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Enjoy the Terrific Twos

How to navigate your toddler's growing independence



New parents hear warnings about the “terrible twos,” but this view of toddlerhood misses the positive aspects of this age. Until you see the world through toddlers’ eyes, you can’t begin to understand their behavior and support them as they begin to discover who they are and what they can accomplish.

Rebecca Weiss, a mom from Huntingdon Valley, PA, looks past her daughter Lexi’s stubbornness and tantrums to appreciate the magical moments of early childhood. “My favorite part of this age is watching her astonishment about doing everything for the first time, seeing snow, for example,” says Weiss.

Toddlers need emotional support

Parents can set the stage for positive preschool years by providing emotional support and guidance, says Princeton, NJ psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, co-author of Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends.

“Toddlers are beginning to explore the world, and they are not so good at controlling their emotions,” Kennedy-Moore explains, so parents need to understand their children’s perspective and help them to label and understand their feelings.

From about 18 months to 3-and-a-half years old, children begin to assert their independence and sometimes become defiant, says Eileen Weingram, director of Early Learning at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, PA. Their greater mobility, coupled with an insatiable curiosity to explore, often gets them in trouble, notes Weingram.

Weiss was surprised when her daughter, Lexi, began to challenge her mom at 18 months old. Lexi started to say, “By myself!” or “No!” quite often, notes this mom.

It’s not really important why toddlers say “No!” so often, says retired preschool teacher Susan Morey from Beth Sholom. They could be tired, hungry, scared or in transition, but the focus needs to be on what you can do about it, says Morey. Her advice is not to argue. “Take time to listen to your little ones; hug them and hear them,” she advises, because they need lots of reassurance and love.

Toddlers need diversion and redirection

Teachers of toddlers master the art of redirection. Morey always has small interactive toys to divert an upset child, and she suggests that parents have a bag of tricks on hand for unexpected meltdowns.

“My students are sponges, taking in everything whether it is right or wrong,” says toddler teacher Jessica Colemen from Great New Beginnings in Bear, DE, but they are always testing you. Sometimes she redirects children; other times, she extends their learning. She advises parents to look beyond the child’s misbehavior to simply listen and address the issue.

When parents offer a child two equally acceptable choices, they work with the child’s momentum, explains Kennedy-Moore. This takes the child out of “you-can’t make-me” mode. “Offering choices is a way for even a 2-year-old to not feel controlled,” says Kennedy-Moore. When Weiss offers Lexi two viable choices, she notices that her daughter feels empowered.

Kennedy-Moore also recommends establishing routines because it’s so hard for kids to stop abruptly. Instead of saying, “Do it now,” prepare them for what will happen. “Acknowledge their feelings, but don’t get derailed by them,” she notes.

Savor the sweetness of toddlerhood

Morey has seen toddlers show love and compassion for each other in many ways. Classmates will stop everything to search for a distraught friend’s misplaced stuffed animal. “If a child injures his knee, then a friend comes over and kisses the boo-boo and offers consolation,” she adds. And although toddlers initially may find it difficult to share a desired object, Morey has seen children hand a taken toy back to their friend, often within seconds.

“Savor them and take time to appreciate their littleness because it goes by so quickly,” advises Morey. “The next time someone says that you’re acting like a two-year-old,” she adds, “just smile and say, ‘Thanks!’”


Lynda Dell is a freelance writer and experienced PA-certified early childhood educator. 

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