My daughter has hit the terrible twos. She fights me on everything. I feel like my entire day is spent trying to get her to do things and then blowing up when she refuses. We’re both spending way too much time crying and yelling. How can I get her to do what I ask?
Signed, Done with Toddler Tantrums
Dear Done with Toddler Tantrums,
I know this stage of childhood can be rough. It didn’t earn the nickname “The Terrible Twos” for nothing! Your daughter’s brain is developing at a rapid rate and she experimenting with her ability to communicate through language, control her body and environment in new ways, and to assert her will. The other really fun thing (heavy sarcasm) about this phase of development is that the part of your daughter’s brain that processes anger is LIT UP because it’s growing and developing in a major way right now, so much of what she experiences is processed through an angry filter.
When my son was in this phase, it helped me to know that his behavior was mostly developmentally inspired. It took the edge off of his defiance to know that it (probably/usually) wasn’t personal and about me or my parenting, but rather that he was growing and developing his abilities. We still had our days, and I can remember vividly a day when he was three that our interaction brought me to heavy tears. Parenting is not for the weary. But knowing that your child isn’t trying to make your life miserable on purpose can help take some of the sting out of things. I recommend reading a child development book like “The Whole Brain Child” by Siegel or “Your Two Year Old” by Ames to get an overview on your daughter’s developmental tasks and goals.
The other things you can do is strike a balance of setting healthy limits and expectations while showing her empathy and validating her experiences. I’ll share an example of this here:
Let’s say your daughter likes to go for walks to a nearby pond where she can feed the ducks with stale bread. You are a wonderful mother so you pack up the stroller with bread and her sippy cup, as well as a jacket and hat, as it’s a chilly day. On your way to the pond, you notice you’re cold and you assume your daughter is cold, too. You ask her to put her jacket on. She refuses. Now is the time to decide if you want to give her a choice about the jacket, or if you will insist on the jacket because not wearing one is a safety issue. If she might have serious health risks from not wearing a jacket, please insist she wear it. I do suggest letting your kids be cold and uncomfortable as long as it’s safe. They learn their preferences, and if they want to be uncomfortable for the sake of fashion or control, so be it. If you do need to insist on the jacket, you need to state the expectation clearly: “You need to wear the jacket if we are going to be outside.” Now I suggest you give her a clear choice. You have a few options: The win-win: “You can put it on yourself, or I can put it on for you.” Sometimes this works, sometimes is doesn’t. The other option is the win-lose: “You can put it on and we can go to the pond, or if you choose not to follow my directions, we will turn around and go home.” In win-lose scenarios, I like to throw in some encouragement with a little “I hope you make a good choice so we can have a good time.”
If your daughter puts on her jacket, you’re good to go. If she refuses, or throws a tantrum, that’s when the power struggle usually starts. I recommend a maximum three session volley. You’ve already volleyed once, with the original jacket request. She volleyed back with a refusal and maybe some yelling or tears. I suggest you bend down so you’re on her level, empathize and validate, and restate the choice/expectation, using a warm, kind tone, like this: “You really don’t want to put your jacket on. You seem really mad at the idea of wearing a jacket. If we’re going to be outside, we have to wear our jackets so we don’t get sick. Can I help you get your jacket on, or do you want to do it yourself?” If she puts the jacket on, great. If she refuses, you start the last volley: “Wow, you really don’t want to wear your jacket. That’s too bad. I wanted to go feed the ducks, but if you don’t wear your jacket, it’s not safe to be outside. It’s too cold. This is the last time I’m going to ask: Will you please put your jacket on so we can go feed the ducks?” If she refuses again, it’s time to go home. When she screams and cries and demands to see the ducks, you keep to the plan of heading home, but instead of yelling back, or demanding she stop screaming, you empathize again: “I know, you’re mad that we can’t go see the ducks. You really wanted to feed the ducks, but you chose not wear your jacket, so we can’t go. It’s just too cold to be outside without a jacket. Maybe next time you’ll be able to put your jacket on so we can go (that’s with a kind tone, not the snide “I told you so” tone we all love to use at times). Wow, you are screaming and crying so loud. You must be very upset. (You’re still walking home while you say this). I like to take some long deep breaths to help myself calm down. Deep breath in, long exhale. Deep breath in, long exhale. And sometimes I like to sing a little song when I’m upset to help me calm down (sing a little something here).”
This kind of soothing validation sometimes helps to calm your daughter down and turn the moment around. Sometimes it just makes her madder: “Stop singing! I hate it!” The main goal of the interaction isn’t to change your daughter’s mood or behavior, it’s to keep you calm and connected to her. You can stay in charge, have clear expectations and consequences, and stay on your daughter’s team. It’s you two against the cold. Maybe after using this approach for a while, it gives you some space earlier in the volley-sessions to make your request fun, like putting on the jacket while you sing, or making it a game. However you decide to handle the request, no matter how angry she gets, you stay on her team, acknowledging and validating her thoughts and feelings every so often, giving her suggestions for ways to cope. You don’t give in to her tantrum and you help her deal with the difficult moments of her two-year-old life: Sometimes she’ll have tough choices between jackets and ducks, and you will be there to coach her through them, even when she makes a choice you don’t like. You’ll let her feel the natural consequences of her choices. If you can let go of the power struggle, let go of the outcome (We set out to see the ducks—I’m going to make her put her coat on so we can see the ducks!), then you can stay present with her through many powerful, teachable moments, where she learns how to make tough choices, becomes aware of her feelings and ways she can soothe herself, and grows in her confidence and self-esteem because she has someone validating her experiences rather than instructing her not to act or feel a certain way.
This approach doesn’t change your daughter’s behavior overnight like magic; it’s not supposed to. But it will change the fighting. You won’t be fighting with your daughter. You’ll be on her team. And over time, this approach leads to a strong connection between parent and child, a child who understands how to manage her feelings, and much better behavior for years to come.
Shelby Riley, LMFT is the owner of Shelby Riley, LMFT and Associates, LLC. She is currently the Past President of the Pennsylvania Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (PAMFT). Remember to check out Shelby’s website www.shelbyrileymft.com for useful information about therapy for individuals, couples, and families.