Tips to deal with terrible twos

As your adorable munchkin grows to become more independent and assertive, she is bound to turn into a defiant, tantrum-prone tornado sooner or later. This challenging phase is a normal part of your child's toddlerhood and will subside just as quickly as it sweeps through. Learn more about the signs of terrible twos, how long this phase lasts, and how you can deal with the temper tantrums below.

What’s Behind the Terrible Twos?

As your child turns two years old, you will notice her becoming more and more independent and she may even rebel against what you ask her to do or the boundaries you set. The conflicts that result can then turn into tantrums, defiant behaviour, and frequent use of the word "no." Read on to know why toddlers say no to everything

You may notice that the outbursts and demands happen out of nowhere. At one moment, your little one might be clinging to you like a panda or happily carrying on with what she's doing, while the next moment, she could be stomping her feet, disobeying you, or screaming her lungs out. Read more about how to handle aggressive toddlers.

Currently, your toddler isn't grown-up enough to handle and express her emotions in acceptable ways. This can result in outbursts that may turn into full-blown temper tantrums. Welcome to the terrible twos!

Your child is realising that she can assert more control over situations and fight for what she wants. For her, the terrible twos may feel like the terrific twos. It can be a tricky time for your little one too. For her, compromising may mean disappointment when she doesn't get things that she wants. As she isn't aware of how to handle these feelings, it can lead to conflicts between you two.

This new behaviour of your child is one of the milestones of 2-year-olds, which is a result of different changes happening in her intellectual, social, and emotional development. So, worry not; the so-called terrible twos may actually be a good sign indicating that your child's development is on track.

How Long Do the Terrible Twos Last?

The terrible twos can last for a short time or can continue for a longer period. You may have to tolerate this phase for a while as the terrible twos typically start around your child's second birthday and stretch into her third year, or even longer, when you may see it come to an end.

A wise approach is to accept that this is a normal part of your child’s development while doing your best to lead your child through this phase. How you respond to your child in certain situations will be key because it's important to balance supporting your child’s growing independence while also enforcing the boundaries you’ve set for her safety and well-being.

What Are the Signs of the Terrible Twos?

When your child starts exhibiting some of these behaviours, you can assume that she has entered the terrible twos phase:

  • Says "no" much more often than before

  • May be clingy one minute, and then want her independence the next

  • Doesn't interact well with other children, and may show signs of aggressive behaviour, such as pushing and shoving

  • Becomes frustrated easily

  • Has frequent temper tantrums

  • May have rapid mood swings, going from happy to mad to happy again in what can seem like the blink of an eye

  • Might try testing your limits to see how far she can get

  • May express that she’s upset or frustrated by crying, screaming, hitting, biting, or kicking. Read here about how to stop your toddler from biting and to know more about why does your toddler hit.

What Are the Causes of the Terrible Twos?

To help you better understand the temper tantrum causes of your toddler, it might help to know more about the developmental changes that your two-year-old is going through:

  • Intellectual changes:

Your child's language ability is improving, but she likely understands more than she can express with words. This can lead to emotional outbursts like crying or screaming if she’s unhappy with what’s going on.

  • Social changes:

Your child may be showing signs of selfishness or possessiveness, especially when she's around other children. She probably doesn't want to share her toys and may even want a toy that belongs to her playmate. This is normal at this stage because your child tends to only see the world through her own eyes, and she can’t yet empathise with the feelings or wants of others. She may also not yet realise that others could get hurt, and she might snatch a toy or hit a playmate without a second thought about the consequences.

  • Emotional changes:

You may find your child is cheerful one moment and upset the next. These types of mood swings are pretty common during the terrible twos. Your child is still developing emotionally and is still learning how to control her feelings and actions. She may butt heads with you and then immediately seek your approval and affection afterward. She may react aggressively or start a tantrum over something that may seem trivial to you because she can’t really control her emotions.

How to Navigate the Terrible Twos?

During the terrible twos, don't take your little one’s behaviour personally, and try not see the tantrums as reflective of your child being "bad." Your child is just frustrated and overwhelmed by the changes she’s going through.

Here are some additional guidelines and techniques for dealing with the terrible twos phase:

1. Be consistent:

It's important to respond to your child's actions by acknowledging and encouraging the good behaviour and discouraging the misbehaviour in a way that isn't harsh or physical. Ensure you're consistent with your responses so that your child learns the routine and will know what happens when she behaves in a certain way. Being consistent in this way can help her boost her self-esteem while curbing bad behaviour.

