Toddler Tricks: Surviving the Terrible 2′s (and 3′s)

by Jennifer Weberman on 04/10/2013

Even if someone warned you about the “terrible two’s” or “terrible three’s”, nothing can prepare you for the non-stop battle of wills quite like spending an entire day with an actual toddler.

Pouring milk from a heavy gallon container? “I do it!!!”

But walking 3 steps to the car? “I can’t do it!!!”

Climbing on your dresser and jumping off the top? Not at all risky.

But putting socks on? Both feet? Are you trying to kill me?

(Seriously, don’t even think about buckling my niece’s car seat for her. You might lose a finger.)

Although all this is completely normal and appropriate, its certainly maddening at times. Especially if you need to get out of the house on time. (The phrase “herding cats” comes to mind.)

If you’re reading this thinking I can make your toddler compliant, I can’t. (Maybe I should have started with that.) But I would like to offer some help.

First, don’t fight it. They’re toddlers. Its their job. Toddlers become “oppositional” because they are testing their powers out and fighting for a sense of autonomy. The thinking is a bit like: “I want to be BIG, but I also want to be little. I want to be independent, but I also want you to care for me always.” Its complicated for them. But I like making complicated things a bit simpler.

If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Your little guys wants control, but too much control isn’t good for him. The same goes for the wrong kind of control. It just isn’t good. However, by giving him healthy kinds of control, you may be pleasantly surprised at how much less he fights you on other things. The best way to give healthy control is simply to give choices.

The 3 golden rules about giving your toddler choices

Rule #1) The choices are to be sprinkled into his day when he is calm and there is no discipline issue that you are addressing

Rule #2) Give two choices and make sure you are fine with either one

Rule #3) If he doesn’t make a choice within a reasonable amount of time, make the choice for him, but then give him another choice afterwards

Here’s an example: If your little guy says “I’m thirsty” and you know you are ok with either milk or water, then say, “Would you like milk or water?” You’ve given two choices and both are fine with you.

If instead of choosing milk or water, he says, “I want soda”, then say with empathy (little tilt of the head), “I know you want soda, but your choices are milk or water”. If he says “soda” ask, “Does Billy choose or does mommy choose?” (Disclaimer: if your child’s name isn’t Billy, please don’t call him that!). If still no choice, again calmly say, “Ok, then we’re having milk”. No lecture. Just calm. He didn’t seize the opportunity to choose so he lost that choice. But then you give the next choice, “Would you like your pink sippy cup or your blue sippy cup?” Again, if he picks, great. If not, you pick and go on.

Here’s another example (but I’ll switch up the pronouns to keep things fair): Teeth Brushing. If your little munchkin is often resistant to having her teeth brushed for her and it becomes a power struggle, then give her some choices here.

“Do you want to use your Elmo toothbrush or your zebra toothbrush?”

“Do you want me to turn the water on or do you want to turn the water on?”

“While I brush your teeth, would you like me to sing the ABC’s or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star?”

These are all healthy choices. You wouldn’t give her the choice of brushing or not brushing, because you know she needs to brush her teeth, but you can give choices within the brushing. (If you are instructing your child to brush her teeth in the form of a question, i.e. “do you want to brush your teeth?” or “can you brush your teeth?”, you are implying that there is a choice to do it or not do it. Try to become aware of this habit and use phrases such as “Its time to brush your teeth” and then follow through with a choice, which makes the boundaries more clear.) After you brush them for her, she can finish the job herself – after all, you want her to have the practice, just not at the expense of her teeth falling out!

Ok, here’s where you get to cash in.

Let’s say you’re trying to get out of the house…give her choices for which shoes to wear, how you will walk to the car (“do you want to do bunny hops or ballerina twirls?”), who opens the door, which song to sing, etc.

Then when you get to something that she doesn’t have a choice about (i.e. car seat has to be buckled), because you’ve made lots of deposits in the “choices bank account” there is more room for a withdrawal. You can say, “You got to make lots of choices today, but this is daddy’s choice and daddy says we buckle the car seat. But you can choose….(song to sing, book to read, etc).”

I think you get the idea. Remember you don’t need to do this constantly, but sprinkle this into the day. By empowering your toddler with choices, he won’t feel so controlled and will have fewer reasons to push back. However, keep in mind he is little, and, if he really wants to, he will always find a reason!

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