The Terribly Misunderstood Twos
"Sweetheart, it's time to put on your shoes."
"Do you want me to help you?"
"Do you want to do it yourself?"
"No. No. NO. NO."
Remember when that cherubic little face first said, "Mama!" or first lovingly reached for you, calling, "Dadadadada!" Each word seemed like a new treasure as your sweet baby learned to communicate with you. You made lists in her baby book of each new word. You beamed with pride as those lists grew longer, her dear little voice with its dear little mispronunciations, cheerfully mistaking "dog" for "woof," her enchanting little "Wub you, Mama."
So how come her favorite word ended up being, "No?"
Simply, because it works. "No," has meaning and strength. It gets a reaction and it engages other people. For the toddler who is just beginning to experiment with what it feels like to have influence, saying, "No!" is an efficient way to wield it. This new agency is a fascinating cognitive milestone. The child, who was previously reliant on others for everything from what she wore to what she ate, now has the words and the intellect to assert her own voice. No surprise then that she asserts it loudly and often. Wouldn't you? (Truth be told, you probably did, too. Good for you!)
What's a parent to do?
First, stay calm. Your child resisting your authority is actually a great step in his or her development. It means your child has sufficient cognitive capacity to know that he is a separate person than you, and that he is a person with some capacity to influence his world. Remind yourself that your child is not saying, "No," to annoy you, but to influence you. That's a developmentally appropriate expression of his expanding understanding of the world. Pat yourself on the back... your child is developing just exactly as he should.
But then, try these steps to still get some stuff done!
- Offer limited choice: Remember the old adage- a child's freedom should be as wide as the span of her arms. When she's little, that's just a little freedom, like controlled choice between just two outcomes. "Would you like peaches or pears with your yogurt?" "Would you like to bathe and then brush your teeth, or brush your teeth and then bathe?" "Would you like to climb out of the car on your own or would you like to use my arm for support?" In identifying limited choices for your child, you offer her agency to influence the outcome within reason. You still determine the choices, but she gets to pick between them. You can use limited choice even when you're redirecting children's behavior, "Would you like to climb down off the table by yourself or would you like me to lift you down?" Your child may still initially refuse. Simply repeat the choice again, calmly and quietly without great explanation. " I hear you. Would you like to climb down off the table by yourself or would you like me to lift you down?"
- Parent, heal thyself: Listen carefully to your own words with your child and make sure you're not using, "No," more than you absolutely have to. If you're redirecting your child from something dangerous, say, "Danger!" or "Careful!" If you're refusing your child's preference for something, say, " I know you'd like _______, but today we're going to..." Most of the times when we say, "No," in directing our children, we could choose more positive language and avoid the word entirely. Overusing, "No" as adults takes away its power when we use it, and models it as an appropriate first response for our children.
- Instead, model other ways of saying, "No." Offer your child rich, complex language for declining. "Well! Goodness! I hadn't thought of that. I'll have to give that some thought." "I don't imagine I will." "Thank you, but I have to decline." Muddy the waters of resistance by modeling more interesting (and more complicated to master) vocabulary.
- Affirm your child's emotions, without letting them rule the day. Use mirroring language that offers the child words to describe how he's feeling instead of just relying on, "No!" "I can see that you're angry. Let's find a space to cool down together." "This is important to you. I understand." "This seems like it means a lot to you. It can be hard when we want something we can't have." Affirming your child's disappointment or frustration or other emotions behind the, "No!" can help to defuse the resistance. When your child has had a chance to calm down, offer the limited choice that allows him or her to decide how to get back into the action.
- Lower your voice, and shorten the distance. With all things toddler, the quieter you are and the more intimate the space between you and the child, the more likely she is to hear and attend to you. Make eye contact. Get down to your child's height. Touch your child gently. Remind her gently through your actions that you are on her team, and you may be able to make her resistance more gentle as well.
- Know when to say No. While most things in your toddler's life actually can be reframed as choices (limited to those outcomes you've identified,) not everything is. In matters of health or safety, your child may not have a choice. She can choose to walk alongside you or hold your hand, but she may not choose to run into traffic. In those instances, take control and protect your child from the harm. But afterward, take a breath. Take a seat, and take a moment with your child to talk about what happened. Imagine that your child ran ahead of you into a crosswalk. You should grab him, pick him up and get him to safety. Once safe, though, it does not help to yell at the child for having dashed ahead. Instead, make eye contact and firmly let your child know, "That intersection is very dangerous. I had to pick you up to keep you safe. That was scary for both of us."
Sometimes you'll have to take charge because it's simply not an appropriate time for a choice. "You may not tug on the dog's tail." "You may not stay home alone." In these times, rare though they may be, your affect and demeanor are important parts of your message. Avoid using sing-song or baby talk if you're conveying a nonnegotiable directive. Speak firmly but without anger. Because these should be rare moments, your child will take greater note of the change in your tone and seriousness. Use that attention wisely.
Finally, remember that "the terrible twos" aren't so terrible as much as they're just badly misunderstood. Your child may have a limited vocabulary, but her thinking and development is nonetheless complex. When she says, "No," what she's really saying is, "I want to be a person with agency." When he says, "No," what he's really saying is, "I understand that other people are different from me and I want to explore each of our limits." Your child is testing the world to find out if she's safe, if she's loved and if she matters. The more you assure her, in words and actions, that she is all those things, the better off you'll both be.