Q&A: sensitive 2-year-olds

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Karla writes:

"My kids are extremely crabby.  We stayed at a friend's house this weekend. They have a two year old son.  My boys are also two.  Our friend's boy (let's call him Jake), not knowing how to play, would growl at our sons, try to tackle them, and sometimes push them (all things his football coach dad had taught him to do).  My sons cried (screamed) with ALL of their might any time this kid came near them.  The weekend was horrible, because my sons were SO sensitive.  My friend DID tell her son not to push, etc. but when it DID happen again anyway, I was embarrassed by how wimpy my kids were being. We tried showing our sons that Jake was playing.   We tried to teach them to growl back when he growled, etc.  Or tickle him when he pushed.  They were happy to do so when we were right by them, but screamed hysterically when we were not present when the incident occured again.

Besides that and outside of the weekend, our boys are just crabby kids.  I don't think that it is because we spoil them.  I don't hold them all of the time, although you would think so with the constant demands of "COME! Wahhhah!  COME!" or "UP!"  "Cereal! MORE! Wahaha!" The kids cry almost all day long, unless I am RIGHT there playing with them.  I don't believe that a mom should spend every second with her kids all day.  I have things to get done, dinner to make, laundry to do, etc.  How do you teach your kids to be content when their mom is not right next to them, comforting them in their toddler despair?  I did read your post on whining (for a 3 year old, i think?), and you said to put them in their room until they have calmed down.  I have done that to some extent.  Not in their room, but at the end of a hallway, away from all of us.  It totally works while they are there, but as soon as the kid is allowed back into the family, he is screaming and begging to be picked up again."

Your poor kids! It must have been awful for them to be around Jake for so long. He really sounds scary.

I'd say he sounds "out of control," but it sounds like his dad wants him to act that way and is creating this behavior (so it's very much controlled behavior). I wonder what his father thinks is going to happen when all the other kids are scared to be around his son. 2-year-olds are prone to violence anyway (because they have a hard time processing and communicating their frustration), so parents really need to be on top of things and help their kids work through their negative feelings without hurting anyone. The father is not helping his son in any way by encouraging him to tackle and push down other kids. (And growling at them?! What's with that?! I really wonder about this father's thought process.)

I think your children acted perfectly appropriately by screaming and trying to get away from him. They really shouldn't have to spend any time with a kid who's being trained to be a bully by his parents. Jake is essentially the equivalent of a big, scary dog, so they were really just trying to protect themselves by getting away from the danger.

That said, I think you did the right thing by trying to let them know that he was trying to play with them. It's important to help kids formulate a response to things they think are scary, and helping them turn it into a game is a good technique. Unfortunately, Jake was probably way too aggressive for them to be able to deal with for more than a few minutes at a time, and they certainly couldn't deal with him alone. But it's a good thing to teach your kids to take a situation they find scary and try to find a way to master it for themselves. It's not going to happen overnight, but if you keep helping them with taking control back from a bully, eventually they'll be able to to it for themselves.

About the "crabbiness," I think you're expecting too much of kids that young, honestly.

2-year-olds are incredibly needy creatures. They need almost constant interaction, so even when they're playing "by themselves," they're still asking you to look at what they're doing, and talk to them, and answer endless "Why?"s and hug them, pick them up, stack the Legos, make Percy go around the track, etc. It's a normal part of that stage and does not mean that they're especially needy. It's totally normal, and you shouldn't be trying to push them to be more independent than they can be, if only because it won't work and it'll just make you more frustrated.

This age is right smack dab in the middle of the fight for autonomy. They're doing this odd little dance between independence and clinginess, freedom and safety. By picking them up when they ask for it, you're giving them the security to be able to walk away from you. If you refuse to pick them up in hopes that it will make them more independent, it will actually backfire on you by making them want to be with you even more.

You've probably heard the old rubber band analogy before, but I'll trot it out again because it's just so illustrative of what happens with toddlers (and boyfriends, frankly). Essentially, a toddler's need for connection is like a rubber band, with the toddler holding one end and you holding one end. There needs to be just a slight amount of tension there, but not too much, for the toddler's emotional needs to be met. If you pull away, the rubber band gets stretched too tight, and the toddler will try to get closer to you to get the right amount of distance. If you give the toddler all the closeness s/he seeks, the toddler will then be able to pull away from you and be more independent to maintain the right tension.

So it's counterintuitive, but the way to get your kids to be more independent is to give them all the attention and closeness and carrying they want.

The problem, of course, is that you have stuff you have to get done. This is where it starts to get a little messy, because the best thing to do with 2-year-olds is to let them help you with everything. Yes, this is extremely annoying. Yes, it's going to take twice as long to do everything, if you're lucky. Yes, you are going to want to start drinking at noon. But the good news is that if you just suck it up now, in a few years they'll be really good at all the chores and fully trained. Seriously. My 4-year-old can make a pizza by himself, with just a little assistance from me. He can also put in a load of laundry, although I have to lift him up so he can put the quarters in the slot (we have a shared machine in our building). And he's at least as good at Broom-Vac'ing the living room as I am by now.

There are times when it makes my blood boil (and I'm not sure that's even a metaphor) to have my son help because it's like pulling teeth. But I just keep my eyes on the long-term goal, which is to raise independent kids who know how to do all household chores and just expect to do them. I feel like I'm taking the hit now so my future children-in-law won't be partnered with domestic incompetents.

I guess what I'm saying is that there's no way you can change your kids, so you're going to have to adjust your own expectations to be more realistic for their developmental stage. They're so much needier than we think they should be at this age. After all, they're so big and can talk so well. but they're still just babies, and they need as much closeness and contact as we can give them now so that they can move away from us when they're ready.

And maybe you shouldn't do anymore overnights with Jake until his dad has figured out that he shouldn't be training his son to act like an untrained dog. It's hard to deal with our friends' lack of parenting skills sometimes (but that's another post entirely).