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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

surviving the terrible 2s

Two was not fun with my first child. I gotta tell ya, two pretty much sucks.

All of the horror stories I'd heard, yup they were true. But worse.
It was hell. The worst experience I've had yet as a mother. I cried. I yelled. I worried and wondered. I asked if I was normal, he was normal, this phase was normal. I researched. I read books. I asked for help. I stayed indoors away from anyone who would possibly judge our version of Terrible Two-ness. It was bad.

Did I mention I despise the year of 2 to 3?!

My son's terrible two phase included hitting. Lots of hitting. Hitting as a way of expressing feelings or to get attention or being angry that I was pregnant and couldn't pick him up as easily. Who knows what. But it was hitting. All the time hitting for 10 straight months. It was awful. I never wish that experience on anyone. 

Now that my daughter is almost 19 months old, the same time that my son started having Approaching Terrible Two Problems, as I refer to it, I'm scared. 

I'm admittedly really afraid of what this next year has in store for us. I dread the possibilities. 

You've heard of them... hitting, biting, spitting, tantrums on the floor screaming, kicking, running away, acting like an animal... What's not to love about the age of two, right?! 

I find myself crossing my fingers, holding my breath, taking baby steps, afraid of what to say and how to respond to certain behaviors now that we're approaching two. I am trying to recall how it went down the last time around, so as to avoid pitfalls or things I didn't see that first naive time down the Terrible Two road. 

I'm trying to prevent the catastrophe that was that year with our first. I know this is impossible to predict and control, still I'm trying so hard to figure out some magical method past this stage. Three isn't perfect, far from it, but it's way better than those Terrible Twos, I swear. I don't want to fast forward my daughter's third year, but I hope it's a fast ride over the speed bumps of possible terrible-ness. 

Recently my good friend wrote to me a sort of mom rant, a venting session, a plea for understanding and a request for me to say, "Yes, I've so been there. I know how you feel. You aren't alone, and this too shall pass." I read it and nodded my head in solidarity. I had been there, afterall. I know how that goes... being a new mom with a toddler in the Terrible Two awfulness, jealous of a new sibling in the house. I've been exactly there. And it sucked. Yet I lived to tell about it, so I must know a thing or two I can share with this friend, right? 

So here is what I've learned about surviving the Terrible Twos. 
Hope it helps you in some way, mommas. 

*You aren't alone. You will think you are. That your child is undergoing the worst possible case of Terrible Twos. But it's not true. Five billion other toddlers and their parents have survived this roller coaster ride like you. Ask anyone you know who has a child over the age of 5, they will know what you are going through. I know many friends whose 2 year old did not hit like mine did, and yet they still understood what I was going through. One doesn't quickly forget those tumultuous feelings of parenting toddlers.

*You are not a bad mother. Again, you'll have many days and moments when you think you're the worst, most incompetent mom ever. You will question your abilities to parent a toddler, when you thought you did so well with an infant. Chances are good that you are doing all you possibly can. I imagine you are up at night, reading Web sites, reaching out to people you know and asking the doctor for advice. I'm confident you are disciplining the way you were taught to, you aren't just letting things slide. You are trying your hardest to prevent or curb negative behavior from your toddler. 

And yet things happen. Toddler crap happens. It does not make you a bad mother. Believe me, I felt like a bad mom, but now I know I was not. I just had a toddler going through a bad phase, that's all it was. 

*Determine triggers. The best thing to do when you can't figure something out is look at the reality, the facts, the data, the stats. Get out of the emotional state you're in with this Terrible Two phase and look at what you know. Start writing down what happens just before the awful event (hitting, spitting, biting, tantrum, etc.). Do this for a few days or a week. You'll start to see some patterns. Something will make some sense. With my son, he hit when he couldn't express his words quick enough, because he didn't have the words to say how he felt. He would hit when he wasn't getting my attention for a long period of time. He would hit as a way to say "leave me alone," or "that's mine," before he understood how to use his words to do that. Sometimes it was because he was hungry, needed a snack to calm down his actions. I'll be honest and say sometimes there is no trigger... that part isn't helpful of course. I found that 9 times out of 10 there was a trigger, a reason why my son was misbehaving. Sometimes, unfortunately, it's just because they are in the Terrible Two phase.

