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Toddlers tend to get a bad press—the “terrible twos” is a label they carry with them wherever they go. But for your child, months 24–36 are not so much a battlefield as a period of enormous adventure and personal transformation and for you, as a parent, they will be more rewarding than difficult.

“I am not sure which word I hear from Jemma more often at the moment—‘No!’ or ‘Again!’”

—“I am not sure which word I hear from Jemma more often at the moment—‘No!’ or ‘Again!’”

“It can be all too easy to demonize a small child who gets easily frustrated and finds it hard to control his tantrums. Remember that this is a developmental phase.”

“Toddlers have a very limited concept of time and will need to be given prompts and reminders to help them understand, such as ‘tomorrow is when the sun comes up’ or ‘later when we have eaten supper’.”

“When everything around them is changing so fast, including their own abilities, young children need some things to be constant, to offer them reassurance and make them feel safe.”

What is it about your two-year-old that makes him so different from when he was one? You may be so busy that you hardly have time to pause and reflect on how much your child has matured, but you will be well aware that he is now highly mobile, adventurous, vocal, and increasingly social. He is also very loveable, and knows how much he loves you, although he does not yet have the words to express the depth of his feelings. You and your home are the center of his world, but he is increasingly questioning and testing to find limits and develop independence.

Significant changes

Although he is still very egocentric , your toddler has also become far more aware of himself as a human being, and is developing thoughts, desires, and opinions of his own that will continue at an ever-increasing rate over the year ahead. He is eager to become more independent, and wants to learn for himself. “Me do it” is a common phrase for this age group (along with “No!”). During the next twelve months he will be using all his mobility and language skills to learn even more about his world; his brain and his memory will develop at a significant rate. The speed and range of the emotional changes that are taking place can be overwhelming—for your toddler, as well as for you.

Your toddler needs you more than ever during this challenging and exciting period. You are his anchor, his safe haven, and his external control. He needs you to help him to manage, understand, and direct his feelings in a way that makes him feel comfortable, and in control. By understanding what triggers his behavior, you can use practical strategies to tackle it  and make life more fun and loving for all of you.

Your toddler’s personality

By the time your toddler reaches his second birthday he will already be developing his own distinct personality, which will be even more apparent six months later. All children are unique, with their own mix of genetic inheritance and personal response to their environment, but it is all too easy to start to label or compare children of this age . Perhaps your son is more chatty, shy, quick, or difficult than his older brother, cousin, or sister. Or you may find Grandma saying he is just like his father was at the same age. In reality, your toddler’s brain has not yet developed to a point where his true talents and social skills can emerge so his unique personality is not yet fully formed—he is simply being himself. Try to resist pigeonholing your child; instead focus on developing the special relationship you have with him (and each of your children). The better you get to know him at an early age, the better you will be able to understand him as he gets older, when keeping the lines of communication open may become more of a challenge. Playtime is the ideal time to encourage your child to develop his personal skills and to recognize his individuality.

There can be significant differences between children’s outward signs of developmental progress at this age. Some will be speaking in full sentences, others will be saying very little, and the vast majority will be somewhere in between. This is not a time for progress comparisons—the vast majority learn to speak in full sentences eventually, so there is no rush. The important thing is to make sure your toddler knows he is loved and appreciated for who he is, with no conditions attached.

At his own pace

Young children need to experience an immediate sense of progress and achievement when they are learning, which is why your toddler should be allowed to develop at his own pace. Your two-year-old is still too young to be able to cope with delayed gratification or waiting for a reward. “Instant wins” are vital to prompt the beginnings of self-confidence. Pushing your child too far, too fast, will not lead to faster development; it will cause anxiety. It may also lead to him wanting to give up too soon due to frustration or boredom because he cannot achieve the necessary results. If continually pushed, this response can develop into a pattern of learned failure that can interfere with progress in the classroom and later life.

A happy, relaxed environment has been shown to promote healthy development. The balance between pushing and encouraging a child can seem remarkably fine, but it is important to get it right. Learning to read your child’s behavior will help you to understand whether he is enjoying his learning, or whether he is feeling under pressure.

