The so-called terrible twos, or toddler tantrums, can be as overwhelming as they are normal. Here’s how to survive the stage.
The “terrible twos” actually refer to a normal stage in a child’s life when they are undergoing big developmental changes. By the age of two, children are learning new gross motor skills, like jumping and climbing, and developing fine motor skills, like stacking blocks and scribbling with a crayon or marker.
However, at this age, a child’s vocabulary and language skills are still very much in the developmental phase. This often translates into frustration or aggression as they don’t have the ability to verbally express how they feel or what they want.
During this time, your child may also bounce between wanting to constantly be with you and experimenting with their desire for independence and trying out new skills. Children will present parents with these challenges at 18 months, with many putting it on full display by their second year of life.
If you want to know what to expect during the terrible twos and if your child’s behaviour is normal, you’ve come to the right place.
Toddler behaviour and the terrible twos
The toddler years are a time of deep fundamental learning. New experiences are happening on a moment-to-moment basis, many of which a two-year-old child doesn’t have the physical or verbal ability to deal with.
Children may not know why they can’t climb a tree, use that cooking knife you’re using or why they can’t eat what you have. This can build up intense feelings which can result in tantrums. Essentially, they are trying to mentally compute, communicate and do so many things at once, and it gets all a bit too hard for a little child. The tears start flowing and so does the screaming and the rolling on the ground. The whole process gets even worse if your toddler is sick (which is often), because the mood swings can get even more dramatic.
All of these are normal behaviours for a child.
With love, care and age-appropriate communication, you can help them understand that they are safe and loved. This can be one of the most soothing techniques they need and we’ll show you how below.
Will it take away all the tantrums? Maybe not, but being angry alongside your angry toddler only generates more confusion and big feelings for the both of you.
What is a temper tantrum?
Temper tantrums usually present with the following symptoms:
- uncontrolled frustration, crying or anger
- emotional outbursts
- throwing things
Of course, tantrums are bad behaviour and they are not how you want your child to interact with others. But the normal trajectory for children is that with growth and development, they will eventually start to use their words to communicate, instead of negative emotional outbursts and actions.
How to respond to a tantrum
The best thing to do is take a deep breath and try to respond rather than react. Think about what your child may be trying to communicate. Are they hungry, tired or sick? Perhaps they are angry because they can’t complete a task or confused because something is just not working? Are they scared or do they feel threatened?
This can be easier said than done, but it can make all the difference to the situation. Imagine how you feel as an adult—when you’re run-down, full of anxiety and stressed out of your wits. Everything has hit all at once. You turn to your spouse, crying and flustered, and pour out one of the biggest hurricanes of the decade. And instead of yelling, telling you off or demanding that you go away, they put an arm around your shoulder and say, “I hear you. It must be tough. I’m with you in this. We’ll get through this together. Everything is going to be OK.” How would that make you feel?
Wow! Relief! Someone hears me and has empathy for how I’m feeling.
Of course, after you have calmed down, you realise that you overreacted and really could have handled things better, but boy, did it help to be heard and loved in that moment.
That’s what your child needs. It may look like they’re overreacting—probably because they are—but they may also be trying to tell you, “Hey! Right now I’m angry because that kid stole my toy for the 10th time and I’m absolutely starving.” Of course, all you see is biting, screaming and kicking.
This doesn’t mean you reward tantrums, laugh them off or excuse them. It’s very important to try to connect with your child calmly and lovingly, in a way which communicates empathy and safety. Being patient with your child and with yourself will help alleviate further escalation.
Redirecting their attention (a.k.a distracting) can also be a great way to help them regain control of their emotions.
Don’t treat your child kindly in public and then lose your temper with them in private. This will communicate to them that you are not trustworthy and they will not want to communicate with you in private.
If you need space to cool down, either send your toddler (or you!) for some time-out. This will allow you to compose yourself and then appropriately respond to them.
