The Terrible Twos: Helpful Ways to Tame a Testy Toddler

Battling over breakfast. Screaming at the supermarket. Launching chicken nuggets at lunch. Defiant during dinner. And scattered in between, as peaceful as an angel. Welcome to the terrible twos.

Toddler riding a bike

The terrible twos can begin anytime after their first birthday and last until kindergarten.

As a parent, we’ve long been forewarned about this looming and almost-dreaded phase in our child’s development. From those who have come before us, those in the throws of tantrum madness and those who, like us, are on the precipice of a new phase, the terrible twos can be a challenging time for not only your child, but your ability to adjust as well.

To better deal with the terrible twos, you must first understand why it happens and what you can do to come out on the other side relatively unscathed (and, without pulling out all of your hair).

Understanding the Terrible Twos
The Terrible twos is a term used to describe a development stage in children characterized by behavior that is demanding, defiant, rebellious, challenging, and patience-testing. Your child will not embark into the terrible twos suddenly upon their 2nd birthday. The terrible twos can begin anytime after their first birthday and last until kindergarten. Each child grows and develops at different rates; it is important to understand this and not compare your child with another.

Why It Happens
Two year-olds are undergoing major motor, intellectual, social and emotional changes. They are seeking independence (“NO, I can do!”), trying their ever-evolving gross motor skills (throwing, pulling, pushing or breaking things) and becoming curious to all of their senses (putting objects in mouth, trying to fit objects in outlets, climbing out of their crib). Tasting, touching, smelling, seeing and hearing are becoming new avenues of stimuli to their world.

And boy oh boy, they sure do want to explore their world! I recall when my daughter discovered my fuschia colored Lancome lipstick was more fun to use than a crayon.

On the carpet.

When I was in the bathroom.

And with my older daughter, that a camel hair blush brush would be perfect to help mommy clean…

The potty. Ugh.

But, I digress.

In addition, their vocabularies are growing, they are quite eager to do things on their own, and most are now discovering they are expected to follow certain rules or they will receive a time-out or other tantrum-inducing consequence.

However, most 2 year-olds still are not able to move as swiftly as they would like, they can not communicate their needs, or control their feelings. This can lead to frustration and ultimately, misbehavior, the crux of the terrible twos. They just don’t know yet.

What You Can Do to Diffuse the Behavior
There are many strategies to help your child and your wit to boldly and bravely make it trough the terrible twos. Here are few suggestions we found effective: 

Offer comfort: “Timmy, I know this makes you mad and I understand; let’s see if we can ….” Helping your child understand that you understand has a calming, diffusing, and reassuring effect. I call it “talking them off the ledge.”

Ignore the behavior: Unless your child is putting himself or others in danger, by not playing into defiance, backtalk or stomping sends a stronger message than engaging into a behavior that seeks attention.

Children don’t understand and fully comprehend the limits of words such as “…next time you will have to…” or ” I said stop…” Try to limit your use of the word “no.” Instead, use other forms of discipline, such as redirection or humor. We found much success with redirection and replaying the scenario where I modeled better behavior for the frustration than hurling the Lego bucket across the room or pulling the curtains off the rod. Kids are sponges; showing rather than telling is much more effective.

Consider avoiding challenging situations: I’ve long maintained that one would never book a bawdy pub singer for children’s birthday party and expect a clean show. Same with your child — think about your child and their peak hours of calm behavior. Are you trying to do the grocery shopping during your child’s nap time? Or hoping they will act like an adult by sitting still and quiet when they are simply, two years old with limited self-control of their words, actions and deeds?

Praise your child for appropriate behavior: “Timmy, I like how you kept your voice quiet in the library…” Praising (and correcting) behavior, not the child, is the focus.

Other tips for helping your toddler during the terrible twos include:

  • Establish a regular routine for meals, naps, bedtime, etc. and try to stick to them each day. Everyone needs structure, and more so as youngsters.
  • Offer limited and defined choices such as “would you like apples or oranges for your snack” and not “what do you want for your snack.” This helps your toddler feel like he is making decisions and has power over things, but he isn’t able to choose unacceptable alternatives.
  • Set boundaries and don’t be surprised when your toddler tries to test those limits to see what he can get away with. If you say “I’m going to count to three, and when I get to three…” then you MUST follow through. The best puppy-dog eyes and crocodile tears should not trump your words.
  • Do not give in to the tantrum. Period. Sure, it will be loud, challenging and frustrating for you, but when you give in, you condition your child to do that behavior again to elicit a response or action. If they know to pull on your leg when they want “up” instead of using words, they will pull on your leg. If they scream and yell until they get whatever it is they want, they will do that over and over. Calmly say “Timmy, please use your words if you would like me to lift you up” or “I’m sorry, I can not hear screaming words.” Say it once, then tune it out.
  • Begin to use time-out for harmful and threating behavior. Much like the show The Nanny, children need to understand what a time-out is for and why they are there. This is to be followed by talk and reinforcement of love and acceptance. “Timmy, you are going in time-out for two minutes because kicking the dog is not the way we treat animals or people.” After two minutes, discuss and model better ways of getting through frustration and discuss the actions of kicking the dog, how the dog feels, etc. Offer the love for your child, but not the behavior they did.
  • Provide your toddler with a safe environment that is childproofed to explore and play in. It really is not fair that your toddler should get into trouble for playing with something he isn’t supposed to if it is left it within reach. I covered the outlets but kept my house a home because I taught my child there are limits to what we can and can’t touch and more so, why.

While not a science, we found humor in this terrible two’s countdown calculator and hope some of the strategies listed will help you and your family make it to the terrific three’s.

Do you have a strategy or suggestion for other parents going through the terrible two’s? We welcome your comments, thoughts and opinions. Drop us a line and we may feature your story in an upcoming blog.

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