Two-year-olds often lack the words they need to express their strongest emotions, especially frustration and anger. Browse the information and links below to see what your little one is experiencing and learning this month.
What It’s Like for You
Kelvin, father of Alli (age 28 months), remembers: We were at the toy store and Alli really wanted a new toy. I kept telling her, No, but she kept asking and asking and getting more and more upset. All of a sudden, she hit me. We both just stared at each other, like neither of us could believe it. I didn’t know what to do. I was totally shocked. I gritted my teeth and told her to never do that again, and picked her up and got out of there.
Two-year-olds often lack the words they need to express their strongest emotions, especially frustration and anger. So, when they are feeling really overwhelmed, they use actions to express how upset they are such as hitting, kicking throwing toys, etc. As distressing as this can be, your child is not trying to hurt you (although yes, it does feel very personal when you are the one being hit!). She is simply out of control and lacks the words and self-control she needs to handle her “big” feelings in this situation.
So, let’s rewind. You are in the mall and your child hits you because she wants a toy. Other parents are there and watching to see what you do. Here’s a game plan you might want to try:
- Calmly (without anger) validate her feelings: I know you are really mad but it is not okay to hit. Validating feelings often calms children down as it lets them know you understand and that you can handle their big feelings.
- Repeat the limit in simple language: No hitting. Hitting hurts.
- Suggest other, acceptable ways she can express her anger: You can stomp as hard as you can with your foot or tell me with your words how angry you are.
- Help her recover: Comfort her with a hug or however she likes to be soothed when upset. Then re-direct her to an acceptable activity: After you finish being mad, we can go look at the fountain.
While these moments can be frustrating and embarrassing, they are also great opportunities for your child to learn limits and how to cope with disappointment—two important skills she’ll use all her life.
What It’s Like for Your Child
Mommy and I were reading my favorite book. It’s about a kid just like me who takes a walk with his red wagon. In the story, the boy sees a bird while they walk to the park. I got up and ran to the window, dragged my stool over, and climbed up. I pointed outside: Bird! Look, Mama! She said, I see the bird too…just like in our story. I went back to Mommy’s lap and turned the pages of the book. We read the whole thing. Then I grabbed Mommy’s hand and took her outside. I showed her my red wagon—just like the one in the story. I hid behind the wagon and then jumped up and said, Peek-a-boo! I go walk? Mommy laughed. She said, You surprised me, Mr. Peek-a-boo! Hey, do you want to be just like the boy in the story? Okay, let’s take a walk. How about we go to the park, too? I laughed: Yay, Mama! Go go!
What Your Toddler Is Learning
- Relationship skills as he enjoys reading and playing with his mother
- To use humor, such as when he jumps up to surprise his mother with Peek-a-boo!
Language and Thinking Skills:
- Words to describe what he sees outside
- Language and gestures to make a request when he walks his mother to the wagon and asks, I go walk?
- Symbolic thinking skills when he makes the connection between a symbol (the pictures of a bird and wagon in the story) and the “real” bird and wagon at his house
- Pretend play skills when he wants to take on the “role” of the boy in the story by taking a walk with the wagon just like they do in the book
- Large motor skills as he uses the muscles in his legs and arms when he runs, climbs, and jumps
- Fine motor skills as he uses the small muscles in his hands and fingers to turn the pages of the book
What to Expect From Your Toddler’s Development
As you read the chart below, keep in mind that development is not a race and that every child grows at her own pace and in her own way. Your child may develop skills faster or slower than indicated below and still be on track. If you have questions or concerns, talk with your child’s health care provider or other trusted professional.
Your Toddler’s Development From 24 to 30 Months
|What Your Baby Can Do||What You Can Do to Connect With Your Baby|
I use my body to get me places!
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I am using language to tell you what I’m feeling and thinking.
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I am getting really good at playing pretend.
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I want to make friends but still need help with sharing.
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Did You Know…
Your 28-month-old can reliably remember events, even up to 3 months after they happen? A group of twenty, 28-month-old children participated in a play experience with researchers. Some returned to the laboratory 2 weeks later; some returned 3 months later. Upon their return, researchers determined how well the children remembered details of their previous play experience by asking them to re-enact it. What surprised researchers was that both groups of toddlers recalled their experience equally well. It didn’t matter whether children came back after 2 weeks or 3 months.
