What to expect at this age
It's a 2-year-old's job to explore the world around him — and part of that exploration involves testing the boundaries of his world. That means your 2-year-old will gleefully push the limits you impose in an effort to find out what's okay and what's not okay. He's also a creature ruled by emotion, and can turn on a dime from a happy-go-lucky child to a flailing, wailing wild thing.
When your child gets too worked up for his own good, sometimes the best way to help him get a handle on himself is to remove him from whatever sparked the meltdown (or the limits-pushing) in favor of a little quiet time, better known as a time-out. Though many experts, including Penelope Leach, are skeptical about using traditional time-outs with children so young, it's fine to introduce the concept of a cooling-off period now. Six strategies for making the most of time-outs with your child:
What to do
Understand what a time-out is — and isn't. If you don't think of a time-out as punishment, neither will your child, and that's as it should be. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to teach your child how to cope with common frustrations and modify his behavior. Although at times it may require superhuman effort, try not to scold, yell, or speak angrily when you call "time-out" — the point isn't to chastise your child, it's simply to help him switch gears. The goal of a time-out is to defuse and redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way, and to help your child behave without setting a negative example, the way yelling does.
Don't give formal time-outs before your child is ready for them. Two-year-olds find it hard to sit still, so trying to make your little one stay in one place for a prescribed length of time may well disintegrate into a chase scene: Your child runs away from his time-out spot, delighted with this new game. You catch him, then struggle to make him stay. You threaten, he laughs. You grab, he bolts. Meanwhile, because 2-year-olds have short attention spans, your child forgets why you wanted him to sit still in the first place. Instead of helping him regain his self-control, you find yourself in an escalating power struggle.
That's why traditional time-outs won't work until your child begins to appreciate the need to follow rules (usually around his third birthday). Watch for signs that he understands what's allowed and what's not — if he reminds you of the rules when you break them, chances are he's absorbed that lesson. If, for instance, he catches you doing something you normally wouldn't allow him to — munching potato chips on the sofa, say — he may scold, "You're not supposed to do that, Mommy." Until that point, though, hold off on time-outs or your child will feel he's being punished but won't understand why.
Meanwhile, try to distinguish between your child's natural inquisitiveness and willful disobedience. Instead of constantly correcting his behavior, childproof your home to reduce the opportunities for mischief, and distract your child to redirect his attention to more suitable activities. Save time-outs for when your child is doing something he knows is wrong and distraction and redirection just aren't working, or when he needs to get a grip on his emotions.
Take time-outs together. Most 2-year-olds just aren't ready for solitary time-outs, so introduce the idea of time-out by taking a "positive" one together. When your 2-year-old gets revved up and borders on losing control, try saying, "Let's take a time-out to read a book until we feel better." Any quiet activity, such as listening to music, lying down, or putting together a simple puzzle will work.
Taking a time-out with you gets your child used to the idea of a cooling-off period. It disrupts the downward spiral of negative behavior while avoiding the battle of wills that a more formal time-out can incite.
Plan ahead. Don't spring time-outs on your child in a burst of frustration — this discipline method works best if it's explained ahead of time. Use simple terms: "When you get too wild or act in a way that Mommy and Daddy don't think is a good idea, I'll call, 'Time-out.' That means you'll sit in this chair for a little while until you can calm yourself down." You may find it helpful to act this out or to use a doll or teddy bear to demonstrate.
Be flexible. With a 2-year-old, your goal is simply to introduce the idea of an enforced break in the action. Such an interruption can be upsetting enough to your hard-charging, egocentric 2-year-old; insisting that he sit in a certain place, in a certain way, for a certain length of time may be too much for him. Instead of marching him to a special "time-out" chair, for instance, consider just having him sit still right where he is — and stay with him if need be. Go easy, too, in determining how long he needs to stay there. (Don't start following the common one-minute-per-year rule until your child is at least 3.) Thirty seconds to a minute is generally enough for a 2-year-old. The period should be long enough to refocus his attention but not so long that he gets frustrated. One idea: Have him sit and recite his ABCs, then redirect him to a different activity.
Don't expect miracles. As you've no doubt discovered, 2-year-olds are notoriously active, willful, and unpredictable. This is normal (though admittedly tough on you), and the only solution is plenty of patience. Testing limits and gauging your reactions — over and over again — is your child's way of establishing a secure understanding of his world. He may repeatedly toss food off the table to establish that gravity continues to exist. He may repeat an action just to make sure it's still "not okay," so consistency is vital.
No single disciplinary approach — including time-outs — will transform your child into an obedient angel. But learning what behaviors are normal (or at least unavoidable!) at this age will help keep your expectations realistic. If, on the other hand, your child is usually pretty compliant and easily redirected, you may be lucky enough never to need time-out. You may also find that using the positive time-out technique — changing the pace to a quieter activity — works well throughout your youngster's childhood.
Reviewed by the BabyCenter Medical Advisory Board
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