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The "Terrible Two's"

QUESTION: I am the single mother of a two-year-old daughter who seems to be going through the "terrible twos." I do not believe in spanking and time outs do not seem to help. I am also under a great deal of stress and pressure at my job. Could you please suggest some ways that I can effectively deal with this phase that we are both going through?

ANSWER: You are parenting on your own and experiencing job pressure -- two stressors that are overly challenging by themselves. Mothering a two year old presents an additional challenge that is putting you "over the edge."

First, it is important to understand the nature of two-year-old development. The fact that your daughter is resisting you is a sign that she feels secure enough in her relationship with you to test it. Her job is to see what kind of independence she is capable of at this time.

Setting limits includes taking toys away if she throws them, carrying her across a street if she refuses to hold your hand and walk safely, or putting her in the car seat despite her protestations. The expectation for enforcing physical limits can help parents accept, rather than react to these outbursts. Your daughter actually needs these experiences to internalize rules. She is testing her independence, and needs to experience the boundaries safely within the context of your relationship. While it is her job to test, it is your job to non-emotionally enforce.

The key skill you may need to develop is the ability to not react emotionally to her screaming, in this way not reinforcing it. Consider having a handy response to these situations, like, "You can cross the street on your own while holding my hand or you can be carried." As a routine, count slowly from one to three, indicating that she has this time to consider her choices. By the time you get to "three," you may consider repeating her choices to her. When she predictably screams in response, simply carry her across, explaining calmly, through her protestations, that she needs to hold your hand and walk on her own, or be carried. This action itself is the consequence. There is no need for a time out. She will gradually learn her choices within the context of your rules, if your explanations remain consistent, fully spoken and unemotional. She will begin to predict your reactions and sooner or later decide to cooperate on her own.

It may also be helpful to consider indulging her in doing appropriate things more independently whenever possible. Using a spoon to feed herself or watering the garden holding a hose by herself may be somewhat messy, but will allow her some outlet to experience the need for greater independence.

Secondly, realize that you are under stress and need support. It will be hard for you to give her the emotional buffer she needs during this challenging period of development if you do not have one yourself! Join a support group for single parents in which you can share your struggles with others in similar situations to your own.

Develop agreements, if possible, to call a close relative or friend when you have had a particularly stressful interaction with your child. Knowing you will have someone to talk to about it later, will help you react with neutral limit setting behavior that does not escalate the interaction between your daughter and yourself. Eventually, she will learn to accept these limits more cooperatively. Parental stress hotlines may also be available in you county as a free resource to help you discharge the tensions you are feeling from absorbing these outbursts.

Develop friendships for long-term support. Devote time on the weekends and in the evenings for soothing yourself, too. Hot baths, writing in a journal or talking on the phone to a friend can relieve stress at the end of the day. Be sure that you are scheduling these important self-care activities into your daily and weekly schedule. They will benefit your daughter, as well as yourself!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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