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July 11, 2016

As your baby moves into toddlerhood from around 15 months, they’ll begin to experience developmental milestones that can simply seem like downright difficult behaviour. Jai Breitnauer explains the eight most common signs. 

1. Your child has no sense of danger; climbing (and jumping off) everything

“Two year olds have very limited depth and height perception,” says Gill Connell from Moving Smart. “They’re discovering the world isn’t flat, they’re learning about gravity, and jumping is one of the ways they learn to do this.” Your child doesn’t realise leaping off the sixth step is dangerous, they just want to see if they can do it. Gill says it’s important to be mindful of how we respond to this behaviour – saying ‘No’ may instill a sense of fear and a reluctance to try new things. “Instead, say something like, ‘What happens if Mummy jumps off there?’ and then pretend to roll. Then say, ‘I wonder how we can do that safely?’ and change the parameters together. This way you are identifying the danger, problem solving as a team, and helping your child feel courageous when they achieve the jump safely.”

 2. They never sit still

Young children can’t sit still because they’re in the process of developing their balance. “We aren’t born with good balance,” says Gill. “As children grow and develop they engage in movement patterns such as rolling, spinning and being upside down, which helps them to develop their vestibular system.”  Balance underpins everything, including coordination. Being still is the most advanced form of balance. Give your child opportunities to challenge their sense of balance – to swing, explore being in an upside down position, walk on their hands and roll along the floor or down slopes. Don’t restrict them from doing something they’re hard-wired to do. “This rough play is actually calming for them,” says Gill.

 3. They’re always breaking things or knocking their friends over 

Two-year-olds have neither the maturity nor enough experience to adjust their muscle strength automatically. They don’t realise that pushing down hard on a crayon can break it, or that a running hug might flatten a friend. “It’s important to give your children an opportunity to experiment with adjusting muscle strength,” explains Gill. Tying a rope to a toy truck so they can pull it around the garden is a good way to do this, as is using play-dough or activities where you need to ‘bang’ things, like carpentry.

 4. They hurt you

“The limbic system is where emotion is located in the brain and is very underdeveloped in a two-year-old,” says Gill. “They simply can’t comprehend that they’ve hurt you because they have a very limited sense of empathy – they’re all ‘me, me me’.” They have no conception of feelings, what they are and what they mean. But Gill suggests that you still approach the situation sternly. “Make sure you tell them exactly what the problem is. For example, ‘That hurt because you pulled Mummy’s hair too hard’. Just realise they aren’t fully capable of understanding what that means yet. Empathy comes later.”

 5. They don’t like going to bed at night

“Two-year-olds are clever,” says Kirsten Taylor, founder of SleepDrops. “They will have started to notice that you don’t go to bed when they do. They might also have a sibling who stays up late, or a parent who comes home from work after bedtime. They simply don’t want to miss out.” Kirsten places the emphasis here on routine, and eliminating factors that might stimulate your child. “We normally wouldn’t recommend any technology use within two hours of bedtime, but if saying good night to a parent that is out will help, then a quick Skype could be the answer,” says Kirsten.  “Having a bath is important as the body temperature increase followed by the decrease induces sleepiness. Make the bedroom dark and cosy, keep it at an ambient temperature. Make this a special time together – be it reading or storytelling or a cuddle – make bedtime something to look forward to.”

 6. They still want to nap in the day 

Kirsten is clear that prioritising sleep is essential to a young child’s development. “Sleep underpins all emotional and physical wellbeing,” she says. “It helps the learning brain process the day, boosts the immune system, and keeps everyone happy.” The idea that a child ‘should’ drop a nap is a myth. “Of course it depends on the child and the family, but most children need daily naps until they start school.” Growth spurts and accelerated learning patterns are two common reasons why your almost-two-year old might be crankier than normal, and Kirsten urges parents to take control and manage children’s sleep patterns to make sure they get the optimum amount of rest.

 7. When you ask them to do something, they stamp their foot and say ‘no’

“This is the stage when a child is seeking to define themselves as a separate, autonomous person,” says Dr Jenny Ritchie from Victoria University. “They’re looking to articulate when their needs aren’t being met, and they’ve learned ‘No’ is a powerful word to use.” Jenny suggests that we model the behaviour and language we would like our children to use, teaching them to understand their own emotions, and helping them learn empathy with others. “You can say to them, ‘I understand how you feel, I can see it’s making you sad’,” says Jenny. “Recognise they’re upset and help them to develop a vocabulary that allows them to express their feelings.”  Jenny advises against getting involved in a power struggle as they never end well. “This is a developmental stage for parents too. You are learning that your child is their own person. Try making your request into a game to make it more appealing.”

 8. They throw a tantrum

These are actually about the biochemical response of the immature brain. “Two-year-olds don’t have a good range of coping strategies,” says Jenny. “When they get stressed their hormones override everything and they can’t behave rationally.” Her advice: sit it out. “Soothe them with words or cuddles if they will let you,” she says, “but don’t apply adult values to them by telling them to stop crying or that it’s time to move on.” Jenny also warns against giving in to the fear of being judged by others. “If you’re in a busy supermarket it might be safer to move your child, but otherwise just leave them to calm down. Don’t worry about what others think – focus on your philosophy of parenting with care and respect.”

Expert panel

Gill Connell launched Moving Smart in 1993 to support teachers, parents and extracurricular activity providers to help children learn through play.

Naturopath Kirsten Taylor launched SleepDrops five years ago. A mother herself, she knows how important sleep is to the health, wellbeing and development of children.

Dr Jenny Ritchie is a senior lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Education. She’s a qualified Kindergarten teacher with 25 years in early childhood teacher education

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