We’ve all heard about — and experienced — the terrible 2s. The frequent meltdowns, temper tantrums and misbehavior at a whim.
Kids this age are so eager to explore the world and test their surroundings that when they hit a roadblock, such as mom’s concern for their safety or their inability to score a goal, outbursts happen.
But, 3-year-olds can go through the same thing — arguably at a greater intensity. Children move through many phases as they grow, from learning tough skills to gaining independence to abrupt changes in their world, such as a new sibling.
The key to survival is how we as parents react to these outbursts, said Dr. Sumru Bilge-Johnson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Akron Children’s Hospital.
“Many times families confuse discipline with punishment,” she said. “The goal is to guide our children to appropriate behavior, provide limits, teach them right from wrong and do it consistently.”
Dr. Bilge-Johnson offers 7 tools every parent should have in their discipline toolkit to survive the terrible 2s and 3s. So the next time your child gets upset or misbehaves, you can pull one out to calm the storm and guide her back to appropriate behaviors. Soon, these positive habits will become a part of her daily routine.
Teach breathing exercises
Before your child gets upset, teach her techniques to calm herself. Just like for adults, breathing exercises have been shown to reduce stress, decrease heart rate and fast breathing.
Dr. Bilge-Johnson suggests instructing your child to first smell a flower (breathe in) and then slowly blow out her birthday candles (breathe out).
“Instead of trying to tell your child what they did wrong in that moment, remind her to breathe to calm down,” she said. “Then, once calm, you can talk about what she did wrong and then guide her to more appropriate behavior.”
Encourage your child to use her words
Teach your child the words for various emotions and use books to increase her vocabulary to express herself. So in the heat of the moment, you can encourage your child to put her feelings into words.
Be patient, though, young kids are still developing their language skills and they may need your help to connect the dots as to why their behavior was wrong.
Turn it into a game
When we want our children to learn good behavior or habits, turn it into a game. They’ll be more likely to want to do it because it’s fun. For example, if it’s time to put the toys away, say, “Who can put the blocks away faster?” Or tell your child to count the blocks as she throws them in the bin.
Kids crave independence, so make them feel in control by giving her choices for minor things. For example, if you want her to wear a dress, let her choose between the yellow or red one. It can take away some of the heat because she feels like she made the decision.
Be careful not to give them too many options, though, because that goes beyond their capability. Offering 2 options is best at this age.
Model and praise positive behavior
Praise good behavior in moments of calm to encourage it. Paying attention to positive behavior will increase it because your child craves attention from you. Make it a goal to praise behavior more than you’re correcting it.
Also, model the behavior you’d like to see in your child. Kids are learning by watching you. If you’d like your child to share, model this behavior by asking to play with things and demonstrating the give and take.
Distraction to avoid a meltdown is especially helpful for 2 year olds. When she gets upset about something, distracting her with a toy, pointing out something interesting or doing an activity she loves can help. It’s a simple way to redirect your child’s misbehavior by taking her mind and energy completely away from it.
Use time-outs, sparingly
Time-outs should not be used as a punishment, but instead as a way for everyone to calm down. They not only help the child calm down, but they also give parents time to calm down, too.
Once everyone’s calm, you’ll be in the right state of mind to explain why your child’s actions were wrong using simple words and she’ll be ready to listen.
Just be sure you don’t overuse time-outs because their effectiveness will wane.
“Remember to use all the tools in the toolbox,” said Dr. Bilge-Johnson. “Maybe you model positive behavior for sharing, practice breathing exercises for frustration and use time-outs for temper tantrums. The goal is to get your child to calm down and take control of her emotions so she can understand what you’re telling her. A time-out is not the only tool that works.”
For more information or to address specific concerns, talk to your child’s pediatrician. She can refer your child, if necessary.
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