Friday, May 28, 2010

Butting Heads With My 2 Year Old?

The Question:
Dear Jane,

I have 2 children (2 1/2 year old girl, 9 month old boy) that are as sweet as can be, but I have been butting heads with the 2 1/2 year old lately.  I'm guessing it's mostly the age and I just have to get through it, but I'm wondering if you have any tips to make it easier.

Getting her dressed or trying to do her hair is a wrestling match.  These are the things I've tried, as well as their opposites:  letting her pick what she'll wear, giving her warnings that it's almost time to get dressed, bribes (this when I have to get out the door for an appointment or something), just not caring what she's wearing when we go out, etc.  I haven't found anything that seems to make it easier. 

She's also started to be rude to other kids, especially her cousin (1 1/2 years old).  Everything is "hers" and she'll push him to get what she wants.  I realize this is very typical of the age, but I'm not sure how to respond when she does this.  I feel like she's such a bully to other kids, yet at other times she will be super sweet. 

Other topics I'm interested in your views on for this age:  nap time, teeth brushing, screaming (often while having fun, but it's too loud), getting her to cooperate when it's time to get in her car seat (once she's buckled in she's fine), and any other advice.

Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with young mom's like me.  And thank you for helping me realize that I need to rely more on the spirit than on parenting books.  That's a hard thing for me to remember.

You really are the best!

The Answer:
Dear Bethany,
It sounds like you have a strong-willed child.  You're right that she'll outgrow many of those behaviors, but you can work with her now to teach her what you expect and to give her successes. 
Most of the things you mentioned seem to be power struggles--the things you want her to do that she doesn't want to do.    And it sounds like you've had some good ideas.  I really hate power struggles.  I avoid them whenever possible because they set things up in a way that makes a child feel defeated in the end.  You want your child to feel cooperative and capable.  Is she old enough to dress herself?   You can hand her a shirt and say, "Do you know how to put this on?" or have a race--she puts on her clothes while you dress her younger brother.  You can exclaim the whole time to her brother about what a big, grown-up sister he has.  Two year olds like to "act" rather than be "acted upon" so give her as much autonomy as she can handle. 
This weekend, I visited my grandchildren.  It was good for me to remember how they think.  I realized that I almost always use some sort of incentive when the task is unpleasant for them.  "As soon as you're all dressed, you can choose a candy."  "When you have you're shoes on, we'll go outside and look for bugs for a few minutes."  "We have to leave the park now, but when we get home, we can read a story or eat some lunch."  I think I've always done that--avoided conflict by giving a positive picture of the outcome. 
BUT--here is a big caution.  Never give in when she cries.   If you start to dress her and she starts to cry, you can sympathize and console but, go ahead and get her dressed.  You don't want to teach her to cry.  Don't make it a long drawn out ordeal--simply say, "I'm really sorry.  I know that you hate getting dressed but we have to do it every single day."  Then do it.  Same with the car seat and brushing hair.  You can remain kind and calm but she needs to understand that these are not optional activities.
Now--about screaming.  I think I've mentioned before that I have a very low tolerance for noise.  Because of that, my children don't scream.  I'm convinced that because I hate it, I am very aware of it and respond quickly and that has conditioned my children against screaming.   And that makes me think that we can teach our children anything when we act swiftly and consistently.  "We never scream in the house...screaming is for outside."    "Remember...never in the house."   To make it more graphic, if they continue to scream, take their hand and walk outside.  When you get out there, invite them to scream.  "This is where we scream...but never in the house." Even when my kids' friends used to come and play, they quickly caught on to that rule.  Here's a cute story to back this up.  My Daughter Natalie doesn't let her children watch certain tv shows and tells them that they "give her a headache."  One day when one of those shows came on, Jack said, "Hurry!  Turn it off!  Mom will get a headache!"   Children will comply with any expectation if we are firm and consistent.  When we're hit or miss about it, they won't learn that we mean it.  I love clear limits.  And the best part is, our children love them too and thrive on them. 
Recognize of course, that your daughter is very young and be patient as you work with her.  As always, continue to do all the things that build a bond of love.  Smiles, hugs, true connection.  Love brings out the best in all of us.
And keep praying for help.  You're a good mom.
With love,


  1. I have had hard times with this off and on, but recently something worked that I just did and it was exciting. My 3-year-old has a hard time helping put away toys or make his bed or do anything that I want him to do when I want it. One day, I was struggling to get him to help clean up the massive mess he'd made in the toy room and told him, "just start by picking up the cars." He pushed out his lip, as usual, and all of a sudden, I found myself saying these words: "But you're such a master at picking up cars, nobody can do it like you!" Instead of crying, he got a big grin on his face and started picking them up. It has worked for teeth brushing and making his bed and even getting his own socks and shoes on--things he he capable of but has refused to do until now. Maybe you can try something like that, some sort of positive encouragement.