*Find solutions. Whatever the triggers, you can find a solution. You just need to pay attention and focus the best you can to find a pattern. A few solutions that worked for me included:
  • Read books about the behavior - childrens books to your child and also parenting books to help you with tips. Hands Are Not For Hitting is a great book by Free Spirit, they offer tons of books including ones about not spitting and sharing. Find on 
  • Carry snacks. I found toddlers need frequent snacks with low sugar to keep them rolling in positive land.
  • Get rest. I know many toddlers begin to phase out their naps at this stage. It's no wonder to me that the Terrible Two behavior begins at the same time kids are lacking sleep. They need rest. Do what you can to keep up a consistent nap time every day, even if it's for an hour when it used to be three hours, take what you can get, but MAKE it happen. Even if they just roll around in their crib day after day for that hour, so be it. Do your best to keep it up. What I've found is most kids will give in to the sleep eventually. Do your best. I know not all kids sleep, but if you are consistent they will respond and at least lie there reading books and their body will rest. 
  • Be aware. You can't attend a play date and just use it as mommy time to talk girl talk. You have to be focused on what is going on with the toddlers in front of you to step in at a moment's notice in case they get to tug-of-war over a shovel in the sandbox. Stay focused. Your child needs you to. 
  • Know when to quit while ahead. If your child is doing great after running a few errands, it's time to head home. If your child is sharing and being kind after 30 minutes at a play date, end it now before things go awry. Don't drag things on too long to a point of no return. 
  • Be positive. Reinforce the good things you want to see more of. Give attention to those great things like sharing or listening or putting shoes on by themselves. Don't just focus on the negative during this tough time. Get rewards. Use charts and stickers and dollar store prizes if you have to. Whatever silly thing you can think of, show some joy and positive every day. 
  • Implement a time out in your house. Start doing 1, 2, 3 counting. Find some type of consistent discipline method that works for your family. 
  • Stay calm. Yelling doesn't help things. It makes you both feel worse. Take a time out for yourself if you need it. 
  • Give them alternatives to the behavior. When my son was hitting we realized he had a physical need to get out his feelings. We taught him to stomp his feet, form firsts in his hands and squeeze fingers in and out, scrunch his face, grunt and make a verbal noise, jump up and down, clap his hands. Instead of biting people make sure there are a zillion teething rings and chew toys around the house. 
  • Spend quality time together. Two is around the age that many people add a new addition to the mix. That is a big change for your growing toddler. It's hard to make sense of that new thing. So spend quality time with your toddler. Sit on the floor. Play outside on the swings together. Do something fun, daily. Show your love. Your baby is still in there under that crazy two year old body... love her like you used to, despite your frustrations. 
  • An eye for an eye is NOT a solution. Hitting back a hitter or biting a biter is not the answer. I've heard it has worked for some, I believe them. But all those people did was teach their child to fear them, they did not teach them to learn a lesson. I understand it works, I don't think people are making that up. I just don't believe in it and think it sends the wrong message, creates angrier, more confused toddlers. Do your best to avoid negatively teaching your child the wrong thing. 
*Be patient. This too shall pass... but not today perhaps. It will take time. You can't rush through any phase. Think of how your child learned to walk... it took a lot of patience and teaching and watching and waiting and wondering when those first steps would finally happen. So wait it out. Stick through it. You have no other choice, right? 

Just be patient... as best that you can. Know that this darkness will end and your little one is going to return to you. You can't rush through this. Just keep reminding yourself of that. 

*Learn the facts. I attended a conference where I was told the brain development and new synapses forming in the brain during the ages of 2 to 4 are the same exact patterns brain researchers see occurring between the ages of 12 and 15. Crazy right?! Think of adolescence... it's insane. Ups and downs, moodiness, emotional roller coasters... same as toddlerhood. The fact is that these terrible two year old kids we're caring for can't control what they are experiencing. They seem to be wicked smart, I'm sure, but they don't know what they are doing half the time. All they know is cause and effect... if I do this then Mommy will do that. I don't care that "that" is bad or that I'm punished, all I know is she'll do something and that's funny." Read one article about two year olds and you'll see yours is a normal child. Again, more reason for being patient. This too shall pass. Seriously. 

*Don't say NO a thousand times a day. It's normal to say "no" to your child at this age probably 100 times a day. They are into everything! They touch everything and run from you in crowded stores. I was saying no a zillion times a day with my son. I didn't realize it until my husband pointed it out to me. I was offended until I realized he was right. My son was tuning me out because I was saying no a zillion times, he was sick of hearing it, it no longer meant anything. When my husband raised his voice to say no my son listened instantly because he rarely said no. Be careful about saying no too much. Being conscious of this the second time around, I started saying "uh uh" with my daughter instead of no, reserving "no" as the stern scary that's dangerous NO instead.

*Set them up for success. If you consistently are telling your child to keep away from some breakable, it's time to get rid of the breakable and save your voice. If you are constantly telling your child to not throw his food, then look for triggers that he's done eating and take away his plate before he gets past the point of food on your floor. If you get frustrated with her taking off her shoes or hitting a certain buddy and it always happens when she's tired, then only make play dates after a good nap, don't do anything when she's going to be fussy or hungry.

Set them up for success, not failure. Think ahead and plan a little, it will pay off I swear. 

Remember snacks and rest time, avoid your child's crankiest time, you all know when that typically is.

*Consistency -Being consistent, doing the same thing over and over, was one thing that really helped in this situation. When we said no we meant no. If we said it was not OK to play with a certain thing then every time our child went to get that thing we'd say the same thing, not let it slide sometimes because we were tired. Toddlers are pushing boundaries, trying to see what will work, what won't. It's fascinating to them to see things go up and down, things thrown, people react emotionally. It all is in their learning curve to test this out. 

