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The "Terrible Twos": 9 Tips For Parents and Swimming Teachers

As your toddler begins to acquire social, motor, cognitive and other more developed skills, they also develop a sense of independence, which comes with some great opportunities as well as some significant challenges.

Since this age group have yet to develop self-regulation or an ability to make sensible cognitive decisions, they tend to get upset and cry when they don’t get what they want (the infamous temper tantrums), experience frequent mood changes, exhibit defiance, and constantly test the limits you set for them.

For this reason this stage in a toddler's life (typically between around 18mts and 30mts) is referred to as the "terrible twos" and can be particularly challenging to parents, caregivers, and educational figures such as swim teachers.

For swim teachers, who typically only see their young students once a week for just half an hour during swimming lessons, navigating new behaviours and habits, as their parents and other caregivers will confirm, can be quite a demanding task and keeps us on our toes.

Understanding what our toddler is experiencing and applying intentional and thoughtful management mechanisms by considering our teaching and parenting style can help us manage challenging situations while keeping our sanity.

Furthermore, it can contribute significantly to our child's development as it encourages a healthy relational bond and builds healthy attachment, which in turn can translate to lifelong emotional wellbeing.

a blond toddler is sitting in a blue water bucket splashing outside

Your tiny teenager

Around age two (and of course this varies between children), your toddler begins to realise that they are a separate entity to you.

This stage is sometimes referred to as “early puberty”, when toddlers exercise their new found control over their surroundings and when their new vocabulary consists mainly of the word “No!” and the phrase “Don’t want to!”.

It will be very surprising to find a parent or caregiver of a toddler around this age who has not experienced the exhausting moment when their cute little munchkin drops to the shop's floor crying, screaming, kicking and rolling around.

a young girl with red shoes is lying on a grocery shop floor

You might also recognise the following symptoms: constantly being on the go, hitting and/or biting their friends and caregivers, refusing to listen to the rules, to take a shower, to go to sleep, eat, tidy up, get dressed, stay dressed, go to day-care, and the list goes on...

By this age, most children know how to walk by themselves, eat by themselves, talk, draw, get dress, get undress, go up the stairs, run, climb, build a tower of cubes, thread beads, and more.

The very fact that the toddler discovers that they are able to demonstrate impressive motor skills almost like an adult, along with their emotional, social and cognitive development, makes the child want to try more and more things.

They are extremely curious and often feel proud when they gain new knowledge and skills.

They begin to show suspicion and see themselves as an independent individual who highly trusts themselves.

As we know however, the reality is that toddlers are not yet really like adults.

The system responsible for regulating feelings, and the ability to make cognitive choices, has not yet completed its course of development.

Therefore, every time toddlers encounter a refusal, a disappointment, a difficulty, or a situation where they are forced to follow some rules and postpone satisfaction, they tend to express their frustration in one of the following ways:

  • Crying

  • Anger

  • Rage attacks

  • Shouting

  • Stubbornness

  • Domineering

  • Argumentativeness

  • Incessant use of words and sentences such as: "No", "Don't want", "You don't decide about me", "Enough", "By myself", etc...

A toddler with dark hair and eyes is crossing his hands pouting while looking straight at the camera

The fine line between ensuring your toddler's safety and allowing them to explore their independence and new abilities

Around this development stage, the child wants to feel several things:

  • That they are able to exercise independence

  • That they have unlimited choices

  • That they have control over their environment and situations

  • That they are in charge

  • That they are the centre of the universe

Of course these are not always possible, as in reality parents and caregivers are responsible to the toddler's well-being and safety, and that is where many situations become challenging.

Simple interactions that used to be simple and pleasant, suddenly turn into constant battles.

How we respond and the thought we put into managing our toddler, can make our and their life easier, most of the time.

The task for swim teachers to get toddlers to participate in activities that promote their learning and acquisition of specific aquatic skills takes extra considerations and sensitivities, and knowledge in current children’s psychological sciences.

Being aware and prepared, skilfully and flexibly adjusting to situations, keeping activities fun and engaging, and responding with consistency, are some key techniques.

So how do we make sure our toddler is safe, happy, and doing what we want them to, most of the time?

9 Tips To Help Manage The 'Terrible Twos'

1. Don't take it personally.

Remember that the child is not testing us personally, but boundaries and rules while they exert their new found power of controlling their environment and expressing independence.

The tantrums of a toddler stem from the child's desire to feel independent and in control, but it is also their way of testing limits, especially with us, and they learn from the way we respond.

As mentioned up top, the way we respond, our parenting style, teaching approach, and efforts in ensuring a healthy attachment, can both help us parents, caregivers, and swim teachers manage challenging behaviours more easily. Moreover, this has lifelong outcomes for the little humans. So be aware of your own responses.

2. Don't cave in.

Clear boundaries.

Consistency is key.

It is helpful to set clear boundaries and to reinforce them with consistency.

