Developmental psychologists that try to understand children's emotions and behavior say that generally, it is very challenging to study the development of emotions and cognition in babies. But this reaches a whole new level with a two-year-old since their newfound sense of independence and identity make them ready to test and challenge rules.
Some researchers say that two-year-olds actually require people around them to speak a different language. If you tell a two-year-old “don't bang on the table”, they will only hear “bang on the table”.
So if you want to find ways to encourage them to cooperate, you have to be aware that they will tend to be contrary to what you say. But at the same time, you need to allow them to fulfill their need for “I do it myself!”.
Here are some expert tips that will help you get closer to your two-year-old's heart and win their cooperation.
Ignore Unwanted Behaviors
The preoperational stage of cognitive development is a phase when two-year-olds learn by repeating behaviors over and over, especially those that result in an unexpected behavior or a big reaction.
Try to act like it's no big deal and just ignore whenever your kid picks up a bad word from somebody. When they say a word they want to see your unusual reaction and if you act like it is a big deal they will repeat it again and again.
Whenever a two-year-old sees an immediate reaction which is different to how you normally react, they will find this to be very interesting. And since they can't understand that this might be upsetting for you, they will say that word over and over.
For children around this age, repetition is the way they are strengthening connections in the brain. So even though a game that kids want to play over and over again might be very boring for us, we have to remember that this is how they are learning, through repetition.
So only ignore behavior that is truly unwanted and as much as possible encourage their behavior and exploration even if this means we have to play along being fairy godmother for the fortieth time in a row.
A two-year-old kid started hitting and his parents tried everything they knew to show him how upsetting was that for them. But unfortunately, nothing worked. Then they remembered about this new approach of not reacting, so they stopped having those big reactions whenever he was doing that. All they did was to ask him with a neutral tone of voice, It seems like you are trying to get my attention, can you try to get it in a better way?
And it worked! Apparently just ignoring and not giving a big emotional response was enough to make him lose interest in hitting. All he wanted was not to hurt his parents but just a simple reaction.
Surprise Them With the Unexpected
Usually children around 2 years old are charmed by reactions that are unexpected. Everything that isn't a behavior you don't want to reinforce will be a delight for them. You can try “sneezing” with a hat on and have it fall off your head. Or pretend something is really heavy when it's obviously not. They will surely enjoy a good laugh and ask you to do it again and again and again.
Every time a two-year-old will be surprised by something unexpected, it will be a delight for them and not only this will help them learn but it might also lay the foundation for a good sense of humor.
Tell Them What They Can Do
The word don't should be forgotten while your kids are two and three, perhaps even when they are four years old.
Experts recommend to not tell them what they shouldn't do, but what they should do. And just let your imagination loose and try to make it fun. Instead of don't run, use your walking feet, or say, let's waddle like a duck. Instead of don't yell, use your inside voice.
Another way to tell them what they can do is to refocus or redirect them. Instead of don't jump on the bed, say, you have a lot of jumping energy, jump on these pillows on the floor!
To help them direct or redirect their behavior using positive language is a great approach. This way instead of inhibiting an impulse they have, or having to stop a behavior, it gives them something else to do, an action to comply with.
Give Them Jobs
A great tip to gain two-year-olds and older kids cooperation is by putting them in charge of something. This will harness their newfound sense of self and will build up their sense of mastery.
Try not to leave them out of things you do, make them part of everything. Let them use the garage opener when you need to leave the house. Have them point to the items that you need at the grocery store. They can help recover lost toys and bringing them home. Help their clothes leap into the hamper. They can catch all of the runaway crumbs on the kitchen floor using a dustpan.
If you want to capture their attention and cooperation try to describe chores in ways that tell stories!
Break Down Big Requests
Break down requests that involve multiple steps. If you want your kids to put their shoes on, make them get the shoes first by telling them to hop like a bunny to the shoes. By asking them things like “Which shoes do you want to wear today? The orange ones or the green ones?” you encourage them to want to put shoes on. You can surprise them if they refuse by pretending you don't know where the shoe goes and asking them if the shoe goes on the hand.
Probably they will have some fun and laughter doing this, but then you can play along and pretend you forgot where to put the shoes. Do you know where to put your shoes? Do they go on your nose? On your head? Oh, your feet! Do you know how to put them on your feet?
Name and Acknowledge Their Emotions
Two-year-olds can't really express their emotions in a socially accepted way since they are just learning what emotions are. Instead, they do this in a more primal way and it's important to teach them how to call their emotions and that having them is okay.
Their way of expressing emotions might not always be okay. It’s okay to be angry, but it is never okay to hit.
The first step in learning how to better express emotions is by naming it.
To help them understand emotion we need to make them acknowledge the emotion. And especially in boys, this also leads to better empathy and prosocial behaviors.
Talking about emotions is also associated with more sharing and helping behaviors in toddlers.
You are actually listening to their hearts whenever you start this conversation about emotions.
And in return, they will feel safe to express those emotions with you.
Give Them Predictability
For kids, transition times are very challenging. Getting ready to leave or come back home. Getting ready for bed or getting ready in the morning.
And since two-year-olds don't really have a sense of time, they protest (understatement!) whenever we tell them that it's time to turn off the TV and come eat dinner. This seems arbitrary and controlling for them.
To help them have a sense of control and experience as few as possible uncontrolled outbursts of anger and frustration it's important to bring some predictability in their lives. These transition-time tantrums can be reduced just by having some anchor points that they can count on. And even though nobody really likes to have a rigid routine this can go a far way.
Some predictability in what picky eaters eat or for kids with mealtime sensitivities can work wonders. And since anchors can be daily or over long periods of time, you can schedule for example a weekly anchor, like pizza night.
A toddler clock is also recommended for signaling when it's time to wake-up (not too early), nap time, quiet play, and bedtime.
Some things a two-year-old can count on in a flexible routine would include a relatively consistent time to eat, nap, and play. A consistent series of steps for getting ready for bed and for getting ready to leave the house.
Researchers concluded in a large study that having a consistent bedtime routine is directly related to better sleep. Children who had a regular bedtime routine fell asleep faster, had an earlier bedtime, had fewer night wakings and slept longer than children who did not have a regular bedtime routine!
There are some great printable routine cards that you can set up however you want and however works best for your house. If you need to change it up it is also very easy. These can be really helpful for parents with two-year-olds.
Help children have a sense of control and thus fewer tantrums just by giving them some predictable anchors.
The time children are around two years old can be very challenging, but it's also joyful and special. It can go by so fast that your now six years old will be impossible to just fold up in your arms and carry around when life gets hard. The “terrible” twos won't seem terrible at all if you do your best to connect to their heart and listen to their soul.