2. Be straightforward

It can be very hard, if not impossible, to reason with your two-year-old. She doesn't understand reasoning just yet, and she may conflate make-believe with real life. So, it's important not to be too hyperbolic when you speak to her. Avoid saying things like "If you keep making that silly expression, your face will freeze like that." She won't know that you're just kidding. Instead, aim to explain things in the simplest way possible, especially when it comes to discipline and behaviour.

3. Be ready to distract your child:

If you see her getting all worked up about something, try to redirect her attention before a full-blown tantrum can start. If that doesn't work, let her be. Often, trying to reason with her or punish her for her emotional outbursts can have the opposite effect and reinforce the bad behaviour.

4. Establish some simple rules:

Straightforward, age-appropriate rules can help your child control impulsive behaviours; for example, saying "No pushing or hitting." But be sure that the rules you develop aren't too restrictive and that there aren't too many. You can always add more rules once your child better understands the basic ones. Don’t change the rules unexpectedly as that can be confusing for her.

5. Be affectionate:

Loving, physical contact is very important during this time, as it is during each stage of your child's development. Hugs and kisses can help your child develop a strong sense of security and self-worth.

6. Show that you're paying attention:

Try to listen to what your child has to say and respond with more than just an "uh-huh" or "OK." She'll know when you're not really paying attention to her. Being attentive in this way may set a good example for her when it comes to using words to express feelings and proves to her that she can count on you to listen. In the future, she may be less likely to throw a tantrum just to get your attention if she knows she can get your attention simply by talking to you.

7. Help your child verbally express her feelings:

Have conversations with your child regularly and help her describe her feelings in words. Giving your little one the tools to express herself verbally can help ward off emotional outbursts in the future. You should also model this by verbalising your own feelings; for example, you might say something like "Mommy is upset because you ran away from me in the store."

8. Offer options:

Rather than making choices for your child every time, offer her options when possible, sticking to a few that you’re happy with. So, instead of asking a broad question like, "What do you want to wear today?" and then getting into a battle because she’s chosen shorts in the dead of winter, ask, "Do you want to wear the blue or red shirt?" When it's snack time, you could ask, "Would you like carrot sticks or beetroot sticks?" Letting her have a say in the matter goes a long way toward increasing her confidence and good humour.

9. Set limits with positive discipline:

Give your child firm yet loving discipline, which means teaching her to behave better by noticing and praising the good aspects of her behaviour while firmly instructing her on what she may have done wrong. If your child misbehaves during a playdate, for example, tell her you will take away her favourite toy—this can help her understand the repercussions of misbehaving. Whatever you do, don't turn to physical punishment, which conveys the wrong message—that it's OK to solve an issue through violence.

10. Use time-outs when needed:

This can be an effective strategy if your child is in the middle of a tantrum, for instance. Remove her from the scene of action and take her to a designated area for a time-out. Once there, have her spend a few quiet and still minutes (the recommended time is one minute for each year of your child's age) before she can return to you. Afterward, give her a hug and say, "All done!"

When to Call the Doctor?

Terrible twos bring along tantrums and defiance and they're quite normal at this age. However, if the behaviour starts getting out of hand or you simply feel overwhelmed, talk to your child’s paediatrician.

Talk to the doctor if your child's teachers or caretakers suggest that something is wrong, or your child seems:

  • Withdrawn or doesn't try to seek attention from others

  • To not make an eye contact

  • Particularly aggressive or argumentative

  • Violent or tries harming themselves or others

  • To create a lot of household stress.

Your child’s doctor will recommend tips for correcting the behaviour. He may even advise you to get a mental health evaluation if necessary.

Some factors that might lead a child to more aggressive behaviour include:

  • Exposure to alcohol in the womb

  • Exposure to violence at a young age

  • Naturally having a difficult temperament

Do All Children Go Through It?

With certain societal expectations for children's behaviour, many young kids display signs of the terrible twos, then be it at 18 months or three years of age. During this age, as your child continues to develop independence and a sense of self, it's normal for her views and expectations to not match with yours.

Most children sweep through the terrible twos with less tantrums than others, especially the ones who have advanced language skills. Through these skills they express themselves more clearly, cutting down on frustration.

As a parent, you can help by avoiding some common meltdown triggers. For example, avoid keeping your child up past her normal bedtime or trying to run errands with her when she's hungry, as these can trigger mood swings or tantrums.

The Takeaway

As the name goes, the terrible twos may be terrible for you. But just understand that this phase shall eventually end. Help your child to understand and manage her emotions and teach her how to behave in acceptable ways. Praising her for all the great things she does will also help you both get through this developmental phase a little more easily.

Once you're past this phase, relax until you get to the next challenging phase - the teenage years. But by then you will be reminiscing fondly about your little one's toddler years, and this phase won’t seem so terrible after all!