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There are days when he only wants to eat the blue dish, others when he does not want to eat. He asks to watch TV or the iPad at bedtime, and when his parents say no, he starts throwing away his toys, cries desperately and throws himself to the floor. Then he does not want to go in to take a bath, and when he does, he does not want to go out.
Situations like these are part of the routine of parents whose children are approaching two years of age, a phase known as the “adolescence of babies.”
And these parents, who were used to a baby who accepted almost everything passively, are now facing a child with a will of their own , ready to throw a tantrum if they do not comply with their wishes.
The good news is that it is not only normal, but a crucial part of your development . And what he learned at that age will help shape how he will deal with his feelings in adult life.
The second good news is that there are many smart ways to deal with these behaviors, as long as the parents are armed with strategies and (a lot of) patience.
The BBC spoke with four specialists in child behavior to understand the importance of this stage between two and four years, and took note of eight practical tips to manage in these daily situations.
But first, let’s find out what happens around two years.
Unable to exercise self-control
“It’s a phase in which the child makes incredible discoveries and gains an enormous capacity for interaction, ” explains Ross Thompson, professor at the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, United States.
“But the areas of self-control in his brain have not yet developed,” says Thompson, who is also president of the “Cero a Tres” organization, dedicated to this age range.
“The most important thing is for parents to understand that this child is simply unable to control their emotions, that understanding will help them see the situation more constructively, and not think that it is a challenge (to their authority)”, explains the expert.
“It’s not only good to tell him to calm down, because his brain is incapable of responding to that instruction, it’s up to the adult to help him put his feelings into words and handle them,” he adds.
“The child begins to realize that it is not an extension of his parents, but a person with his own desires, and to these new desires is added intense frustration, accompanied by tears,” says educator Elisama Santos.
This maturation of emotional control in the brain lasts until around 20 years, but the most critical phase of this “adolescence of babies” ends at about four years, when the child increases their repertoire to express themselves and make themselves understood.
“If parents get carried away by rage and punish their children, situations tend to get out of control,” says Claire Lerner, a parent counselor from Cero a Tres.
“If instead they act with calm and empathy and offer strategies to the child, he will learn tools to deal with his emotions, something that will help him in adult life.”
Then, 8 tips to deal with tantrums typical of that stage.
1 – When the child hits
When contradicted, many children a year and a half or more hit their parents. Since they can not express their frustration in words or calm down, they resort to a physical response.
Lerner suggests explaining what he is feeling and giving him tools so that he can express himself. “‘I know you’re angry, but we do not eat candy at this time of day.When you’re sad, hit this drum instead of hitting someone, or bite this toy instead of biting mom’, for example,” he recommends.
Repeat that several times, the child will begin to understand his feelings and what resources he has to manage them.
“The more you validate your feelings , the less you need to react to demonstrate them,” says Lerner.
Elisama Santos has similar recommendations: teach the child to applaud or roar like a lion when he wants to release his rage.
2 – Calm at the time of the tantrum
The tantrums, especially in public places, are disconcerting. But Lerner reminds us that we are not able to control how our children are going to react, but we can control our own reactions.
And staying calm and not raising your tone of voice helps keep the tension from growing.
“That’s difficult in a culture that blames parents when children make a tantrum,” he acknowledges.
“But remember that your child is not trying to humiliate the way, simply can not handle it . Your job is not to punish, but to empathize, validate their emotions, guide and stay calm . Let people think what they want” , he adds.
“Help the child to express in words what he is feeling and offer him a hug , even if he refuses, saying ‘Mom is here when you want a hug'”, suggests Debora Corigliano, an educational psychologist and specialist in educational neuroscience.
“And let him cry, assuring him that he is in a safe space,” he adds.
3 – Limits
Keeping calm does not mean giving in to the child’s wishes.
“If I give in, I will not strengthen their resistance or teach them how to deal with their frustration, ” Santos explains. That is, you have to say no when it is necessary and accept your frustration.
According to Lerner, “children are testing their power and choices, and if parents do not maintain the limits they set, this behavior will continue.”
You need to impose limits , he says, because certain things such as seat belts or turning off the TV are not negotiable.
“The child will realize that, collaborate or not, the belt will be placed.”
4 – Do not misinterpret as manipulation
In times of stress, it’s no use asking the child ‘Why did you hit?’ or start a long discussion. They are too young to understand that.
“Children are provocative and will say: ‘I hate you’, they will beat you in. If we see this as a manipulation, when in reality it is a typical behavior of age , we will tend to react with anger,” says Lerner.
“Instead of getting into the fight, keep calm, explain what you feel and move on, the lesson you will be giving is that you will not get involved in a destructive discussion,” he advises.
5 – Give the child the possibility to choose
To prevent everyday battles and prevent the child from controlling the family routine, Lerner suggests giving options to the child who is dying to exercise his newfound autonomy.
“The idea is to always give you two options and set the limits,” he recommends.
“For example, in the case of toys scattered throughout the house: ‘You have two options : you can keep the toys or not, if you keep them, very well, otherwise, mom and dad will have to waste time doing it, and then we can read a book less at bedtime ‘”.
6 – Positive reinforcement
For Elisama Santos, children say no to almost everything because they are accustomed to hearing many “no” from their parents, who can now use a more efficient strategy: positive reinforcement.
“It does not help to tell the child not to put his hand on the plug, because he will do it, it’s better to say ‘your little hand is on the toy’, ‘the drawing is done on paper,'” says Santos.
7 – Play more and choose the battles
Transforming everyday activities into games helps relieve tension in boring tasks.
“If you use a robot voice or you tickle it to dress it or brush its teeth, the child will do that task more easily,” explains Santos.
And avoid fighting all battles, recommends Lerner.
“If it does not interfere with the operation of the family and does not hurt anyone, do not fight, for example, if you want to go out with a shirt that does not match the stockings,” he suggests.
8 – Neither clapping, nor shouting, nor blackmail
The specialists consulted by the BBC say that a slap does not help in the crucial educational process at that stage.
For Thompson, violence tends to make children more angry and defiant and parents more punishing, creating a vicious circle. The same happens with verbal aggressions.
“The child will feel that they do not love him enough and it is very bad to spend this phase of life feeling that,” says Thompson.
“If I am solving a situation with physical or verbal aggression, I am teaching the two-year-old to act in the same way, ” Corigliano adds.
In addition, the child will use the same strategy in another context.
“It is better to have a firm conversation in which parents give a good reason to say no,” he recommends.
For Santos, children tend to retract in front of a slap or shout. “But it’s because of fear, not because of learning to control their feelings.”
Blackmail has the same adverse effect: the child learns to behave in a way to receive a candy, but not because they have learned the value of a behavior, says Corigliano.