It isn't easy to be a 2-year-old, compelled to touch, taste, and possess nearly everything in the environment, even when it isn't safe, respectful, or healthy to do so. Their impulsive nature also makes delayed gratification very difficult.
Fortunately, as the adult, you can give them appropriate outlets while keeping them safe from danger. Your child needs you to empathize with their current moods, give clear boundaries, model appropriate behaviors and intervene in ways that foster their developing independence rather than preventing it.
Here's how to do just that:
1. Say "yes"
How often do you restrict your child's activities or behaviors because they are unreasonable, irritating or disruptive? If you're not sure, get a piece of paper and make a checkmark every time your response is "No." If the checkmarks seem excessive by the end of the day, you may want to evaluate how you can say "Yes" instead.
Many times, you may be able to provide a positive alternative by creating a new opportunity for action or redirecting to a different activity altogether.
For example, if your child grabs a fragile object and bangs it on the floor, instead of saying, "No," affirm your child's need for exercising the arm muscles, saying, "Banging is fun. Yes, you may bang. Let's find something that isn't breakable."
By saying "Yes" as often as possible, even to the things that are mildly irritating, our children will learn to trust that we are looking out for their best interests when we do set those limits.
2. Offer limited choices
Letting your child choose between two acceptable options can be an effective discipline technique. When you give them simple choices, such as whether to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt, you are empowering them to make decisions on their own.
Asking for someone's opinion is considerate and respectful. Just don't be surprised when they practice their decision-making skills by choosing their favorite, only to quickly reject it in favor of the other option.
However, having too much freedom will have the opposite effect, causing your child to feel stressed and insecure. If they are given an entire closet full of shirts to choose from, they may well toss them all out and play in them, unable to cognitively handle all of the complicated choices.
As much as they need to have some say in their life, they also need you to show that you are ultimately in control. This helps them to feel safe and protected as they explores decision-making and problem-solving. Do them a favor and pare down their options in advance.
3. Be consistent + follow through
Because they are learning social boundaries, it is your child's job to push to see if you will change your mind. They're not trying to manipulate you. They're really just trying to figure it all out.
Therefore, it is your job to make sure that when you establish a routine, you stick to it as much as possible. If they ask, and the answer is "No," there should be no waffling, whining or conceding. They need you to mean what you say and follow through with calm consistency.
Since no family will have the exact same routine or expectations for what is allowable, you will need to first decide what your limits are and also how you will enforce them. For example, if your general rule during mealtime is that food stays on the table, you will need to supervise your child closely during this time.
If your child tries to take the food elsewhere, it is your job to always respectfully intervene. You might respond with a simple choice by asking, "Do you want to eat some more or are you ready to wash your hands? When you stand up, that tells me you are finished. I will help you go wash your hands."
After your child makes the choice, you need to make sure you are not being pulled back into a game or battle of wills. Affirm that the choice has been made, acknowledge feelings, and stay true to your word.
4. Be playful + physical
Certainly there will be times when you need to have your serious "I mean business" face on when setting a limit, but remember that the more you bring joy into your parenting strategies, the more positive behaviors you will see. Toddlers need to feel your love and devotion through playful movement and physical affection.
There are so many fun ways to encourage compliance. When offering your child a piece of broccoli, why not sing a silly song about healthy vegetables? During a transition period where you need to get her peacefully from the playground to the car, why not play airplane one day and "fly" there instead of walking?
Is your little monkey jumping on the bed? Put a cushion or two on the floor and jump with them while chanting the rhyme. Facing a teeth-brushing battle? Perhaps they'd be happy to play along if you're brushing their "alligator teeth."
When all else fails, sometimes a romping chase around the house is just exactly the energetic emotional release that she needs. Give in to the temptation and embrace your silly side—even if just for a minute or two.
5. Remove your child from the situation
Toddlers may not be able to stop themselves from repeating an inappropriate behavior, even when redirected. Dangerous or hurtful behavior must be stopped immediately and prevented from happening again.
The best thing to do when you are in this situation may be to physically remove either the object from your child's view or your child from the situation entirely. Do not spend any extra time giving choices, wheedling or bargaining. Since a 2-year-old often will not willingly walk out of a tense situation, you will need to pick them up and carry them.
This technique is especially useful if you are in a public area, such as a grocery store, and your child is on the verge of a tantrum. Instead of handling the issue in front of an audience, you both might feel more comfortable addressing your emotions in a neutral zone, away from the place of conflict.
You can also use this technique on yourself. If you are feeling angry or out of control, and your child is already in a safe space under the supervision of another adult, you may find that removing yourself from the situation is helpful.
Note that removal should never be used to isolate or punish a child for misbehavior. What you are doing here is taking a break together so that you can resolve the problem and emotionally reconnect. Instead of giving your child a "time-out," which breeds resentful feelings and is rather meaningless to him, you are creating a safe place to work through the issue.
If your child has a tantrum after removal, he may be confused afterward about what happened. Make sure to acknowledge his feelings and express your love for him. When you are both calm and ready, you can go back and try again or you might suggest a different activity altogether.
Excerpt from Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage: Effective Strategies to Tame Tantrums, Overcome Challenges, and Help Your Child Grow, published by Rockridge Press. Copyright © 2018 by Aubrey Hargis.