Recently we spent a week at the cottage with our extended family including an inquisitive, exuberant “full of life” two year old. The whole family pitched in to keep up with our little guy. We learned that the “terrible twos” don’t have to be terrible. Of course our two year old wanted everything his way. He wanted stories and activities done repeatedly and he routinely challenged his parents. This was natural. The parents could have become upset and respond negatively. Instead they chose to try to understand why Josh (not his real name) was increasingly responding in a challenging manner. They reacted in a proactive, regulated manner laying the groundwork for CPS and future Plan B conversations.
One of the most important things the parents did was to stay regulated (calm). When challenges occurred they did not get frustrated, angry or raise their voices.This can be hard at times as all parents are emotionally invested in their child and if the issues are ongoing, as they are with two year olds, stressful situations can add up and result in a loss of control. We remembered that “disregulation is contagious.” If one person at the cottage started to “lose it” then the child would also escalate and other adults as well. We dealt with challenges calmly.
Occasionally we used a consequence because we knew that consequences can teach basic lessons to young children. We wanted Josh to learn that hitting, throwing things or screaming were unacceptable behaviours. When things like this occurred we used a time-out to demonstrate our displeasure with that behaviour. This was followed by a conversation and then Josh rejoined the group. The parents tried very hard not to go to a consequence too quickly or too often. They determined what behaviours they wanted to teach, the challenges that were most important to solve first and what they would ignore, for now. Parents knew that there were reasons for Josh’s behaviour ( fatigue, change in sleep and eating routine, increased number of people around including another baby and a different location). Simply understanding that there was a reason for the challenging behaviour helped guide their response when Josh misbehaved. They remembered the mantra that the challenges are due to a “lack of skill, not will.” His cognitive skills were still developing.
The parents have started to use CPS language when speaking with Josh during routine conversations and when challenges occur. When some challenging behaviour is beginning to show they often start a conversation with “I noticed that there is something hard about (for example) coming inside from the dock.” Then they ask the child to “help mommy/daddy understand what is hard about it.” These types of talks can also take place at other calmer times when the child is older and has a greater vocabulary. These types of statements begin to introduce the child and parents to the Empathy phase of the Plan B conversation. At the cottage mom and dad also told Josh their concern that they wanted to have a fun family time together where no one got hurt (if he had hit mom or thrown things). They didn’t necessarily engage in a full conversation but they were laying the ground work for future problem solving.
Finally it is important for all parents to understand that maintaining sleep, eating and playing routines is important for young children. In our case it took Josh some time to transition from a house with parents and older brother to a new “home” with aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. This type of transition can produce disregulated adults let alone an upset two year old. If parents have an understanding of the needs of a two year old, some skill at using CPS language and a calm approach they can help their child develop the cognitive skills for a more positive family life.