Toddlers and the Terrible Twos

Consistency Can Help You Cope With Behavior Problems

Young boy playing with toy ships
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The terrible twos is a normal stage in a child's development in which a toddler can regularly rebound between reliance on adults and a newly burgeoning desire for independence. It is a stage that most toddlers will go through in varying degrees. At one moment, the child may cling to you desperately and, in the next, run away from you in a screaming rage.

Understanding the terrible twos can help you not only cope with these behaviors but find ways to better deal with them without anger or aggression.

Understanding the Terrible Twos

Although parents don't usually expect the terrible twos to begin until the child is at least two, it can often happen well before then. In fact, some children with start before their first birthday with behaviors ranging from frequent mood changes to outright temper tantrums.

When faced with these behavioral challenges, you should always remind yourself that the child isn't doing this with the sole aim of defiance. (That can come later.) Rather, the toddler is trying to express independence without the communication skills to do so. Without an emotional vocabulary to rely on, a child can quickly become frustrated and have no other means to express those feelings than with anger or aggression.

When this happens, a parent may suddenly be faced with screaming, biting, kicking, or running away. Responding in kind, such as with anger or yelling, will only help reinforce aggression as an acceptable means of communication.

It reinforces and prolongs the behavior rather than helping the child gain the vocabulary he or she needs to better deal with emotions.

Taming the Terrible Twos

Taming the terrible twos starts by taming your own emotions. If faced with a tantrum from your toddler, try to remain calm, even in public. Unlike older children, who may use tantrums to challenge authority, a two-year-old is simply enacting behaviors that he or she knows will get a response.

If confronted with a tantrum, there are some tried-and-true strategies that can help:

  • Start by trying to redirect the child's attention elsewhere, such as an object out the window, a storybook, or a task the child can help with. On the other hand, do not reward the behavior by giving the child a treat or something that he or she is demanding.
  • If you can't distract the child, ignore the behavior. Children of this age won't recognize this as a parental strategy. Instead, it will communicate that this form of behavior will not get the response that he or she wants. You would need to remain steadfast, but, over time, behaviors tend to improve if the response is consistent
  • If you are in public, take the child aside without discussion or fuss and wait until he or she has calmed down. If you behave differently in public than you do in private, your child will sense this and it can become a battle of wills.
  • If the child calms down and the behavior improves, don't make a point of recounting the bad behavior or discussing the problem in detail. (The child is only two, after all.) Instead, praise the good behavior, and not with gifts but with words and affection.

Other Tips That Can Help

Parents instinctively understand that if a child is tired, he or she can get cranky.

To reduce the risk of this, try not to schedule shopping during the child's nap time. Toddlers are often happiest when you stick with daily routines, including regular naps and mealtimes. While schedules often need to be changed, ever-changing schedules are hard enough for parents to deal with. With a child, it can cause chaos.

There are a few other tips that can help:

  • Always offer limited choices to a toddler. Rather than asking what he or she wants for a snack, for example, ask if the child would like an apple or an orange. This gives the child a sense of control—the ability to choose—without overwhelming the child with too many choices.
  • While time-outs are an appropriate discipline for this age, always do so without anger. If the behavior persists, you can take away privileges or use other discipline techniques.
  • Provide your toddler with a safe, childproofed environment. It really isn't fair to punish a two-year-old for grabbing something within reach if you haven't taken the time to properly secure it.

By accepting the changes your child is going through and showing love and respect, you can help your child through this often-difficult stage and help build his or her confidence.