What the Research Means for You
You may be surprised when you go to the supermarket and your child reminds you that the last time you were there, you got her a cookie in the bakery. And, by the way, can she have one this time too? Memory is crucial for learning and for making sense of the world—its people, objects, and rules. You help build your child’s memory when you:
- Talk about her day. This helps her put events in sequence and see how they are related. (Do you remember when we took our walk today, we saw the dogs playing Frisbee at the park?)
- Make connections to past events. Last month we went to Grandma’s house and the two of you planted seeds. Tomorrow we are going to visit her and you will see how your seeds have grown into flowers. Help your child make connections between past and current experiences. This nurtures her memory and helps her learn how to make logical predictions.
- Be patient with emerging fears and worries. Because your child has a more reliable memory now, she may also develop some fears and worries. She remembers the last shot she had at the doctor’s office…so doesn’t want to go back. She also remembers the dog that always barks at the corner and so is afraid to take a walk past that house. Talking about your child’s experiences in a supportive way helps her make sense of and feel in control of them. This gives her the security she needs to move forward.
Spotlight on: Nurturing Early Writing Skills
For very young children, art and early writing skills are one and the same. At first, it’s all about just figuring out what these cool things called crayons can do. Then your child discovers the link between his hand holding the crayon and the line he made on the page: Presto! He experiences the power of cause and effect. Imagine how exciting this must be for him. He can now make a real “mark” on the world. This leap in thinking skills is helped along by his growing control over the muscles in his hands that lets him move a marker or paintbrush with purpose to reach a goal.
There are four stages of drawing and writing from 15 months old to 3 years of age. Note that the timetables listed below are approximate; your child may master these skills faster or slower and still be developing just fine. Growth doesn’t happen at the same speed for every child, but by offering repeated fun experiences with a variety of art and writing materials, you will see forward progress over time.
Stage 1: Random Scribbling (15 months to 2 ½ years)
This is the period when young children are just figuring out that their movements result in the lines and scribbles they see on the page. These scribbles are usually the result of large movements from the shoulder, with the crayon or marker held in the child’s fist. There is joy in creating art at all ages, but at this stage especially, many children relish the feedback they are getting from their senses: the way the crayon feels, the smell of the paint, the squishy-ness of the clay.
For other children, this sensory information may be too much and they may not enjoy some art activities (like finger-painting). As they grow to tolerate more sensory input, you can incrementally re-introduce these kinds of more tactile art activities into their routine.
Stage 2: Controlled Scribbling (2 years to 3 years)
As children develop better control over the muscles in their hands and fingers, their scribbles begin to change and become more controlled. Toddlers may make repeated marks on the page —open circles, diagonal, curved, horizontal, or vertical lines. Over time, children make the transition to holding the crayon or marker between their thumb and pointer finger.
Stage 3: Lines and Patterns (2 ½ years to 3 ½ years)
Children now understand that writing is made up of lines, curves, and repeated patterns. They try to imitate this in their own writing. So while they may not write actual letters, you may see components of letters in their drawing. These might include lines, dots and curves. This is an exciting time as your toddler realizes that her drawing conveys meaning! For example, she may write something down and then tell you what word it says. This is an important step toward reading and writing.
Stage 4: Pictures of Objects or People (3 years to 5 years)
The ability to hold an image in one’s mind and then represent it on the page is a very important thinking skill that children are mastering at this age. You will see preschoolers creating a picture and then labeling their masterpiece with the names of people, animals, or objects they are familiar with.
With time, you will see your child clearly planning what he will create before drawing. You will also see more detail in the pictures, more control in the way he handles the crayon or marker, and more colors. What else to be on the lookout for? Children’s first pictures often build off circles. So, you may see a sun—an irregular circle, with lots of stick “rays” shooting out—or a person (usually a circle with roughly recognizable human features).
Once your child has begun to purposefully draw images, he has mastered symbolic thinking. This important milestone in thinking skills means that your child understands that drawings on paper can be a symbol for something else, like a house, a cat, or a person. At this stage, your child also begins to understand the difference between pictures and writing. So you may see him draw a picture and then scribble some “words” underneath to describe what he has drawn or to tell a story.
What Can You Do to Encourage Art and Writing Skills:
Make art a regular part of playtime.
Offer chunky, easy-to-grip crayons, thick pencils, glue sticks, and washable markers. Cut paper bags up to draw on. Sometimes it helps if you tape the paper down on the table so it doesn’t move as they draw. As your child grows, you can include washable paints, child-safe scissors and glue, and homemade salt-dough as part of your child’s creative time. (For salt-dough recipes, check the Internet or your local library.) Let your child wear an old shirt of yours (with sleeves cut off) as a smock and lay newspaper or an old shower curtain over the table to keep it clean.
