How to deal with the 'terrible twos'

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki Stevenson

Nikki is a parenting writer and a mom to three wild boys who keep her on her toes (and occasionally make her question her sanity). With over 15 years of experience in the parenting industry, she has more tips and tricks than Mary Poppins on speed dial. When she's not typing away at her keyboard, you can find her sipping on coffee, hiding in the bathroom for five minutes of...
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Updated on Jul 06, 2024 · 11 mins read
How to deal with the 'terrible twos'

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The terrible twos—a phrase that strikes a chord with every parent. One minute your toddler is sweetly playing, and the next, they’re on the floor in full meltdown mode over the colour of their cup.


It’s tough, exhausting, and, let’s face it, sometimes quite funny in hindsight. But don’t worry, you’re not alone. Almost every parent navigates this tumultuous time, just like almost every toddler struggles with these big feelings they don’t know how to communicate or deal with.

How can we get through it? The short answer: approaching this stage with a desire to empathise with and meet our little ones where they are. But for a little more detail, read on.

Reframing the ‘terrible twos’


The first thing to note is that nothing about this stage makes your toddler ‘bad’ or ‘terrible’. We’ve been throwing around the phrase ‘terrible twos’ for generations now – and (intentionally or not) been pinning the blame on our tiny kid, who’s just trying to make sense of the world.

As parenting coach Faith Hobson told us, “Two-year-olds are simply themselves. They are not good or bad; they just are who they are. How they are described can shape the way they see themselves and the way others interact with them.”

Similarly, an article written in The Conversation by Rochelle Matacz and Lynn Priddis made the point, “The “terrible twos” might sound accurate, but branding toddlerhood (18 months to 36 months) this way is an injustice to this group. The generic label fails to grasp the huge developmental growth happening at this age. It also fails to celebrate the developing emotional life of a toddler, at once complex, multifaceted and exhilarating.”

Instead, they propose using the academically-coined phrase ‘developmental touchpoint’, which speaks to periods in a child’s first years of life where their developmental growth disrupts the family system. The ‘terrible twos’ are just this – a developmental touchpoint, a moment of expansion that might unsettle the status quo we’ve been working with but ultimately lead to our kids becoming more independent and self-expressive.


What might this behaviour look like?


At first glance, this stage is characterised by a mix of your child’s behaviour like apparent defiance, mood swings, and a strong desire for independence.

 Here’s what you might encounter:

  • Temper tantrums: These can range from mild whining to full-blown meltdowns and aggressive behaviour, often triggered by seemingly trivial issues. A simple “no” can sometimes lead to a dramatic outburst.
  • Mood swings: Your toddler’s emotions can change in the blink of an eye. They might be laughing one moment and crying the next, often without a clear reason.
  • Stubbornness: Expect a lot of “no’s” and “I can do it myself!” as your child asserts their independence. They might resist your help or refuse to follow directions.
  • Testing boundaries: This age is all about exploring limits. Your toddler will test boundaries to see how far they can go, which is one of the normal developmental stages.
  • Independence and curiosity: Despite the challenges, developmental science says this stage is also marked by a blossoming sense of independence and curiosity. Your toddler is learning new skills and exploring the world with fresh eyes.

 


Understanding this toddler stage


Seeing things from their perspective is crucial to supporting our toddlers through this developmental touchpoint. So that we can recognise their complex emotions and desires, and handle them with consideration. Remember, all their apparent ‘misbehaviour’ just stems from them growing, learning, and becoming more curious. When we understand that, we can see that they aren’t consciously doing ‘bad’ things. 

They’re going through changes like:

Rapid brain development
At this age, behavioural paediatrics shows your toddler’s brain is developing at an astonishing rate. They’re learning verbal skills and concepts daily. This rapid cognitive growth can be overwhelming for them, leading to frustration when they can’t express themselves or accomplish tasks as they’d like.

Desire for independence
Your toddler is beginning to realise that they are a separate individual from you, with their own desires and preferences. This burgeoning sense of independence often clashes with their limited ability to communicate and control their environment, and they start to challenge authority.

Limited communication skills
While your child’s vocabulary is growing, they might still struggle to express their needs and emotions effectively. This communication gap can lead to frustration and outbursts when they can’t get their point across or feel misunderstood.

Emotional development
Toddlers are also learning to navigate their emotions, which can be intense and unpredictable. They don’t yet have the coping mechanisms to deal with impulse control, anger, disappointment, or fear, so these feelings often manifest as tantrums.

Routine disruptions
Changes in routine or environment can be particularly challenging for toddlers. Whether it’s a new sibling, starting daycare, or moving houses, disruptions can unsettle them and trigger behavioural issues.

Testing boundaries
Part of growing up involves testing limits. Your toddler is figuring out what behaviours are acceptable and what aren’t. This testing is crucial for their development but can be exhausting for parents as they constantly push boundaries to understand the rules.

 

When do the so-called ‘terrible twos’ start?


Despite the name, this stage can start earlier than you might expect and can extend well beyond the second birthday. Here’s a closer look at the timing of this developmental phase:

Early onset
For some children, the signs of this developmental touchpoint can begin as early as 18 months. You might notice increased defiance, frustration, and mood swings. This early onset is completely normal and is a sign that your child is beginning to seek more independence.

The peak
Most commonly, these behavioural changes hit their stride between ages two and three. During this period, you’re likely to see the most intense outbursts and challenging behaviours. This is when toddlers are really testing boundaries and struggling to communicate their needs and emotions effectively.

Extended phase
For some children, these behaviours can continue well into the third year and even beyond. It’s not unusual for the tantrums and frustration to persist as they develop their language skills and emotional regulation. Each child is different, and some kids may take longer to outgrow this phase.