Standing our ground in the face of tantrums, crying, shouting, etc.., rather than reacting differently each time will discourage the toddler from continuing to test the behaviours.

A child will continue to try these behaviours until they receive a clear and consistent response.

Children learn what works and what doesn’t work by observing our behaviours and reactions. We can show our toddlers that negative behaviours, lack of listening, and violation of boundaries will not work in their favour.

Doing the hard groundwork and remaining firm will pay off in the long run. When you give in to tantrums - it usually only makes it harder next time.

a man with black hair and a young girl with black hair are brushing their teeth in front of a mirror

3. Use redirection.

Try to kindly redirect the child and find distractions with something that can calm them down, peak their interest, and make them forget why they started crying in the first place.

Avoid lengthy explanations about why it's not ok to behave a certain way as your child might not understand and become overwhelmed, especially while crying and feeling upset. Instead, use simple verbal or physical redirection to help them focus on something else, calm the nervous system, or lose interest in the power play.

See "Strategies for Dealing With a Tantrum" ... What Are the Terrible Twos?

two men are holding up a little girl who is wearing a Pink dress by the hands while smiling outside

4. Praise positive behaviour.

Many times the child tries to get our attention through negative behaviour. If successful, the child will keep using the same strategy. We shouldn’t give it permission nor ignore it, but express that this is not the way to do it and continuously reinforce positive behaviour.

Positive behaviour should be encouraged and praised, especially when the child chooses positive over negative.

5. Stay calm.

Try not to react in harsh or aggressive ways such as making threats or punishments, as these may escalate the situation. Instead, try to respond in a calm and confident manner.

Remember, your child is also watching your every move, so mirror the kind of behaviours you want to instil in them.

Invest in learning breathing techniques to help yourself avoid a meltdown, and to be able to respond in a calm, confident and empathetic manner.

Take a moment, count to 10, breath deeply, before reacting to a challenging situation.

A pregnant mother and her young daughter are sitting on a yoga mat putting the palm of their hands together while looking at each other

7. Emotional support and education.

A bear hug has the gentle power of soothing, so when the child really loses control sometimes all that is needed is a strong and enveloping hug to calm down disproportionate behaviour and extreme upset emotions.

"Being able to understand the world from the child’s perspective helps... anticipate, interpret and respond to the child’s behaviour in ways that build a child’s capacity to regulate their emotions"... Yes, the ‘terrible twos’ are full-on – but let’s look at things from a child’s perspective"

Validating your child's feelings and helping them to recognise and identify them, why they feel this way, and helping them realise feelings are a passing thing, can help them gain self regulation skills and emotional awareness.

Teaching yourself and your child breathing and self soothing techniques go a long way for everyone's wellbeing.

a woman with black hair is hugging a little boy who has his eyes closed

8. Limited and simple choices while empowering your child to exert their control and independence.

We are the parents and the educators, hence we have the responsibility of making decisions for children, and not the other way around.

In the human brain, different systems and parts develop at a different stages.

New-borns have a very developed lower brain, which means that from the moment they are born they are flooded with very strong feelings and emotions.

These feelings are strong but the lower brain does not know how to name or deal with them.

This is the role of the upper brain which is responsible for such functions as logical thinking, strategic abilities, emotional regulation, decision-making and planning.

The upper brain experiences a significant leap of development at the age of 4-5 years, but completes it’s development only towards our mid-20s.

This is why teenagers often have poor judgement, since in addition to the hormones they are flooded with, their brains simply haven't finished developing.

When we present toddlers with too many options and choices it can overwhelm their lower brain system and send signals to the adrenal gland to produce stress hormones. As a result toddlers may express strong emotions.

It is therefore helpful to encourage and guide toddlers towards the choice we want them to make rather than asking them what they want to do.

For example, instead of asking open ended questions such as "what would you like to eat?" ask them to pick between two choices that you decide on such as banana or strawberries. This allows the child to still have a sense of control and empowerment, but within the bounds of your parental guidance.

a young boy with curly blond hair and red shirt is flexing his hand muscles

9. You are not alone! This too shall pass.

All parents face the same challenges when their child is at this stage. Most parents may feel embarrassed around other people when their child throws a tantrum, or feel as if they are failing.

If you slip up, remind yourself that you are human and doing your best, and that being able to navigate these challenges takes practice and patience with both your little human as well as yourself.

Lastly, this stage won't last forever. At some point you will likely have a more capable and reasonable child and things will look different.

Aquanat swim school logo in colour with water reflection

In our parents and toddler classes at Aquanat, we endeavour to do our best to help empower parents and their little swimmers.

Getting little ones to acquire aquatic skills takes awareness and practising the above along with other educational methods in combination of professional swim instruction methods.

As much as it is one of the most challenging ages to work with, we are also grateful for the learning opportunities and fun experiences with this energetic age, as it keeping us constantly improving our teaching approach and techniques.


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