Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 2-year-old child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and daily routines provide a perfect opportunity.
Routines not only help your family move through the day smoothly and on time, they can have a significant impact on your child’s success. Two-year-olds are learning about their world, trying to make sense of how things work, and exploring what the boundaries are. Routines can provide structure and repetition that makes their world easier to understand. Routines can be especially helpful to support transitions from one activity or place to another. Transitions can be some of the most difficult times for two-year-olds to manage their behavior, and routines can make these times less challenging.1
The steps below include specific and practical strategies to help you develop routines and use them to build a relationship with your child that includes reliable and unconditional support and love, especially when they need you the most.
Establishing regular routines can help your family get through the day cooperatively while building vital skills in your child. Routines can help to develop your child’s sense of security and their confidence.2 Routines can help them feel safe because they know what to expect and are more able to learn from the rich experiences you have together every day. When there are changes to the routine – expected and unexpected – this will also help your child learn to be flexible and practice adjusting to new situations.
Today, in the short term, routines can create
- structure to ease stress and increase cooperation and motivation as you go about your daily tasks;
- feelings that your child can make sense of their world;
- a sense of mastery when your child repeats routines and knows what to expect; and
- added daily peace of mind!
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child
- develops a sense of safety, security, and confidence;
- builds skills to handle unexpected challenges in life;
- builds skills in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision making; and
- deepens family trust and intimacy.
This five-step process helps you and your child in developing routines together. It also builds important critical life skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
Two-year-olds are highly active, exploring their environment and everything in it. They are adding new words to their vocabulary regularly but do not yet know how to name their big feelings. Frustrations with not being understood may result in them losing control more frequently. Despite your child’s new ability to use words, continue to pay close attention to their facial expressions, movements, and sounds in order to work on understanding what they are trying to communicate. Your effort to learn from your child will create empathetic interactions that let them know that you are interested in what they are thinking. This will make a big difference as you develop routines together. In becoming sensitive to the nuances of your child’s verbal and nonverbal expressions, you
- are responding to their needs;
- are growing their trust in you, sense of safety, and sense of healthy relationships;
- are growing motivation for you and your child to work together;
- are deepening your ability to communicate with one another;
- are growing their ability to advocate for themselves if they need to return to a routine or get more support to manage changes throughout the day; and
- are modeling empathy and problem-solving skills.
- Consider your routines throughout the day – morning, mid-day, and bedtime. Creating routines around wakeup time, mealtime, naptime, bedtime, trips back and forth to child care, checking the mailbox, and going to the grocery store can make these times predictable, comforting, and fun for your child. Involve your child in creating routines around these common times by asking questions.
- If your nighttime routine includes giving your child a bath, brushing their teeth, reading a bedtime story, and singing a lullaby every night before going to bed, you could ask your child: “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?” “What song would you like me to sing before you fall asleep?”
- Each time there is an opportunity, ask your child, “How do you feel? How do you think I feel?” Two-year-olds do not yet have an emotional vocabulary and are not able to describe their body sensations when they are upset or dealing with any big feeling. Changes in their routines are a great place to explore feelings, but they will need your support to be successful.
- For example, if your child is making a disagreeable facial expression, notice and name the feeling. “I noticed that when I told you we were going to do something different today, your eyebrows squished down and your face was red. Were you feeling mad?”
- Practicing naming emotions will enable your child to identify their own feelings as well as others and seek support when they need it. This can help reduce the length and strength of tantrums as your child gains emotional competence.
- When reading books, point out routines that seem comforting and moments when those routines changed. Talk about what you notice. “I noticed the duck in this story likes to go with her mom to get the mail everyday” or “The duck seems scared to try something different.”
Your child will give you lots of cues about whether the routines you develop feel too complicated or too simple and if they are being followed consistently enough for your child to feel a sense of security. Every child is different, and your own child may change from day-to-day in how willing they are to follow a routine or how much help they need to manage planned and unplanned changes in routines.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, there is a lot to learn about understanding your child’s rhythms, temperaments, and needs. Because of all this learning, you will make mistakes and even poor choices. How you handle those moments can determine how you help build your child’s ability to stick with routines and to handle change. Offering yourself the grace and permission to not be perfect can ease your anxiety in responding to your child’s needs. Learning about developmental milestones can help you better understand what your child is going through.3
- Two-year-olds are starting to see themselves as their own unique, individual person. They develop the understanding that they can have their own thoughts and feelings and someone else could have different thoughts and feelings. This is key for beginning to empathize with a thought or feeling that is different from their own such as, “Why is my friend sad because I got to eat all of the cookies?”
- Two-year-olds are eager to engage in imaginative play and, at times, cooperative play with other children. Children gain vital practice with all of their developmental milestones through play.
- Two-year-olds can show defiant behavior and test boundaries as they learn about the rules and attempt to understand your values.
- Two-year-olds can recognize common feelings like happiness, sadness, and anger.
- Two-year-olds may begin to experience separation anxiety when you leave them.
