by Gloria Buoncristiano-Thai
The “terrible twos!” We have all heard the term. Many new parents have been warned to beware of this period in their child’s life that is apparently filled with defiance and unruly behavior. As a mother of four children, my experience has been that the terrible twos, fearsome fours and other such titles are myths. Tantrums and uncooperativeness can come at any age, especially as a child is growing, exploring and learning new things. Young children cannot verbalize their emotions, which can lead to frustration, and eventually escalate to tantrums and non-cooperation. Well-known pediatrician, Dr. William Sears states, “A toddler has an intense desire to do things, but his mental and motor skills have developed more quickly than his ability to communicate. Because he doesn’t yet have the verbal skills to express his frustration, he does so by throwing tantrums.”
According to Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk, the language of empathy does not come naturally to most adults. As a matter of fact, most of us have grown up having our feelings denied. As adults, we need to learn and practice, so that we can help our children.
Help Children With Their Feelings
Faber and Mazlish suggest the following to help children with their feelings:
- Listen with full attention.
- Acknowledge their feelings with a word, “ Oh … I see.”
- Give their feelings a name.
- Give them their wishes in a fantasy.
Former teacher and administrator, Deborah Farmer Kris, says “that young children haven’t yet learned how to regulate their emotions.” She states that there is a lot parents can do to foster young children’s emotional literacy.
Toddlers have limited expressive language skills. Parents can “listen” to their behavior, whether it be yelling, pushing, crying, and reflect it back by helping children put a name to what they are feeling. “You are mad; your little sister ripped your picture!”
Do not classify emotions as good or bad. Strong emotions can frighten or overwhelm children. After the child has calmed down, go back and in a few words summarize what happened, including how the child felt. Remind the child that everyone, including you, feels this way sometimes. “When Aunty left this morning, you felt very sad. You kicked and cried. You wanted Aunty to stay and play with you. Everyone feels sad sometimes. I felt sad when Aunty left, too. I like talking with her. I like when she reads books to you. It is sad when people say goodbye. Do you want to call her tomorrow to say hello?”
As Kris states, we cannot always control how we feel, but we can control how we express our emotions. If a child is struggling with certain aggressive behaviors, parents can help the child verbalize both what the child can do and cannot do. “When I am angry, I cannot hit my younger sister, but I can stamp my feet.”
Research shows that reading fiction promotes empathy. Picture books are an additional tool for teaching emotional literacy to young children. Examine characters’ facial expressions, how they are standing, and what they are doing.
Although mindfulness has its roots in Buddhism, it has been adopted by teachers and clinicians. Mindfulness can be used to support mental health and improve emotional self-regulation. Practice sitting quietly with your child for 60 seconds. After this quiet moment, share what you each saw and heard. Parents and children can also take “listening walks” around the park or neighborhood.
Engage A Child’s Cooperation
How can a parent engage a child’s cooperation? Faber and Mazlish offer techniques that can be applied to all children, not just two year olds.
- Describe what is seen or what the problem is: “There are legos all over the floor.”
- Give Information: “Someone will step on the legos.”
- Say it with a word: “The legos!”
- Describe what you feel: “I do not like stepping on legos! They hurt my feet!”
- Write a note or draw a picture, and place it by the legos: “Please put me away, so I do not get stepped on.”
The terrible two’s do not have to be so terrible. Many times it is a matter of parents looking at the situation from the child’s perspective, as well as changing expectations to meet the child at his/her level of development.