Let your child experiment and explore. Creativity means being able to express yourself freely. Self-directed activities help your toddler feel confident in expressing his view of the world. By sitting nearby, observing, and taking pleasure in your child’s creation, you are providing all the guidance he needs.
Notice the process, not just the product.
Focus less on the outcome and more on what your child is thinking about her drawing. Take a few moments to look at and describe what you see in your child’s work: Look at the lines you are making—there are so many of them! Or, I see a purple circle. Or, That picture is full of color. It makes me feel bright and happy. You can also describe what you see as you watch your child create: You are working really hard on your drawing. Or, You seem to be so happy while you do your art. Is that how you are feeling? Another option is simply to engage your child by asking: Tell me about your picture.
Experiment with a variety of art materials as your child nears 3.
Let children paint with cotton balls, q-tips, sponges, string—you name it. Give your child crayons and rub over a textured surface (like a coin or a screen). Draw with chalk outside on a sidewalk; see how water changes the color of the chalk. Add powdered paint or glitter to your child’s sand play. Or add a new dimension to water play by adding drops of washable food coloring to the water. What happens when you mix two different colors of water together?
Use art to help your child express strong feelings.
Is your child having a tantrum? Offer some playdough or set out the markers and paper and suggest she draw just how angry she is. Creative activities can sometimes help children express and make sense of feelings that are too intense for them to talk about.
Encourage your child’s attempts to write.
If your child scribbles something and then tells you what he “wrote,” take it seriously. Let him take his “shopping list” to the supermarket or mail his (scribbled) letter to Grandma. This is how children learn that words are powerful and have meaning.
Display your child’s art and writing.
This tells your child that her work is valued and important.
Let’s Play: Activities That Nurture Bonding and Learning
Take a photo of something familiar to your child such as your house, a favorite toy, or a pet. With your child’s help, glue the photo to heavy cardboard. Then cut the photo into four large pieces, making your own simple puzzle. See if your child can put the picture back together again. Games like this nurture your child’s problem-solving skills, memory, persistence, and fine motor skills (the muscles in the hands and fingers).
Paper Bag Predictions
Have your child help you fill three paper bags with items of different weights and sizes. For example, you can fill one with a small bag of dry rice, another with some feathers. Talk with your child about how each item feels and looks as he puts them in the bag. Then take turns picking up each bag. Talk about whether the bag feels “heavy” or “light.” Activities like this help your toddler learn new concepts. If he is curious, he can look inside and figure out what is hiding in each bag. He is also developing fine motor skills (as he uses his fingers and hands to fill and pour), as well as language and thinking skills (as you discuss the differences between objects and learn about the concept of heavy/light).
What’s On Your Mind?
My 2-year-old always has to have her way—from what she wears to the bowl she uses for cereal. How can I get her to be more flexible?
You are not alone. For some children, flexibility and toddlerhood just don’t go together. The truth is what looks and feels like total inflexibility is a natural and important part of your child’s development. Two-year-olds are at a stage when their sense of self is emerging. They are strong-willed, they know what they want and don’t want, and they have the communication skills to tell you just how they feel.
At the same time, the world is becoming less predictable. They have a lot more to manage each day as they take in new experiences and encounter new people. To feel secure, they try to control whatever they can. This need for sameness and predictability makes routines especially important. As trivial as it may seem, using the same bowl or wearing the same pair of shoes may be an important ritual that helps your child feel safe and “okay.”
Temperament also plays a big role in a child’s flexibility. For example, children who are more cautious and slow to warm up often need more consistency to feel safe and so may seem less flexible than their more easygoing peers.
While it’s important to respect your child’s unique needs, it’s equally important to help her learn how to adapt when things don’t go her way. One way to do this is by setting sensible limits. Learning to accept limits helps children function successfully in the real world with all its rules and expectations.
When your child makes a demand, before you respond, ask yourself whether you want (or need) to fight this particular battle. Children need some opportunities to make choices for themselves. This builds their confidence, self-esteem, and thinking skills. For example, your child wants to wear mismatched clothing to preschool. While it may not match your fashion standards, the floral/stripe outfit isn’t harming your child’s development. This may be a “safe” choice for her to make for herself.
But when your child is demanding something you don’t feel is appropriate, see it as an opportunity—a teachable moment. You can use the following steps as a guide to helping her learn about limits and become more flexible. In the example below, a toddler has asked for his favorite blue bowl with the train on it, instead of the red one his father has given him.