- Two-year-olds can imagine what response might be appropriate or comforting in a particular situation.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Narrate your daily routines. As you prepare lunch at home or go shopping together at the store, talk about what you are doing each step of the way. Involve your child by asking questions. For example, “I am getting lunch ready. I think we’ll have milk with our lunch. Does that sound yummy to you?”
- Make your thinking and feelings explicit. Talk about what you notice, how you are feeling, and why you are feeling it. “I love that we always start our morning with a big hug and then eat eggs for breakfast together. It is my favorite time of the day. It feels so good that I always know that when I wake up we will do our good morning routine together. Do you remember when we ran out of eggs and we had to eat cereal for breakfast? I like our usual egg breakfasts, but it was fun to try something different.”
- Talk aloud about the ways in which you respond to your own big feelings: “I was a little scared when our plans changed, but everything worked out, and I feel so much better now.”
- Grow confidence. In addition to having consistent daily routines with your child, point out when they are following the routine on their own and when they are able to manage changes in the routine: “I noticed that you knew we needed to wash our hands before eating lunch.” When something is different you might say, “I noticed that you knew your favorite blanket was in the wash and you just picked up a different one to cuddle with. You knew how to handle that change.”
- If your child is worried about a change, for example, and uses definitive language like, “No,” you may respond with:
- “This is something different, and I know we can do it.”
- “Do you remember last time when we didn’t have your favorite pajamas, and you had to wear something different to bed? You took a deep breath and were able to do it.”
- “I wonder if we can do something that will help us feel better?”
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Routines, and Develop Habits
Your daily routines are opportunities for your child to practice new vital skills if you seize those chances. With practice, your child will improve over time as you give them the chance with support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child works hard toward a goal or demonstrates belief in themselves.
Practice also provides important opportunities to grow self-efficacy – a child’s sense that they can do a task successfully. This leads to confidence. It helps them understand that mistakes and failures are part of learning.
When experiencing daily routines, it is important to practice noticing how comfortable it feels to know what to expect and follow the routine. It is also important to plan ahead for expected changes in the routine and to talk about how hard it can be when unexpected changes occur. Help your child develop strategies for handling change and remind them that their trusted adults are always there to help.
- Learn about your child’s development. Each new age presents different challenges. Being informed about your child’s developmental milestones promotes your empathy and patience.
- Engage in routines together like picking up toys before snacktime or hanging up your coats when you come inside. Allow your child to engage with you in routines.
- Be sure to consider how you can create the conditions to support their success like having them practice routines alongside you. “I like to put my coat on a hanger in the closet. Would you like to put your coat right beside mine?”
- Initially, practice may require more teaching, but avoid taking over and doing it for your child.
- Once your routines feel comfortable and consistent, provide opportunities for your child to change the routine. “I’ve noticed that we really enjoy reading bedtime stories together and we have enough time to read more than one book. Do you think we should start reading two books before going to bed?” The goal is to feel a sense of security from being able to predict what happens each day, but to also feel comfortable with change.
- Use your child’s dolls or stuffed animals to act out your routine, especially if it is new or if it is changing. This is a good way to practice mastering the steps of the routine. If you know a change is coming up you can act out that change with dolls and stuffed animals so that your child can begin to experience what that change will feel like.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you are developing routines and talking about them with your child so they can learn how to stick to the plan of their usual routine and be flexible enough to manage changes. Parents and those in a parenting role naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Use “Show me…” statements and ask them to demonstrate how they can work through a routine with you. “Let’s put on our pajamas to get ready for bed. Can you show me which pajamas you want to wear?” Offer support so your child can be successful.
- Don’t move on quickly if your child shows interest in trying something new. Children often need more time to stick with a challenge or pursue a goal. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to gain skills over time.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: “I noticed how you picked a book for us to read as part of our bedtime routine.”
- On days with extra challenges, routines can feel especially comforting. When the house is full of visitors, and there are a lot of changes in your normal routine, still follow your morning routines like singing your good morning song or taking a walk around the neighborhood using the same path you normally use. This will help your child feel confident even with new people, and they will feel less stressed because they will know what to expect.
- Actively reflect on how your child is feeling when they have mastered a routine or when they are facing a change. You can offer reflections like:
- “I see you have grabbed the book you want to read before bed. You know exactly what to expect next.” Naming their success will help to build confidence.
- “There is a new person reading the book at storytime today. You can sit with me until you feel comfortable if you want to.” Noticing your child’s concerns and coming up with strategies for facing them will help your child know that you are there to help them get through this change of plans.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and expanding your child’s self-esteem and confidence. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior you want to see more of. For example, “You helped me to pick up your toys before we had a snack — love seeing that!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you put your shoes by the door, I will give you a sticker” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You put your shoes by the door. I really appreciate that!”
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. “I noticed that you put your socks in the laundry basket when you took them off. That’s very helpful!”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like doing something independently – in order to recognize effort. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them. “You put your blocks in the bin when it was time to clean up. I like seeking that!”
- Build celebrations into your everyday routine. Promote joy and happiness by laughing, singing, dancing, hugging, and snuggling to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, and to work on their relationship skills.