*Teach them language - To me, the biggest thing you can do to help your toddler is to teach her or him the language of how to express how s/he feels. The biggest frustrations come from these little ones because they can't easily express how angry, frustrated, happy, upset, mad, etc. they are. They don't have the words or tools to really make you understand. 

Start at an early age - at least a year - by showing them feelings on your face and using words. "I see you are very angry that I took away your toy, but it's time for bath right now." Mimic how they might sound, "It's no fair, is it? It's not fair that I took your toy, you were having so much fun with that toy... I understand. But now it's time to get cleaned up in the tub, so after we can gather your toy or we can play with it tomorrow." Even at that early age when they can't really understand you, they definitely get that you are helping, trying to side with them, not against them when you talk to them this way. The day my son finally said to us, "I'm angry because you took away my toy" instead of hitting us, that made me cry with joy. 

Teach them the skills and they will use them. 

*Give warnings. Something that helps a lot with our kids is giving them warnings of when things are happening. "In one minute we need to put on your shoes and leave your game behind, it's time to go." Give warnings when transitioning from something to something else. Give explanations. Really tell them what's up ahead. "We're going to eat breakfast, then brush your teeth and go potty. Then it'll be time to leave to the playground, OK?" 

*Use fewer words. I read this in an article and totally agree with it. Instead of saying for the fifth time that morning, "Owen, get your shoes on right now,it's time to get going," you say, "Owen, shoes." Shorten up what you're saying so they don't tune out your long sentences. 

*Listen and apologize. Oftentimes if you stop and listen to them, they'll tell you what is going on, even by pointing to something. Try seeing their point of view. Respect them for the little people they are. Don't just be their boss as their parent. Try to see what is bothering them, what they are frustrated by, and speak it aloud. Help them feel heard. "Oh you were working on that block tower really hard, weren't you, and then it just fell over when your brother walked by? No fair. Let's work on putting it back together." And apologize if you make a mistake. If you snap or misunderstand something or tell him to stop doing something that really was OK but you hadn't seen it right the first time, then apologize. Again, it helps them feel understood. 

*Offer choices instead of yes or no questions. "Do you want to wear brown or black shoes? Do you want help getting in the tub or do it yourself? Do you want to eat breakfast in this chair or that chair? Do you want the purple cup or blue cup?" Offer choices that lead to you getting what you want (notice I said which chair for breakfast, choosing to have breakfast was not a choice at all). I started giving tons of random choices during that 2 year old phase... allowing my son to pick his clothes, socks, shoes, silverware, plate, cup, hat, etc. The more little choices you can give them on things you don't care about, the more apt they are to comply with what you are asking later on. 

I love this quote by Dr. Alan Greene from his site: 

"This phase is difficult for parents; it is also hard for children. When children take a stand that opposes their parents, they experience intense emotions. Although they are driven to become their own unique persons, they also long to please their parents. Even now, when I do something that my parents disagree with, I feel very conflicted. I am an adult, living in a different city, with well-thought-out choices — and it is still quite difficult. For a child who is tentatively learning to make choices, who is dependent on his parents for food, shelter, and emotional support, it’s even more intense. Dissolving into tears is an appropriate expression of the inner turmoil that is so real for children who are in the midst of this process.
I like to think of the process as similar to childbirth. Labor is a very intense experience. Pain, after pain, after pain eventually produces something beautiful– a child is born. The episodes of oppositional behavior in “First Adolescence” are psychological labor pains — one difficult situation, then another, and another, and as a result your son’s own persona is being born psychologically. This is a beautiful (but difficult) time with a truly worthwhile result.
As an oak tree is already present in an acorn, this aspect of your son’s unfolding development was already present when he was conceived. Although you will have a large impact on its course, it’s not caused by something you are doing wrong, and it won’t last forever."

So yes, I'm terrified. Terrible Twos still suck in my book. 
I'm nervous as we approach 19 months next week with my daughter. I'm scared of what it could be .... will it be more hitting? Or will biting be something we experience around here? I'm to my core afraid, honest. Despite all the advice I just offered you about what I learned, even I am still scared about what could be up around the bend of this toddlerhood adventure.

All I know for sure is I can't control it. None of us can. 

And I know no matter what that my baby who sucks her thumb and looks at me with those big brown eyes and smiles more times in a minute than I have done in my lifetime, she's still in there, underneath the new "NOs!" I hear often. She's still my little baby who lays her head down on my shoulder as I rock her to sleep, despite that she tossed her dinner plate to the ground for the 10th time this week. My baby is still there. And babies need their mommies.

So here I am, on the brink of disaster, possibly. But I'm still camping out. I'm not going anywhere. I can't flee or skip this part of her development. It is what it is. We can and will get through it. And so will you and your baby.

I can say this looking back because my son is now 3 1/2 and has not hit in more than a year. We have lived to tell about that terrible experience. So I know it's possible. Our babies are in there. They are. Help them grow to the other side of their development.

Breathe. You can survive this. 

(and then hold on tight for the Tumultuous Threes, as I like to call it... I'm almost through with those, and I'll tell you one thing, they are better but a bit louder and with less listening than the Terrible Twos. Oy ve.)

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