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Strong-Willed Two-Year-Old: Good Parenting with Dr. Debbie

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I have a two-and-a-half-year-old who says, “No!” all the time. Well, maybe not all the time, but a lot of the time. How can I get her to be more agreeable?

 She Woke Up This Way


The age of two can be challenging, mostly because of a child’s new awareness of her own mind. Two-year-olds are sometimes called “oppositional” because they often do the opposite of what the caregiver asks. Here are some ways to reduce conflict between you.

Daily Rhythms

Make her day predictable with routines. This helps her to get the food, rest, and exercise that are so important to keeping her in a cooperative mood. Be matter-of-fact about the things that she needs to do on a daily basis that may be boring. Handwashing happens before and after eating, after bathrooming, and whenever needed. It just does.

It helps to be playful about some of these routines. So enjoy sudsing up the soap with her when she washes her hands. “Talk” for her toothbrush so that it tells her why it’s coming into her mouth. Make up a rhyme for buckling her into the car seat. Let her hold a (non-breakable) hand mirror so she can see what you’re doing (and keep her hands out of the way) when you’re combing her hair.

When transitioning between activities you can say, “It’ll soon be time to  .  .  .”  or “We have five more minutes before  .  .  .” You also let her know what’s coming next when she sees you: set the table, fill the bathtub, lay out her outfit, etc.

Remember that you are instilling self-care habits that she will eventually manage on her own. This is a good reason to calmly and pleasantly carry them out with her as she is learning how to do them.

Use Contrary Humor

In keeping your routines lighthearted albeit consistent, take advantage of the two-year-old sense of humor. She knows enough about how her world works that, for example, if you offer to put her pajama bottoms on her head, she’ll laugh and tell you, “No, they go on my feet!” She’s contradicting you while actually doing what you wanted her to do.

Reduce Frustrations

Pay attention to repeated frustrations. There are many things a two-year-old would like to do that she can’t quite manage on her own yet. Hold that washable marker still so she can put the cap back on. Keep her favorite toys, including bedtime stuffies, in the same place so she can easily find them. Use toddler-size portions, cups, plates, and utensils so she’s less likely to make a mess during eating. A high chair or booster seat also helps her to better control getting the food into her mouth. Use a stroller for longer walks – or be ready to carry her when her little legs get tired. Help her to ask another child for a turn on the swing at the playground – she’s still new at using words.

Toys that are too difficult – such as a puzzle with more than about 8 pieces, dolls with clothes that are hard to get on and off – should be stored away until she can be more successful with her fine motor and problem-solving skills. If you help her to do what she can’t yet do by herself, this limits opportunities for her to feel successful on her own, only adding to her frustration.

By Myself

You’ve probably noticed how important it is for your two-year-old to feed herself and perform other tasks that require fine motor dexterity and large motor coordination. There are many play activities that strengthen the hand muscles – e.g. play dough, songs with hand motions (e.g. “The Wheels on the Bus), and scribbling with crayons. Likewise, she gains grace with her large muscles with plenty of time in open space for running, dancing, jumping, and kicking and throwing a ball, and with wheeled toys she can scoot on, and climbers (or just carpeted steps) she can practice her climbing skills on.

For fostering independence with clothing, teach her the “over the head trick” for tops and jackets with front openings. Lay the jacket on the floor and show her how to stand at the neck opening, put her hands into each sleeve, and lift her arms over her head. Her arms will slide into the sleeves and the back of the jacket will land in place on her back.

Especially when she’s mastering using the toilet, it’s wise to use shorts and pants with an elastic waistband so it’s easy for her to get them off and on.

Choice and Control

Give a choice of two things so your child can feel in control. An advantage you have here is that she’s is more likely to pick the second option because that was the last thing you said. “Echolalia” is a normal stage of language acquisition in which a child repeats that last part of what someone else has said. If you say, “Good morning; isn’t it a beautiful day?” she’ll respond, “Boo-ful day!” If you ask, “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?” she’ll say, “Boo shirt!” and reach for it because that’s what she heard herself say.

Notice, you’re not giving her a choice of whether or not she’s going to put a shirt on. You’re just adding choice to the routine of getting dressed so as to support her sense of control.

The Relationship Matters

Research suggests that toddlers are compliant about 50% of the time. A better rate of compliance occurs between parents and children who are playful with each other. One experiment involved giving mothers a list of actions to follow to carry out a Tea Party. If the child went “off script”, for example going after a spoon that fell off the table, and the mother played along with this unexpected twist, there was a better chance of getting the child to follow Mom’s lead to complete the actions on the list.

A positive, loving relationship goes a long way to assure compliance from a two-year-old. If your child knows that she is loved and enjoyed, she is more likely to be cooperative with your requests.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood, Ph.D. is a child development specialist and founding director of Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  

The museum is celebrating the 30th Anniversary of its founding on Saturday, June 25, 2-6 pm. Tickets are $30 per person or call: 410-990-1993.

Read more of Dr. Wood’s Good Parenting columns by clicking here.

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