Terrible Twos: A Struggle for Independence
Your two-year-old persists in the struggle that began when he started walking: The struggle toward some degree of separation, autonomy, independence, and the ultimate issue—identity. This means that you will have to try to meet your child’s growing need for independence, while at the same time offering him all the support, comfort, and even babying that he needs.
Your child’s growing independence will show itself in a variety of contexts: eating, dressing, perhaps using the potty seat, playing with toys, drawing, and so on. On some days your toddler will want to do many of these things all by himself; on others, he will need your help for all of them. For this reason, any of these everyday adventures can become a furious battleground.
Despite your child’s improving ability to dress or eat or play independently, he may resist if you pressure him or insist that he do them himself. This resistance also demonstrates your toddler’s independence. To assert his own will, your child all too often opposes your own. And that’s why they call it the “terrible twos.” Two-year-old often seem willful, contrary, and negative. And to top it all off, when they don’t get their way, they throw a tantrum.
Tantrums also spring from your child’s growing desire for independence. Despite your toddler’s rapidly developing abilities, he no doubt still wants to do much more than he can handle physically and mentally. This frustrating incompetence will drive your two-year-old over the edge. When his frustration reaches a certain level, it explodes as a tantrum.
Though it hardly seems like it much of the time, your toddler is actually trying to control himself. And despite all the turbulence, your child will become increasingly self-aware throughout this year. By his third birthday, this self-awareness will probably awaken a previously unseen ability in your toddler: awareness of and identification with the feelings of others. So in the end, your child’s sometimes painful journey toward self-awareness will give birth to a degree of empathy.
TIP – Here’s a good trick for toddlers. Lay your child’s coat on the floor. Have her stand at the neck or hood of the coat (so that it’s upside down from her perspective). If your child then sticks her arms in the sleeves and flips the coat over her head, it will be on. Most toddlers find this trick enchanting proof that they are big kids now.
By about two-and-a-half your child will begin to express interest in dressing and undressing herself some of the time. By all means, encourage her to do so if she wants to. The practice helps to improve both her coordination and her confidence. Until your child is three, she will probably need help with her socks, shoes, and mittens. Tying shoes is almost impossible for a two-year-old, but your toddler may be able to master shoes with Velcro straps. By her third birthday, your child may be able to dress herself completely in a few easy-to-put-on outfits. Just be patient and give your child all the time she needs. Let your child pick out her own clothes if she wants, too—and ignore your own sense of fashion. It won’t really hurt anyone if she chooses striped pants with a plaid shirt. And it also won’t do any harm if your toddler chooses the same clothes day after day.
Try to avoid buttons and zippers as much as possible. Despite their name, snaps are no snap either. So buy pants with an elastic waistband (not too tight) rather than a zipper and a snap. If you cannot avoid buttons, snaps, and zippers, large ones will be easier for small fingers to practice on. It also might help to get your child a dress-up doll with buttons, zippers, snaps, and Velcro.
Helping by Not Helping (Much)
The best way you can help your two-year-old achieve a healthy degree of independence is to stay out of his way—but at the same time, stay close enough to help when he really needs it. Here’s what you can do:
- Be patient! This is probably the most important guideline for parents of two-year-old. Your child cannot possibly complete a “simple” task as easily as you can. But if you give your toddler the time and opportunity to learn through trial and error-with a few pointers from you—he will soon become competent and confident in a variety of skills.
- Leave extra time for everything. If you want your child to practice independent skills, it’s not fair to hurry him through them. So get ready to leave ten or fifteen minutes—okay, half an hour—before you actually have to go anywhere.
- If time becomes short, trade off tasks. “You put your socks on and I’ll get your shoes on.” Or perhaps, “You do that shoe, I’ll do this one.” Or, “You put your coat on, I’ll zip it up.”
- Empower your child. Try to come up with ways to increase your toddler’s sense of competence, strength, ability, and power. You may, for instance, let your child decide where to hang his latest artwork (building his sense of pride and confidence). Or you may encourage him to move the chairs around to set up a play tent (building his sense of strength).
- Rather than forcing, directing, or commanding your child to do what you want, gently steer him toward doing it. For instance, give your toddler some choices about what to do next. (Hint: If all the options you offer are things your child likes to do and things you want him to do, he—and you—can’t lose no matter what he chooses to do first.)
- If your child can do it, let him do it. Your toddler’s various skills only will improve if he gets a chance to use them. And the more practice you give your child, the faster he will master a task. So after your child can put on his jacket, let him do it most of the time. Not only will he become more and more skilled, but you will have less and less to do yourself.
- Intervene only if your child becomes frustrated or asks for help. Avoid the temptation to take over just because you think your toddler has been trying long enough. If he’s still trying and is not tearing his hair out, then he is still confident that he can complete the task. If you lose patience and do it for him, you will undermine your two-year-old’s confidence and transform everything he’s done up to now into wasted effort.
- Remember your child is only two. Although your child is much more independent than a one-year-old, he is by no means fully independent. Expect your child to go through spells of clinging and anxiety, though they may occur less often and be less pronounced than they were in the first year of toddler hood. So give your child the attention and help that he does want. Your independent-minded toddler wouldn’t ask for it if he didn’t really need it.
- Praise the effort. It’s not easy for your two-year-old to do things himself. So even if he doesn’t quite succeed, reward your child with praise and encouragement. If your child comes close to succeeding at the task—maybe he buttoned his coat, but missed a button—don’t redo it. There’s really no reason he needs to do everything perfectly when he’s just learning.
- Don’t pressure your child. If you nag or harass him, he will resist doing it at all. That’s another way your child can assert his independence.