  2. I love your advice! I have a very strong willed two year old and you just reinforced what I have tried to do with her. Thanks.

  3. Ohh, a post just for me and my 2.5 year old! ;) Thanks for the tips Jane, especially about being firm and consistent. Sometimes I forget about that when I am trying to avoid the power struggles. I would rather give in than fight. I should have a handful of things I'm firm on, and then let the rest slide. Instead of letting them all slide! ;)

    I had an idea for Bethany on the carseat battle. My daughter used to fight me a LOT on the carseat issue. One day she was being particularly pleasant and helpful, and she managed to climb in to her carseat all by herself (I opened the door for her and then was distracted getting the car loaded), after I realized she could do it by herself, I would let her climb in every time. She did freak out one time after that, and tried to sit on the bench instead of her seat, and so I told her "Well, if you can't get in by yourself, I'll have to help you" and I physically forced her to get in her carseat, and of course she freaked out. On the ride home, I reminded her that if she can't get into her seat by herself, then I will have to help her. After that incident, if she ever dawdled, I would remind her that if she can't do it herself, I'll have to help her, and then she hurries up and climbs in.

    I ask my daughter to do things instead of forcing her, or doing them for her. After a few times of her obeying and receiving praise, things just keep getting better.

    My daughter can also get protective of her toys, but we just talk about it a lot, what it means to be a nice friend, how good it feels to share, how no one is going to take her toys home with them, etc. It must be an age thing. If her cousin was the same age as her, they would probably both be doing it!

    Lastly, I have realized that two year olds are like teenagers, some days they wake up and are adorable and pleasant, and other days they are stubborn and feisty. And there isn't much you can do besides roll with it, pile on the extra love, and hope they switch back to pleasant soon!

  4. Bethany,
    I have a very strong willed and wonderfully sweet child as well. It seems like from age 2 until 3 and 1/2 brushing her teeth every night was a struggle...she wouldn't open, she'd close half way through, she'd scream and cry. However, now she does it without a fight nearly every night. So hang in there and like Jane said, explain that it is something we have to do even though she doesn't want to and it may be a long process, but eventually they will out grow it. Two year olds have such a need to be in control of their lives. We have also found sticker charts to be very effective.

  5. My daughter and I take turns brushing her teeth. She does it first with a "blank" toothbrush, and then it's Mommy's turn with the tooth paste. She LOVES the toothpaste, so I'm hoping this will help her let me do it, knowing she's only getting toothpaste when Mommy brushes.

    And I saw an episode of Super Nanny where she had the mom bring the car seat inside so the kid could sit in it somewhere besides the car and for whatever reason, it helped. My car seat ends up in the house frequently and my daughter LOVES sitting in it while she watches a movie. So maybe you could try that. I also like what Kylie said about having her climb in herself.

  6. Thank you for you comments on screaming. I also am sensitive to noise...but especially screaming children. It really bothers me. I feel that it should be saved for when they are actually in danger or hurt. For that reason, I have a very strict rule that my daughter is not allowed to scream. Even in play outside. I've taught her the difference between squealing and screaming.

    Today my daughter had some new neighborhood kids over to play in the backyard and I had to run out to the yard a few times to re-enforce my rule with them. I felt weird about it...but I feel strongly about it.

  7. Thank you so much! I've been using a lot of the suggestions and things have been much better.

    The biggest one has probably been using incentives. I was doing it wrong before. I wasn't distinguishing between bribes and incentives and thought bribes weren't good so I didn't do it. Now I realize that incentives are a different thing and they've been working great!

    I've also found that changing our daily schedule around a little bit has helped. My 10 month old loves to be out and about, so when we're in the house too much he gets super ornery which makes me ornery and impatient with my 2 year old. I now try to get out of the house in the morning till lunchtime. My son is happy, so I'm happier and my daughter has a good time and also gets out more energy so she takes a long nap in the afternoon. It's also helped with her getting dressed and getting into her carseat because now it means we're going to do something fun. (I love the summer.)

    Thank you for your advice Jane! (And everyone else!)


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