Those Remarkable, Terrible Two's - 5 Ways to Work Better with your 2-Year-Old

17 May 2017

terrible twos blog

Working in daycare and preschool programs, I learned to love the uniqueness of two-year-olds.  They have such a special and challenging approach to the world. The more you can learn about this approach, the more enjoyable you’ll find your life with your little preschooler.  

Let’s talk about some of the special developmental characteristics of two-year-olds. You probably know a lot about your preschooler’s behavior and preferences, but let’s look at the developmental reasons for these.

Children ages two to seven years are in what developmentalist Jean Piaget calls the preoperational stageIn this stage, their thoughts are not flexible. Things are exactly as they appear to your two-year-old. There are no grey areas, only black and white. For example, your partner is their father. But to your two year old, they can’t understand or grasp that he can be a brother or a son as well. From a preoperational two-year old’s perspective, their father is simply their father and nothing else.

While this stage continues from two up to seven years, in this article, I will focus on two-year-olds because they often get a bad rap for being “terrible” when they are just being two.

Let’s discuss two of the most challenging characteristics of two-year-olds in this preoperational stage.

Egocentrism. Two-year-olds are totally centered on their own experiences. For the preoperational child, the world revolves around them. I remember hearing the perfect example of this one night when we were driving home and Claire told me “The moon is following me.”  Note that even in this fanciful observation it wasn’t “us” but “me.” Another example of this egocentrism is how the preschooler at this stage literally “owns” his mother.  This is why you often see preschoolers hanging on their mother’s legs for dear life, or crawling all over them literally because they see their mothers are personal possessions.

I also have seen this egocentrism in action when preoperational children are playing with toys. As they see it, what they are playing with is theirs and the concept of sharing isn’t part of the scene. I’ve known many two-year-olds taking home toys from preschool because they were playing with them. It’s a mistake to talk to this preschooler about stealing, because that’s not the issue at all. According to the preoperational child’s thinking, “I am playing with this, therefore it is mine.”

Inflexible Thinking.  Preoperational children have trouble reversing actions, or understanding how objects can change shape but still be the same object. Your little preoperational child does not think about something from more than one perspective. At this stage, your child will focus on one thing, and can’t see more than one thing at a time.  

Try this classic Piaget tests that quite nicely demonstrates inflexible thinking. Use a tall, thin glass and a short, wider glass. Pour some milk into a measuring cup. Tell the child how much milk it is like, “I’m pouring one cup of milk into this measuring cup.”  Then, pour the measured milk into the short glass.  Pour the same amount of milk you used for the short glass into the measuring cup.  Again, tell the child how much milk it is. Then, pour the milk in the tall glass. Ask your child which glass has more milk.  Your preoperational child will focus on the shape of the glass of milk, thinking the taller glass has more milk even when the same amount of milk is poured into a short fat glass. This is because your child is focusing on the size of the glass that looks larger.  This trick always worked on my younger sister, who would always take the bigger nickel when given a choice between it and a smaller dime.

The combination of inflexible thinking and egocentrism make it difficult for your preoperational child to understand other points of view. At this stage, your little preschooler thinks everyone thinks, feels, and sees as he does. Dealing with these characteristics can be challenging but not impossible. There is hope yet.

Here are 5 suggestions for working and playing with your pre-operational preschooler:

  1. When two or more 2-year olds are playing together, plan on having similar toys for each child. Explain which belongs to each child. “This one is Bobby’s and this one is Drew’s. You can switch or share if you want, but don’t have to.”
  2. Don’t force sharing. Don’t expect it either.  This is a concept that develops slowly and with lots of experience playing with other children. I’ve always believed that a child first needs to comprehend the concept of ownership before they can willingly share with someone. Give your preschooler time to learn what ownership is, talking about it often.  “That is your bed.  It’s just for you.”  
  3. Explain what other children might be feeling. Over time, hearing you talking about people’s feelings, your preschooler will gradually grasp that other children have feelings, too.  Pointing this out to your preschooler on a regular basis helps your preschooler grasp this concept.  “Jody looks sad because Josh took her toy.  How can we help her feel better?”  
  4. Use materials that will help your child gradually understand the concept of change. Playdough and clay are great for playing with as well as physically seeing how things can change shape and still be the same object.  Roll balls of equal amounts of playdough. Flatten one. Talk about the change in one ball. Roll the flattened ball up again, and see how they look the same again. Check out our Skilly-do change perception activities like Instant Rainbows to focus on how things change.
  5. Enjoy and cherish your child’s love of fantasy and imaginative play.  Provide your preschooler dress-up toys, scarves, and fun props to act out things in their imaginations.  Skilly-do activities in our Pure Imagination collection are perfect for this purpose.

I hope this information about the your little one's preoperational stage will benefit both you and your preschooler.  Let us know how you found it useful and in what way-- you can give us your feedback right here!  

Check out our Prime Times for Brain Development article to understand even more about your child at this age.  And enjoy your special two’s while they last!