How to reduce tantrums
Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t need to respond to tantrums at all? There are ways to help your child have fewer tantrums, or at least, less severe ones.
Food is one of the biggest factors when considering your child’s mood. The timing of meals as well as the type of food your child is eating is very important. Your child’s meal times should be no longer than 4–5 hours apart, with a small snack in-between if needed. The most important foods at mealtime are protein, fat and fibre, along with a serving of carbohydrates (unprocessed as possible).
The problem with a lot of kids’ meals is that they are carbohydrate dense, with very little of anything else. As carbohydrates are not a long-term stable energy source, a meal made up of white crackers, cheese and tomato will only last for a very short time. Your child will soon be “starving” and demanding more food.
As a general rule of thumb, if most of your child’s meals are pale or white-coloured (rice, bread, crackers, cheese, potatoes, chips, pasta) you can expect them to not meet their nutritional requirements, which can mean a hungry, grumpy kid.
Everyone works better if they have a regular schedule and know what is happening throughout their day. Your child should have fixed meal, snack and sleep times. This helps to avoid tired or hunger tantrums. If you find your child having a full-blown tantrum at 3 pm, it may be because you’ve missed snack time or nap time. Children should also have regular quality time with their parents or caregivers, to develop healthy relationships and bonding.
It is very important for young children to feel safe in their home environment. Children who are living in homes where aggressive behaviour, yelling or violence are present are much more likely to have regular tantrums due to feeling scared and unsafe. It is also important to childproof your home so that you don’t have to barter with your child over dangerous items. Remember you must teach a child what is safe and what isn’t. You cannot expect them to simply understand why they can’t touch a cooking knife; you must teach them about it.
Children who are left alone for long periods in their cots crying inconsolably and rarely getting affection or deep connection with their parents or caregivers, will also be more likely to have tantrums due to feeling physically and emotionally abandoned.
If a child is regularly sick, cold, running a fever or left in wet or soiled clothing, they will feel very uncomfortable and be much more prone to emotional outbursts. Ensure your child has a comfortable temperature (not higher than 37°C), and adjust their clothing and the heat of the home as needed. If your child is regularly sick, you should ascertain whether their nutritional needs are being met, and if they have any allergies, consult a GP, paediatrician or nutritionist.
Taking away the noise
Childhood is a beautiful time, full of discovery and learning, with new things happening all the time. There is also a lot of noise going on in their little heads. A big part of your job as a parent is to help lessen the noise and confusion by providing limited options.
Try saying things like:
- “Do you want an apple or an orange?” instead of “What do you want to eat?”
- “Would you like a cup of water before dinner or after?” instead of “Can you please drink this?”
- “Would you like your red shirt or the blue one?” instead of “Get dressed now.”
During the early years, it is important to support their independence to promote your toddler’s development. They need a sense of responsibility and a healthy level of confidence in their abilities. If you try to do everything for them, they will feel frustrated and it could result in an unhealthy reliance on you.
Let them be involved in choosing healthy snacks and clothing options, and doing age-appropriate household chores. Children love being able to help and want to feel like they belong and are important people in the family.
It will be OK
Remember, the terrible twos, temper tantrums and bad behaviour don’t define who your child is. Neither does it mean they’re going to be like this for the rest of their lives.
Even when tantrums are happening on a daily basis, every time you go to the grocery store or before every bath, things will get better. Your child’s behaviour is not going to always be this way.
Today, it may look like defiant behaviour, but soon they may be able to tell you they don’t like wearing that jumper because it makes them feel itchy. Right now they may be kicking and biting, but soon they will be able to communicate in words that they don’t like it when someone stomps on their sandcastle.
So long as you have set a healthy environment and are taking care of your child’s physical and emotional needs, as well as correcting and communicating what healthy behaviour looks like, your toddler’s behaviour will get better. By following the tips above, it is possible to turn the terrible twos into the terrific twos.
Your child’s development is unique and if you have any concerns, reach out to your paediatrician.
Are you ready for the full-on fours?
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