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How play time can help a toddler through the terrible twos

Maria is a licensed clinical social worker and a mother of two who has devoted her career to helping new parents make the most of their first moments with baby and beyond.

I know this phase... very well. In fact, most parents I talk to have known this phase. I have two boys who both passed through the "no" phase and I had to be quite creative to work around the resistance. It is a phase prompted by the child's need to assert their independence and test parental boundaries.

It is quite normal and can be a positive period in a child's life when they can develop confidence in their own abilities. Creativity and patience will be required on the part of the parents in order to navigate this phase and all the ones that follow (because rest assured they will go through many more phases).

Your toddler is beginning to see herself as a separate and independent little person. She feels the need to turn away from you and explore the world, but is still afraid to stray too far. She is working on mastering a number of skills including gross motor movements (walking, running, climbing), fine motor movements (grasping small objects with hands), speech and socialization. All of the new skills she is learning and the expectations placed on the toddler to reach her milestones can lead to some frustration and conflict between parent and child. These frustrations and conflicts are normal and expected.

This is an opportunity for parents to take play seriously. Believe it or not, playing with your child on a regular basis can help strengthen your bond with one another. It can also increase positive feelings in both of you, thus helping to ease some of those developmentally normal conflicts. Playing is the best way for your child to practice her new-found skills; walking, grasping, talking and sharing.

Play can also help you to circumvent the troublesome "no" word and turn your toddler's frustration and resistance into contentment and cooperation. Here are some tips for playing with your child:

  • Spend at least 10-15 minutes of one-on-one play time with your child on a daily basis.
  • Let your child direct the play and you follow.
  • Letting your child choose the activity gives her a sense of control over this aspect of her world (his specialty, playing).
  • You may have to do some pretty silly things (like pretending to be a pony); just go with it!
  • Describe what your child is doing so she knows you're paying attention.
  • Try not to quiz your child or ask too many questions (try not to "teach").
  • Use the play as an opportunity to identify feelings.
  • If your child chooses a board game and does not want to play by the rules, it's OK! You can clarify from the start that you’ll be playing a "no rules" game.
  • If your child does not want you to stop playing and you must go, it is important that you remain firm about the time limit and remind your child that you'll play the same way again tomorrow. The more consistent you are in playing with your child, the less resistance you'll experience when it's time for you to stop playing.
  • Most importantly, have fun!
Photo credit: ~Silvinka~/Flickr
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