Individual differences
Remember, every child is unique and children develop differently. Some might breeze through this stage with minimal drama, while others might experience more pronounced behaviour changes. Factors such as temperament, environment, and parenting style can all influence the duration and intensity of these growing pains. Our ability to connect with our toddlers and meet their needs (once we understand them) will have a big role.

Do all children go through the ‘terrible twos’?


As we mentioned, this is a well-known phase, but not every child experiences it in the same way. Every child is unique, and their developmental journey can vary widely. Some children might go through it with intense tantrums and defiance, while others might breeze through this stage with only a few sticky moments.

Peer-reviewed studies show consistent, responsive, and supportive parenting can help mitigate some of the more challenging behaviours, while inconsistent or overly harsh discipline can exacerbate them.

Importantly, the environment in which a child grows up can affect their behaviour during this stage. Children who feel safe and secure in their surroundings might handle the challenges of this developmental touchpoint better than those in more stressful or unstable environments.

What constitutes a “normal” toddler tantrum


Tantrums are a perfectly normal part of raising tiny toddlers. Though they’ve long been framed as ‘manipulative’ or ‘bad behaviour’, they’re actually often a sign of unmet needs.

Tantrums often occur when your child is tired, hungry, or overwhelmed. These meltdowns can range from mild whining and crying to intense screaming, kicking, and flailing. The good news is that these outbursts are a healthy way for toddlers to express their frustration and learn to cope with their emotions.

A typical toddler tantrum might include crying, shouting, throwing objects, hitting, or falling to the floor. These behaviours can be alarming, but they are usually short-lived and resolve quickly once the child’s needs are met or the situation is defused. It’s important to remember that toddlers don’t have the language development or emotional regulation abilities to express their feelings calmly, so tantrums are their way of communicating.

Tantrums can be triggered by a variety of factors, such as not getting what they want, being told “no,” or experiencing changes in their routine. In that way, they’re a sign of your child’s growing independence and desire to assert their will.

While tantrums can be challenging, they are a normal part of your child’s development. Responding with patience, consistency, and empathy can help your child learn to navigate their emotions more effectively over time.

How to handle temper tantrums


Dealing with temper tantrums can be one of the most challenging aspects of parenting during the Terrible Twos.

Stay calm
Your reaction sets the tone. Try to remain calm and composed, even when your child is in full meltdown mode. Taking a deep breath, using calming techniques and speaking in a soothing voice can help de-escalate the situation.

Acknowledge their feelings
Let your child know that you understand they are upset. Phrases like “I see that you’re very angry right now” can validate their feelings and help them feel heard. Sometimes, just knowing that you understand can help calm them down.

Keep it short and simple
During a tantrum, your toddler is overwhelmed and unable to process lengthy explanations. Keep your responses brief and to the point. For example, “I know you’re upset. And hitting is not okay.”

Distract and redirect
Sometimes a change of focus can stop a tantrum in its tracks. Distract your child with a toy, a game, or a different activity. Redirecting their attention can help them move on from whatever triggered the tantrum.

Set clear and consistent boundaries
Consistency is key when it comes to managing tantrums. Set clear rules and follow through with consequences calmly. For example, if your toddler throws a toy, calmly explain that throwing is not allowed and remove the toy for a short period.

Use positive reinforcement
Praise your child when they handle a situation well or calm down after a tantrum. Positive reinforcement encourages good behaviour and helps them learn how to manage their emotions better.

Practice patience and empathy“
Remember that tantrums are a normal part of toddler development. Try to be patient and empathetic, understanding that your child is still learning to navigate their emotions. Your calm and supportive response can make a big difference.

Provide comfort after the tantrum““
Once the tantrum is over, offer comfort and reassurance. Hold your child, talk softly, and let them know you love them. This helps them feel secure and understood, which can reduce the frequency of future tantrums.

Use time-ins instead of time-outs
Instead of punishing your toddler with isolation, opt for a time-in. Sit with them, be present with their emotions, and help them organise those big feelings.

Teach emotion regulation skills
Help your toddler learn to identify and express their emotions in healthy ways. Encourage them to use words to describe their feelings and teach them simple coping strategies, like taking deep breaths or counting to ten.

When to seek outside help


While most tantrums are a normal part of normal toddler behaviour and development, there are times when seeking outside help might be necessary:

  • Frequent and intense tantrums: If your child’s tantrums are very frequent, extremely intense, or last for long periods, it might be worth consulting your child’s paediatrician.
  • Self-harm or harm to others: If your child is hurting themselves or others during tantrums, seek professional advice.
  • Developmental concerns: If you notice any delays in your child’s speech, social, or motor skills, it’s important to discuss these with your healthcare provider.
  • Parental stress: If you feel overwhelmed and unable to cope with your child’s behaviour, don’t hesitate to seek support from a therapist or counsellor.

Wrapping it up


The toddler stage is so rich with learning. Our little ones are taking in every corner of the world, while adjusting to these new feelings, curiosities and needs. 

Yes, that might lead to some challenging behaviour. But that doesn’t make a two-year-old ‘terrible.’ By seeing this stage through their eyes, meeting their needs, and responding with empathy and validation – we’re giving them lifelong tools in emotional regulation and communication.

What we do and say matters.

Sources


Priddis, L. and Matacz, R. (2022) The terrible twos are full on but let’s look at things from a child’s perspective, The University of Western Australia. Available at: https://www.uwa.edu.au/news/article/2022/march/the-terrible-twos-are-full-on-but-lets-look-at-things-from-a-childs-perspective

The terrible twos and threes: your child’s behavioural development (2016) The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. Available at: https://www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccchdev/CPR-Vol24-No2-family-info-sheets-combined.pdf

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