Mothers often marvel at their one year old children. In one very short year their children went from a dependent infant to a free walking toddler. They tripled their weight, became curious in the world around them, and want freedom to move around it. It is just a wonder to behold. But parents often dread what is to come – the famous terrible two’s & horrible three’s.
As a pediatrician, however, I marvel at the next transition. As a toddler grows towards two years old and beyond, a personality develops. They start to show preferences and interests. They don’t get distracted as easily away from their desired object. They demonstrate a will and determination. Eating a meal in full is no longer easily accomplished. They decide about foods they like and don’t like.
This transition is equally remarkable as the first year of life. But for parents, it can be hard to enjoy their child at this age since we enter a challenging time of parenting. With the fascinating growth of personality come the parenting battles we all fear – tantrums, food battles, toilet training, and more. These challenges are really appropriate steps in their development, so we have to reframe how we look at these little people in our lives. How can parents marvel in this development while peacefully managing a different interaction with their child? This is the challenge of meeting the “terrible twos and the horrible threes”.
We can meet the challenges of the toddler years if we understand them in respect to their development. All the new challenges our children give us during this time are a direct result of their new skills, new curiosities and new determination. Food challenges are due to slower rate of growth which causes smaller appetites. By looking at their development, we can better understand their behavior. Then perhaps we can be more measured and controlled in response to their behavior. As we control our reactions to their behaviors, we actually improve our interaction with our children thereby making these “terrible” times much easier. Let’s look at some examples.
Parents often witness a drop off in diet in children by 18 months of age. Sometimes it is difficult to have a child sit for fives minutes to eat. And the amount of food consumed versus going to the dogs (literally) may be a pittance. Many parents end up falling back on old reliable foods (spaghetti, Mac and cheese) just to get their kids to eat something. What is happening in their development at this age? They are curious and active. They don’t want to sit. Their growth rate is much slower than the first year so they don’t need to eat as much to grow. And they are showing preferences in what foods they like.
Taking this in perspective parents shouldn’t expect full meals eaten. They will eat what they need to grow on – all children do. Parents need to watch not to cater too much toward their child’s likes and dislikes. Keep variety coming. They will learn to pick from a varied diet and will grow on it. The age old worry about how much a child eats at any one meal is unnecessary.
Where do tantrums come from? Your poor young children! They get some voice, some legs and mobility, they see all the opportunity for exploration around them, and they think the world is theirs. Unfortunately they don’t see what is safe and unsafe. We need to say “no” and keep them safe. But when their exploration and freedom are limited, they react. They try a behavior. When you don’t allow them to bang the table with silverware in a restaurant, they may try a temper fit; they may cry;’ they may strike out and hit. All these are trials. Attempts. They aren’t malicious or mean. They are simply trying to change our minds. They want their freedom and control back so they try a behavior on for size. Unfortunately, there are times that we need to take control. We need to keep situations safe. Recognize these behaviors as attempts to influence our decisions. But don’t take the bait and don’t take it personally. Most behaviors that aren’t given much attention usually fade away. Behaviors that don’t gain much control of the situation also fade away. Don’t let these behaviors control you or the situation and don’t give them undue attention and they will go away – over time. Be patient.
Many young children and preschoolers hate transitions. It may be that you need to leave the playground. You may need to drop them off at preschool. Or you may need to get them in bed.
Many young children develop bad habits. Nose picking, nail biting, even handling their privates may all occur at embarrassing times. Part of toddler-hood to preschool development is body exploration and self care. They do have control of their hands and control of many body parts. It is their body. What we can do is teach them where caring for the body is appropriate – in privacy. Teaching and allowing body care in private keeps this battle small. Instead of saying “don’t pick your nose” say “if you’re going to pick your nose do it in the bathroom or your bedroom”.
This age group also transitions into the ultimate body control function of childhood – training to use the toilet. This can be a big control battle and as I said above they have control of many of their body parts. This is particularly true of their bowels. Many pediatricians feel that this issue should never become a battle. It is really your child’s choice where they go to the bathroom. It is their accomplishment to go in the potty – not the parents. It really shouldn’t matter to the parents where a child goes to the bathroom. We do have control over how and where to clean them up. We can show what is normal for adults in going to the bathroom. And we can encourage them to go to the bathroom like us. But when they decide to be “trained” is really up to the developing child. (Incidentally, most girls aren’t “trained” until 2 1?2 and most boys at 3 or older!)
There are many issues to face with children from 18 months to three years of age. It is truly a fascinating transition. By viewing our challenges in interacting with our children in light of their development, it makes it easier to understand what to do. There are many things we need to be in charge of. And there are some things they have ultimate control over. Often, as parents, we need to step back and think about where we draw the line, where we take control and when we concede control to them.
I have developed a list of guidelines (The twelve rules of parenting young children) for dealing with toddlers to preschoolers. Here they are.
Recognize that this is an age of wonder, exploration, determination, and attainment of skills.
Praise the positive. Marvel in it. It is through our praise that they appreciate their skills.
Don’t dwell on the negative – move through it.
Don’t sweat how much they eat – just keep a balanced diet coming.
Ignore the fits – if they don’t work, they’ll stop using
They all toilet train so why sweat it!
Read, Read, Read – they love words and love to build vocabulary.
Enjoy their interests.
You do need to say “no”.
When you do – expect some behavior.
Transitions are tough – help them move through them –at some point “just do it”.
Enjoy their stories – they love telling them.
Dr. Brian G. Orr is a pediatrician and author of A Pediatrician’s Journal. He also writes a parenting column for papers North of Boston. Donna Raskin is a writer and a teacher in the North Shore of Boston.
Brian Orr M.D. and Donna Raskin co-authored The Everything Guide to Raising the One Year Old and The Everything Guide to Raising the Two Year Old.