simply does not work this way, and I would be setting him up for disappointment down the road.

So how does a parent deal with this sudden power struggle? Arm yourself with the weapons of war! Keep in mind that this is a war of wills - yours against his. Be warned. This battle is not for the faint of heart. A toddler can try the patience of a saint. You must be ready to stand your ground and remain calm (until you are alone behind closed doors, at which time it is acceptable to scream and pull your own hair from the roots). Are you ready?

As in any time of war, a leader must have a strategy, and he must know his opponent's tactics. Here are a few common toddler tactics in the game of getting-his-own-way.

  1. The cuteness factor: This is usually strategy number one when a toddler wants something. He sidles up to you with the cutest smile on his face, and he pets your arm or strokes your hip as he very sweetly states what he wants. "Momma, I want candy." You know that this child has had nothing substantial to eat for hours, and he really needs some nutritious food, so you reply with, "No, let's wait on the candy until after you've had something good for you - like some meat or peanut butter...or maybe some cheese?
  2. This is where tactic number two comes along. His reply is a mixture of pleading and stomping, as he repeats his request in the form of a demand. "NO! I want CANDY!" He may even pull you toward the cupboard where he knows the candy is hiding. You redirect with a cheerful trip to the fridge to suggest some more healthy alternatives. But this only incites anger, and along comes tactic number three.
  3. I like to call this maneuver "the meltdown", but it is basically a tantrum. He throws himself onto the floor (very carefully, so as not to bring harm to the most important person in the house - him!), and he begins to kick and cry and display the most pitiful posture a human can assume. He may hurl insults your way, so be prepared for a verbal attack. Thankfully, most kids this age don't know anything worse than "dummy" and "I hate you". Remember not to take this personally. He doesn't really hate you. He just hates that you won't give him what he wants. If the meltdown is not violent, simply walk away and wait for him to calm down. But don't go too far away, because tactic number four may be used next.
  4. This is the turning point that gets most toddlers into trouble. He does not accept "no" for an answer, so he takes matters into his own hands. You are about to witness this small, not-yet-fully-coordinated person achieve a stunt that rivals James Bond.
    Your first red flag: the room that was minutes ago reverberating with screams and sobs has now gone deathly quiet. 
    As you creep into a stealthy position where you can observe (Okay, you are technically spying, but two can play the James Bond act), you see the miniature master-mind at work. He knows where the candy is, and it's out of his reach. But that can be remedied with some creative stacking of nearby objects. Keep in mind that toddlers are fast builders, but they are not engineers. The makeshift ladder to the candy stash is not going to pass the stress test. In fact, it may hold him long enough to get him up there, but it probably won't be standing for the return trip down. 
    As he begins his climb, you quietly step out from the shadows and ask what he is doing. He reacts with a mixture of fear, embarrassment, and anger at being caught in the act.
    "Get back in there!", he shouts, as he points authoritatively at the other room. You stifle a laugh, as you calmly suggest that if anyone needs a trip to his room, it would be the climbing culprit at hand. 
  5. A mushroom cloud ensues! Upon retreat, your little "cutie" becomes a raving madman, seeking to destroy everything in his path. Walls are kicked. Doors are slammed. Toys are thrown. 
This is the parental turning point. You have two choices. You can snap, and show this little guy what a real fit looks like, or you can use restraint and remain calm. When I say "use restraint", I am also speaking literally. After all, you can't let a toddler destroy your house. I have found that the best way to deal with a situation like this is with a giant bear hug. 
Pick up your wild child and face him away from you. Sit down in a chair as you wrap your arms around him like a straight jacket. Keep your hold firm, and let him wear himself out. He will flail and kick, scream and shout, cry and wail. Don't let him go. Calmly state once in a while that you are not going to let him go until he calms down. Sooner or later, he will run out of steam. As he begins to relax, you can gradually relax your hold. Chances are, he will cuddle into your lap and you can enjoy some calm after the storm.

Congratulations! You have won the battle. Unfortunately, the war won't be over for many more years. But the battles become fewer and farther between if you consistently hold your ground. 
Remember that two and three-year-olds are in a struggle for independence. As long as they are not acting unruly, they should be able to exercise that freedom. I always give young children two choices when I ask them a question.
"Do you want the juice or the lemonade?" This keeps the options simple. Asking a toddler or preschooler what he wants to drink is a setup. He will quickly turn you into a juggling bartender, as he changes his mind a million times. Or he may ask for something you don't have!
Allowing children to make choices gives them power, and power builds confidence. 
Confident kids grow up to be confident adults. Soon the terrible twos or threes will be over, and the next phase of childhood will be here. Enjoy each stage of life, even when doors are slammed and toys are hurled like missiles. All too soon, the house will be quiet, and the good days will be the ones you will remember and cherish.

If you are in a daily power struggle with a young child, or if you just want a good bedtime story to read about unconditional love, I invite you to check out my children's picture book Mom Says "No!"
Download it to your tablet or phone, or order a paperback copy to keep on the shelf. 

Happy parenting!