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 that is exactly what they will do — push boundaries, test limits, challenging themselves, and your patience!
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 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.
8 Tips For Parenting Your Two-Year-old: Win Their Hearts and Their Cooperation
1. Ignore Unwanted Behaviors
Two-year-olds are in the preoperational stage of cognitive development. They literally learn by repeating behaviors over and over.
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 from 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 to react.
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.
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!
4. 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. Instead of telling your toddler what to do, ask for their help in a way that bolsters their sense of independence and captures their imagination:
Ask your toddler to find all of the lost toys and putting them back where they belong.
Next time you are doing laundry, your toddler can help their clothes leap into the hamper.
In the kitchen, your toddler 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 into one or two steps at a time.
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 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 first to name their emotions and second, that their feelings are meant to be felt — that emotions are okay.
How they express their emotions might not be okay… for example, you might name and acknowledge their emotions by saying: “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, telling them it’s okay to feel how they feel, helps them to 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.
In response, they will feel like it is safe to express those emotions to you. And you will be helping strengthen those tenuous connections in their still-developing emotion-regulation parts of the brain.
I love this printable toolkit for emotions (picture below)! This toolkit teaches toddlers to learn their emotions and how to express them — 1. How do I feel? Name the emotion. 2. What do I want? Comfort, Space, or Silliness?™
These beautifully illustrated characters make abstract and sometimes overwhelming emotions more easily identifiable and manageable.
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!).
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 it’s time to wake up (not too early), time for a nap, quiet play, and bedtime.
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 charts and cards (pictured above). 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 to. 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.
8. Try a Feeling Break (a more flexible kind of time-in)
Time-outs vs. time-ins — what’s the difference? Really none of that matters — what matters is what works. There is much debate between psychologists on this topic. Putting all of the research together as well as my own experience as a mother, what parents really need is a flexible strategy that always puts feelings first.
Why? Because this is exactly what toddlers are learning! What emotions are and what to do with them.
And sometimes your own feelings! Sometimes parents need a break when they are frustrated too. Done is the right way you can tell your child you need a moment to feel and you can give your child a moment to practice regulation too.
The difference from a time-out is that you don’t ignore your child, you simply ask them to pause. You don’t tell your child to ‘calm down’, you tell them to take the time to feel their feeling. The difference from a time-in is that you always look for the root emotion under the behavior first, you allow space when needed by you or your child, and you include a time-break for reflection.