Positive Discipline For 2 Year Olds Based on Brain Science
In Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old, I briefly explained how the 2 year old brain works and why it’s not capable of acting rationally. This post talks about how to use positive discipline with your 2 year old, so that you can minimize unwanted behavior and increase appropriate behavior. And please, keep in mind that we are working on minimizing, not eliminating unwanted behavior because eliminating is just not a realistic goal. And once you learn what you can realistically expect from your 2 year old, you will be much less frustrated and more empathetic towards your child.
Positive Discipline Strategy #1 – Help Your 2 Year Old Understand Their Emotions
Now that you know that there is a long road ahead of you before your child acts more rationally than emotionally, let’s talk about how to make this road a smoother one for everyone involved.
This is a great short list of 2 year old milestones so you know what to expect from them. As I mentioned before, learning happens from environmental exposure. So, you as a parent, can do a lot to help your child master their emotional regulation.
Keep in mind that tantrums and disobedience are normal and necessary parts of development at this age. In fact, I’d be much more concerned with an overly compliant 2 year old, than an overly defiant one. But while it’s nice to know that tantrums are necessary, they may be overwhelming to you (the parent) at the moment. So you still need to find a way to calm your child down.
I don’t believe that punishing a 2 year old is ever going to get you far. It will just leave the child upset and confused. You may want to implement a time out as a calming down strategy, not a punishment, to help your child regulate their emotions. (If you want to find our how to properly implement time outs to achieve behavior improvement, head on over to my post Successfully Manage Behavior With Timeouts).
Once your child calmed down in their time-out, its good practice to name the child’s emotions for them. This is very important. The biggest reasons why tantrums happen at a young age is because your child doesn’t yet have language to express themselves. They know that they feel something, but have no way, aside from tantruming, to convey this emotion.
I recommend you name the emotion after, not during the tantrum (despite what you may have heard) because in reality, your child isn’t hearing you at all when they’re tantruming. They are flooded with emotions and can’t process language at that moment. So give them a hug or just sit nearby, and name their emotions once they calm down. (If you want a more detailed guide on how to teach emotions to your toddler, read Teaching Emotional Intelligence Through Play. I go into detail why it’s important, and how to achieve it with different toys, games, and books).
Positive Discipline Strategy #2 – Use Redirections
One of the best ways to improve your 2 year old’s behavior is redirecting their inappropriate behavior to something more appropriate. For example, if they are splashing water out of the bathtub, show them where they could pour the water, so they don’t flood everything. Same goes for things like throwing, biting, hitting, and many other unwanted, but perfectly normal behaviors.
Redirection achieves 2 goals – it stops the unwanted behavior and it teaches an appropriate substitute behavior. And our goal with children should always be teaching them a better way to do things. Not penalize behaviors we don’t like.
Positive Discipline Strategy #3 -Set Age Appropriate Expectations
This is obviously more for the parent than the child. Make sure that your expectations are realistic, so that you don’t get unnecessarily frustrated.
If you want your 2 year old to understand delayed gratification, expect a lot of push back. They don’t have a concept of time yet, and can’t understand the concept of being able to do something later. Typically, telling them to wait would result in a meltdown.
A better strategy would be to work with a timer every time. You can tell them, they have 5 minutes on the timer, when it beeps, they can go do what they wanted to do. Be prepared for multiple repetitions (more than 10) before they grasp the concept. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes. You just have to stay consistent. The synapses for delayed gratification will strengthen, and the connections will be solidified if you keep using this method.
Same goes for other behaviors. If your child is drawing on walls or floors, don’t yell because they should know better. Why should they? They’re 2. Did you show them where they need to draw? Did you show multiple times? Just remember that you will have to repeatedly show them what’s appropriate before they start doing it on their own. And some of it will simply come with age.
So, biggest takeaway from setting appropriate expectations – expect that things will take time and repetition!
Positive Discipline Strategy #4 – Age Appropriate Consequences
Important distinction that gets lost on most people – Consequences do not equal punishment! They should not be punitive or made out of anger or frustration.
For example, if your child keeps throwing toys around, it is appropriate to give a couple of warnings that if they do it on more time, you will have to put the toy away. The important thing, is to not repeat yourself (giving 2-3 warnings should be the limit), and actually carry through with the consequence. They can’t learn proper behavior, if you don’t follow through. However, they will learn that your threats are meaningless, and they can get away with things if they just persist enough. After you take the toy away, expect a meltdown. And instead of being frustrated with it, look at it as a teaching moment.
Those meltdowns are the perfect times for us to offer emotional support. Once the child calms down, give them language for their emotions and explain your actions. “You were feeling sad because mommy took away your toy. Mommy was also sad when she asked you to not throw it, and you did not listen.” Whatever you choose to tell them make sure you name the emotion for them, and your tone is as calm as you can manage. And don’t be too wordy. Remember that they’re 2 , and their language processing capacity is not very robust yet.
So, for 2 year olds, make sure to implement mainly natural consequences. For example, if they don’t eat, they may go hungry. If they throw toys, toys will be put away. Basically they are consequences that are easy to understand and are directly connecteed to their behavior.
Positive Discipline Strategy #5 – Don’t Forget About Love and Connection
While I put this last, it’s by no means last in importance. It is so important that we build and maintain a warm and loving connection with our children. This connection then allows us to carry out the less pleasant disciplinary tasks without losing the love and respect of our children. Yes, they may be very upset with us at the moment for imposing a consequence, but overall, the relationship doesn’t take a hit.
We need to remember a very simple thing – humans are social animals. And being social animals means that it’s very important to us to be accepted by the group. So, while our children work on differentiating themselves from us and flexing their independence muscle, they want our love and acceptance. Because our acceptance means safety and at our core, we all crave this safety.
So, make sure that while trying to set your toddler on a righteous path, you don’t ignore the hugs, kisses, cuddles, love , and playtime. All of those things demonstrate positive behavior, make your toddler feel accepted, and makes your toddler more willing to please you, even if it means not doing what they want.
Some parting words
I understand that things aren’t always textbook simple. We are no strangers to 2 hour tantrums, where we felt that we got to a good spot, only to say something that would set our son off again. And it’s OK. It’s part of learning and growing together. The important part is to keep in mind that – your is child closer to being able to work through their emotions independently.
So there you have it. Your 2 year old’s brain and emotional development in a nutshell. If you have anything to add or have any questions, please, respond in the comments section.
Quote of the Day
Mental Health Tip of the Day
Sometimes we find it hard to be patient with our children. When we are depleted emotionally or physically, it’s difficult to be empathetic towards them. If you find yourself in this situation, I would encourage you to take a break and reconnect with yourself. Because when you are refreshed, you can give the best to your children.