- Validate your child’s feelings: I know you really want the blue bowl. It’s your special bowl and you don’t like using other bowls. (If you skip this step, your child is likely to “up the ante” and show you just how much he wants that blue bowl…often, this is when tantrums start.)
- Set the limit: But the blue bowl is dirty and we can’t use it right now.
- Offer limited choices that are acceptable to you. You can use the red bowl or the yellow bowl. Which would you like?
- Help him cope with his disappointment by problem-solving: After you come home from child care today, when the dishes are clean, you can use the blue bowl for your snack. If your child doesn’t accept the choices you’ve offered, or has a tantrum, remain calm and reinforce your expectation: Okay, it doesn’t look like you want either bowl. I’ll leave them here on the counter. If you change your mind and want to use one for your cereal, let me know. (It is important to limit the back-and-forth negotiation as it is very rewarding for children to engage their parents in this way and is more likely to intensify the situation versus resolving it.)
- Don’t give in once you have set the limit. It is critical that you stick with the limit, despite your child’s protests. If you give in, he learns that if he throws a fit and fights long enough, he’ll get what he wants. And it makes it harder the next time you try to enforce a limit. Let him know in a compassionate way that you see he is having a hard time. Offer him comfort and some suggestions about what he can do to move on, such as getting involved in an activity together. If he won’t accept any help or attempts to redirect him, let him have his tantrum and pay as little attention as possible. Any attention, even negative, is very reinforcing to children and tends to prolong the behavior.
The two’s are a challenging time because your child is growing and changing so rapidly. This is what also makes older toddlers so interesting and fun. Up until now, most parents have enjoyed a feeling of control over their child’s day-to-day life. Now your child is set on controlling his world…and so are you. Both of you need to adapt to this new relationship. (And it’s good practice for when he becomes a teen!)
My 30-month-old daughter sleeps in our bed and my second baby is due in a few months. I think four in one bed is a bit much, and I’d like to transition my daughter into her own bed in her own room. How do I do this without upsetting or scaring her?
You’ve taken the most important first step by being sensitive to this transition. Up to this point all she has known is that she feels comfortable and safe sleeping with you. Now she has to learn to feel safe sleeping on her own, which takes time. This can be an emotional transition because, from your daughter’s perspective, her only experience is sleeping with you.
Start by talking with your partner about this change. It is important that you are a team with the same approach and same goal. You both want to communicate to your daughter your shared confidence that she can learn to sleep in her own bed in her own room.
Be sure to spend lots of cozy and cuddly time in your daughter’s room. Do your daughter’s nap-time and bedtime routines in her bedroom so she associates that space with love and comfort.
If your child doesn’t have a “lovey,” help her attach to a stuffed animal or blanket she seems to especially like. Let her know that her lovey will be with her during her nap or at night, and that she can give her lovey a hug anytime she needs a cuddle.
After you’ve set the stage, pick a start date to begin having your child sleep in her own bed in her own room. End your child’s bedtime routine by lying down with her or next to her bed until she falls asleep. After a few nights she will see that her room is a good and safe place. Then, incrementally move yourself out of her room at bedtime. Instead of lying in her bed, sit on the bed next to her. Then move to sitting in a chair next to the bed. After she is used to that, give her a kiss and leave while she is still awake.
Let your daughter know the rule is that she stays in her room, but that you will check on her from time to time to assure her all is well. When you do this, make it VERY brief and limit interaction. The more interaction, the harder it will be for her to settle down.
Some families prefer to make this transition in stages. For example, you may put a mattress or sleeping bag on the floor of your room as a middle step between co-sleeping and having your daughter sleep alone in her room. You know your child best and can decide whether this step might prove comforting or confusing to her. (You also know yourself best and need to make a plan that you can implement.)
Once you’ve made the switch for good, if your child wakes in the middle of the night and comes into your room, walk her back to her room, tuck her in, and leave. Limit interaction during these night-time wake-ups. The more attention she gets from you in the middle of the night, the more likely she is to keep waking you. And don’t go back to letting her sleep in your bed. It will only undermine her confidence that she is capable of sleeping on her own, and can cause confusion about what the new rules are. With your love, comfort, and consistency, you can help her make this change quite successfully.
- Terrie Rose, PhD, President and Founder, Baby’s Space
- Ross Thompson, PhD, Professor of Psychology, University of California at Davis
- Robert Weigand, MS, IMH-E, Director, Child Development Laboratory, Arizona State University
This ZERO TO THREE newsletter series was made possible by generous funding from the MetLife Foundation.