I used to think that having a two-year-old meant being in a constant power struggle, and because of that... you guessed it... everything turned into a power struggle.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Instead of being in a wrestling match with them, what would it look like to help them step into the independence that they're trying out?

I wish that I had known back then that there was a better way to approach toddlerhood than trying to pin them into submission, and also that it was a very important part of their development to walk through with them. I wish I had known what was about to happen on the other side of that seemingly never-ending cycle of meltdowns.

What you need to know is that on the other side of this season is an imaginative preschooler who is capable of making good decisions for him or herself, and you can show him or her that you are someone who is trustworthy.

I have four children. Each time we went through toddlerhood, I learned a little more about what they needed during that time of their lives and how we as parents can help them through it. So before I move full-on into the tween years, I thought I'd write it down for anyone else to glean what they can. Here you go...

A dad holds his son in the park as his toddler smiles

1. Timers

The best dollar I ever spent was in purchasing a little timer from the dollar store for my toddler. She would carry it around with her, thrilled with the ability to beep the small buttons and start or stop the timer. I soon realized that it was an easy way for her to establish her own boundaries (with a little guidance from mom). It became easy to have a plan of what we would do when the timer rang. Transitions were not met with screaming protests but with eager acceptance of the authority of the timer that SHE had set! This was HER plan and we were carrying it out. "When the timer rings, we're going to stop for lunch." Sometimes I would ask how long she would like to play, and since she could only count to about ten, she got to pick her own number.

*Sidenote* These are great for bedtime routines and potty training too.

2. Let them make choices within your parameters

When you need them to do something, let them make a choice between two acceptable outcomes. Whenever we have a family session, I always ask young kids, "Who do you want to hug: mom, or dad?" At home I ask questions like, "Would you rather get your pajamas on or brush your teeth first?" "Would you like milk or water?" If they respond with "I want soda" then a good response is, "That is not an option," or "Soda is for Saturdays." Let them make as many decisions as possible, and let them know the full plan. "After we brush our teeth and get our pjs on, I get to read you a book! Would you like to pick it out now?"

It never fails that kids start picking up rocks and shoving them into their pockets at one of my Lebanon PA family photo shoots. When the kid chooses an undesirable action, instead of saying, "Stop it!" try, "This is the last one," or "Pick your favorite one" (unless it's destructive in some way). It will give them a sense of boundaries without impeding their ability to have a preference.

A blonde two-year-old plays on a blanket at sunset in the park
A blonde haired boy picks up autumn leaves in the park

3. Take a lesson from Elmo

How many kids do you know who are gaga over Elmo? Want to know why? Elmo gives toddlers fun ways to be in charge. Next time your toddler watches it, pay attention to how the show is structured. On every episode of Elmo, these things happen:

  • Kids get to show Elmo's goldfish "Dorothy" how to do something (put on a shirt, bounce a ball)
  • Elmo asks a baby to show him how to do something
  • Elmo counts how many times he sees a sheep bounce or a car drive by, etc.
  • Elmo tells Mr. Noodle how to do something (Mr. Noodle is very silly and has a hard time getting it right!)

Each of these strategies are ingenious ways that you can employ whenever you need your toddler to participate in something. I can't tell you the number of times my twins have shown their baby doll how to brush their teeth or go potty. Sometimes we count our hops before getting into the car, or we count American flags while going home to ward off post-fun meltdowns. And I can't seem to know how to throw leaves in the air at one of our family photo sessions unless a toddler shows me how.

Parents swing their little boy as he laughs in the park

4. Be realistic

Meltdowns are going to happen. Even so, you can do everything in your power to minimize the possibility of it happening by making sure that your child is not hungry, stressed, tired, or too surprised by something. Let them know what's about to happen. Taking a nap and eating a healthy snack can do wonders (for mama too!). Make sure that you don't pack a full day of activity right before your family photo shoot or right after a church service. We all need space to recuperate and toddlers are no exception.

Mom and dad look at their blonde son as he smiles at the camera

5. About those meltdowns...

Have a standard response and a plan of action for your own sake. When my kid had peed in her pants for the hundredth time, instead of flipping out on her like I would have down with my first, I looked down and said, "Uh oh, pee goes in the potty" because that was what I had already decided I was going to say. It can be so easy to lose our sh*t with our kids (c'mon, you know what I'm talking about) because we ourselves are pushed to the brink. Having a plan can help you to take a deep breath and calmly approach whatever is happening with your child.

Sometimes a non-confrontational approach is best. I learned this with my twins. I realized that if I pulled away from the twin who was losing her temper and instead played with the other twin and gave HER all my attention, the angry twin would eventually calm down and want to play again. It went against my actions=consequences nature, but it did help to combat negative attention, and anyway, sometimes they just need a minute to let their emotions subside (just like you and I do). I would like to note that if the angry twin was trying to hurt the other, I would take steps to make sure everyone was safe. Sometimes that meant the angry one would need a time out in her high chair, or sometimes we would go into a different room and lock the door.

There were times when a meltdown would look like sadness instead of anger. I remember realizing how much emotion their little bodies were carrying when I heard their gut-wrenching sobs. In these moments, I tried to be a safe place for them to fall apart. If your child gets like this sometimes, I found it very helpful to have a puppet or stuffed animal through which to interact. There was something about having a little friend apart from mom or dad that seemed very comforting to them.

As a parting gift, here are a couple of resources I personally have found very insightful:

I hope this has been helpful to you. I would LOVE to hear your own stories or nuggets of wisdom about how you have learned to navigate the season of toddlers (leave them in the comments below!). I'm here for you. They are challenging, for sure!

Aaaand, speaking of challenging... Now I need to go read a blog about what to do with tweens! Wish me luck! 

A little boy in a white sweater walks in the park during golden hour

ready to play with your child at a family photo session?

(I am!)