A Parenting Dialogue: Managing the Terrible Twos
Q: So I need all the help I can get before I pull my hair out and LOSE. MY. MIND.
First some background...My daughter is usually a pretty easygoing kid. Around 18 months, she started showing more signs of autonomy and the temper tantrums/stubbornness that come along with it. It was a little frustrating, but nothing too bad. My naive self thought this was her showing signs of the “terrible twos” at 18 months. I thought if this was all it entailed, then I was good to go. I could handle this!
Fast forward to this past weekend. My daughter will be two in a week, and HOLY COW… it’s like a light switch went off! She cries about everything if it’s not what she wants. She will knock things over and walk into her room, slam the door, then cry. If she notices you’re not coming to get her, she will bring the party to you. I try going down to her eye level and calming her down, but it feels like nothing works. I should add, she isn’t really talking much yet, but she has no trouble making us understand what she wants. The problem is when we don’t comply.
So my question is what do we do? How do we soften these temper tantrums without giving in? I refuse to give in and have a kid who thinks she can throw a tantrum whenever she wants something. How do we survive these terrible twos?? For all I know, this TWOnager is here to stay for a while, so any helpful tips, tricks, and advice are all welcome!
The New Mom
A: How much time does she get outdoors to run and play? My son was the same way unless I got him outside at least a couple of hours a day (didn’t have to be all at once – usually we did 30 minutes at a time). It didn’t matter if the weather was bad, either – he had to be outside every day. Some kids just have a lot more energy and need to get out and run around.
Also, if mine doesn’t get a full 13 hours of sleep a day, he’s a monster, too. If your daughter isn’t getting enough sleep, that may be part of the issue. Mine stopped naps around age two, so we just did an earlier bedtime. He needed that much sleep, and on days he went to bed any later, he was a mess.
I also tried to give my toddler choices on small things when possible. It’s really better to give her options when it comes to things that you don't care about either way. Like, "Do you want the blue dress or the gray one? Broccoli or cauliflower? Pancakes or cereal?”
The other thing I’d say is to pick your battles. I never thought I’d let my kid read books at the table or bring toys to the table, but I really don’t care enough about it at this point to fight about it. It’s not bad behavior, and we can break the habit when he is older. I have just resigned myself to wiping these things down after the meal. It's the only way I have the energy to set boundaries over the things that actually matter.
-- Shawn, mother of one toddler
The Experienced Mother
A: Ahh, the “terrible twos”... First of all, stop asking your toddler a yes-or-no question about something when they don’t really have the option of saying “no.” I see new parents do this a lot, and it drives me crazy! You are the parent, they are the child! In other words, don't ask, "Will you go pick your toys?" You're not making a request. It’s something that needs to happen. Instead, just tell them "Time to pick up your toys! Let's get started, please!" Quit phrasing it as a question. It just gives them the opportunity to tell you no.
As far as your daughter getting mad when you “don’t comply” … I mean, kids need to learn the word “no” at some point. When mine were little, I would say no, and that was it. My favorite phrase I always said to them was "asked and answered." No waffling, no negotiation. I told you what the answer was.
If your daughter throws a tantrum (and is in a safe place), I’d just walk away or put her in her bedroom by herself. She can kick and scream and carry on – alone. There isn't any reasoning with her at that age. It's not a timeout – it's "time to be alone and upset." They can come out when they're calm.
I will say, it does get better! Mine grew out of tantrums by about four years old and became very good listeners.
-- Katie, mom of four grown children
The Pediatrians' Approach
A:Doctors agree that tantrums are a normal part of development for children between ages one and three years. While it’s not possible to avoid every tantrum, the American Academy of Pediatricians does offer a few practical ideas to help you survive them more gracefully.
- “Catch them being good.” Offer your little one lots of attention and specific praise in successful moments. (e.g., "Thank you for asking so nicely and using your words.")
- Offer small, directed choices with options. This helps your child feel they have control over little things.
- Distract them. Go outside. Choose a different toy. Blow bubbles. Sing a song.
- Pick your battles carefully. Occasionally you may have to give in on something, and that’s alright.
- Understand when your child has hit a wall. Some days they’re tired or hungry or overly stimulated or just don’t feel well.
- Don’t tolerate physically harmful behavior – ever. Don’t allow biting, hitting, throwing, or kicking.
- Prevent outbursts before they occur. Do tantrums ensue when your child is tired? Make naps or bedtime a priority. Are tantrums worse when they’re hungry? Don’t leave the house without healthy snacks.
The Holistic Approach
A:Sometimes it can help to simply re-frame the way you think about your child's behavior and try to understand the motivation behind it. The Montessori approach is a bit more holistic when it comes to dealing with the “terrible twos.”
Montessori guides refer to this period in a child’s life as the Crisis of Opposition or, more recently, the Crisis of Self-Affirmation. They remind parents that children this age are developing a strong desire for both information and independence. While it often feels frustrating to parents and caregivers, there are a few things they recommend to help your child along during this normal, natural stage of their development.
Firstly, they suggest providing autonomy and choices when possible. Children control very little within their own environment so give them choices where you can. Opportunities for toddlers to exert their independence will help build their self-esteem and confidence. There are three areas in particular that offer loads of opportunities for choice.
- Eating: Give them the choice between two specific snack options (“Banana or pear?”). Avoid letting them choose from the fridge at will. It will overwhelm them with too many options and may cause arguments.
- Dressing: Let them choose between two different shirts or two pairs of socks. Like food, giving them access to the whole closet of choices might feel daunting so only offer options that you’re comfortable with and that are weather-appropriate.
- Playing: Place toys on shelves instead of inside toy boxes to keep kids from feeling overwhelmed. Let them choose what to play and where to play when possible.
Secondly, they recommend offering freedom within limits. Allow your child to do what they like as much as possible as long as what they’re doing isn’t disruptive, disrespectful, or dangerous. When setting those limits, keep the following in mind:
- Say “yes” as much as you can. It’s frustrating to be told no all the time. Try to create a space that allows your child to move as safely and freely as possible.
- Keep limits firm and consistent so that children learn your expectations and shape their behavior around that. Montessori experts warn inconsistent reinforcement of rules will actually encourage children to test your limits.
- Set reasonable expectations. For example, if your rule includes no jumping on the sofa, consider whether your child has enough impulse control yet to manage that rule. If not, you may need to have him play in another room until he can understand the rules.
The best way to handle the “terrible twos” is to try to keep your calm as much as possible and view this as another (positive!) phase of your child’s development.
Let her choose whether to eat toast or a pancake for breakfast or whether she wants to wear the pink or green t-shirt. The more she feels she has a voice in little things, the less frustrated she’ll be. Just make it consistent and clear that she has no choice when it comes to safety issues. In other words, while buckling up in the car seat isn’t optional, the snack she wants to take along is.
The good news is that tantrums do tend to get better after the age of three (although they don't go away completely). As your little one learns to regulate their emotions and has more ways to express themselves, they won’t feel as frustrated — which should result in fewer tantrums. That said, you can probably still expect a few meltdowns after an especially rough day at school or when they’re hungry and/or overly tired, at least until they’re around the age of four or five. If the tantrums are especially severe, last longer than 15 minutes, involve abusive behavior, or continue beyond the age of five, consult your pediatrician.
In the meantime, do your best to stay calm. Keep setting limits and giving your little one some options. Pretty soon, you’ll be looking at the “terrible twos” (a.k.a., the Crisis of Self-Affirmation) in your rearview mirror and looking ahead to the fun of pre-school and kindergarten!
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