Signs that your child may be feeling under pressure to perform:
  • Avoiding tasks altogether.

  • Sticking to an activity he can do and repeating it, rather than trying something new.

  • Getting very frustrated and distressed if he is unable to do something. (To a certain extent this is normal and healthy behavior that helps develop frustration tolerance, but if your child overreacts to every small frustration, he may be feeling under pressure.)

  • Regression to an earlier stage of development.

  • Seeking approval and wanting to please you rather than understand and complete the task.

Signs that your child is a relaxed and happy learner:

Happy in his play

Encouragement, not pressure, is the key to learning at this stage. If your toddler is enjoying doing an activity or playing with a toy, he will be learning naturally.
  • Eager to try new things.

  • Eager to attempt the next step and not overly distressed by failure.

  • Readily absorbed in the task.

  • Finding fun in tasks and having a playful nature.

  • Able to adapt the task to suit his own ideas, so he might be creative rather than focusing on a perfect result.

Behavior limits

Tantrums and the art of saying “No” are synonymous with this age group, but both have a very important function. A toddler’s battle is both with his parents and with himself. He is learning about personal feelings and limits, as well as the possibility of self-control. These skills mean that he is starting to test his personal limits and to become independent.

Along with the joy of independent discovery will come a strong need to feel contained and secure. This is the ideal age to begin to build up simple behavioral guidelines and routines. Behavior limits are not about being overly strict or controlling. They are not there to prevent your child from expressing himself or experimenting. While they will doubtless make your life easier, their main function is to help your child to know his own limits and to learn at a very basic level how to regulate his own moods and behavior. Be careful not to pay more attention to “naughty” behavior than to “good” behavior, since you will be reinforcing the “naughtiness” and “good” behavior may go unnoticed. The same applies if one child is more extroverted; make time for your quiet child as well as your noisy one.

Language development

Two-year-olds love to talk and talk. Their newfound language skills are their passport to understanding their world and they won’t miss a single opportunity to flex their vocal cords. Your toddler’s vocabulary is growing every day and he understands a lot more than he has the words to express. He is gradually moving from two-word sentences to six-word sentences and by the end of the year will be able to make himself understood by most adults. The priority is to help your child to enjoy and develop his language skills as much as possible, through conversation, songs, rhymes, and word play. While your toddler is busy talking, you will be busy “actively listening.” This means, both verbally and nonverbally, encouraging your child to talk and increasingly reflecting back to him what he has said, so that he gradually learns to express his feelings.

Learning to reason and remember

Up until now your toddler has relied mainly on his short-term memory to understand his world. He will remember what has happened within the past few hours and will recognize the look, smell, and sound of those people who make him feel safe, but he has had little understanding of when things happened. By his second birthday, however, this will have changed. His brain is developing  and with it comes an increased understanding of time. This is an important development. An understanding of time allows us to tag and store our memories. We also need an ability to recognize things to be able to recall them. Your toddler is developing this skill, too.

He will now progress from being able to remember the last few hours, to knowing what happened “yesterday” and having an awareness of “tomorrow” as well. This may show in your toddler’s style of play. He may now choose the toys he wants to play with unassisted and be quite insistent about how he wants to play with them. For example, if he played with building blocks at a friend’s house recently, he might say, “build house” every time you get his blocks out of the cupboard. Your toddler now looks at the blocks and thinks, “I know what I want to do with them” rather than simply, “I had fun playing with the blocks yesterday, I would like to do that again today.” His memory has been prompted by an internal cue.

As long-term memory begins to develop  so will a gradual ability to reason and to understand. Clear behavior guidelines and routines will add structure to your child’s day and you will find that your toddler loves routine, habits, and order in his life. This is partly because his attention span is still quite limited, but also because the repetition of actions and activities will help him to learn, by “bedding down” the information in his brain. There is another benefit to instilling some routine, too. The rapid changes in development at this age can be overwhelming. Structure, routine, and consistency help create a safe and secure environment for learning and development.

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