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A survival guide for getting through the “terrible twos”

REDHEAD CHILD
Lopolo | Shutterstock
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This stage of child development can last a while ... here's how to manage it while keeping your sanity.

Adolescence is often a painful period, as much for the parents as for kids. Long before the teenage years, however, there is another difficult phase in a child’s development: the infamous terrible twos. While the term obviously refers primarily to two-year-olds, this stage may start as early as the age of 18 months and can last until the child is 3 or 4. Opposition, defiance, tantrums … Many behaviors during this period can put a parent’s patience to the test.

It’s not always easy to know how to approach this stage, especially since your child’s behavior might be baffling to you. Why is she doing that? How should I respond? Did I do the right thing? Is this normal? Will it pass?

For starters, it’s important to understand why difficult behavior occurs at this age, how it can manifest, and what role it plays in a child’s development. Equipped with this knowledge, parents are better able to navigate this challenging phase. 

What are the “terrible twos”?

The expression “terrible twos” designates the developmental stage generally referred to the toddler years. During this period, children rebel: they refuse to cooperate, instigate conflict, throw tantrums, and defy their parents. This behavior is especially difficult to manage in public, where parents are more reluctant to attract attention or embarrass themselves. Also called the “‘no’ phase,” this is a time when children seek to define themselves as individuals by opposing all forms of authority.

Despite its trials, this stage of psychological development is essential for children. During this time, they begin to gain self-awareness: they want to make decisions by themselves, even though they may lack the vocabulary to express their desires. This is a time of growth and maturity: little by little, children learn to identify and express their emotions, and to manage and externalize them in an adaptive way.

Parental Survival Tips

1. Identify and avoid the causes of tantrums

As you navigate this stage, certain factors will emerge as tantrum triggers for your children. Situational triggers may include: meal times, bedtime, running errands … Underlying these triggers are big feelings. Your children may struggle to manage and express: hunger, fatigue, stress, and boredom. When possible, it’s best to avoid unnecessary sources of stress. Your children will likely respond well to having their feelings validated and being given choices.

When offering choices, try to avoid handing your children an opportunity to say no. At a meal, for example, instead of asking if he or she wants broccoli, ask, “Would you like broccoli with sauce or without sauce?” or “Would you like to eat your tomatoes after your meat or before?” This way, children feel they have a choice and will be less likely to oppose you in order to assert themselves.

During a tantrum, it’s important not to ignore your child. We can’t prevent children from feeling emotions, but we can teach them how to express their feelings without a tantrum. When a tantrum begins, find a solution to the problem or change the subject. Later, when the child has regained composure, explain that there are other ways to respond to a problem. Help him or her find the words to express their dissatisfaction and think of alternative responses.

2. Remain calm

During a tantrum, it’s important to take a step back and stay calm. In the heat of the moment, your child is overcome by emotion and cannot understand reason. Wait until the conflict has passed before discussing it with them. Don’t wait too long, though — if too much time elapses, your child may forget the episode.

When you discuss the episode together, explain that you understand their feelings and that it’s okay to feel sad, angry, frustrated, or tired. Help them by proposing other solutions and by listening as they attempt to put their feelings into words.

Another important point: don’t hold a grudge. Once the tantrum has been resolved and discussed, don’t revisit it. When you and your child are reconciled, the tantrum belongs to the past.

3. Be firm and consistent

While listening with compassion, patience, and understanding is vital, it is also important to be firm and to stick to your word. Don’t hesitate to remind your child of your expectations before every activity and upon entering a new place. Be clear about the rules and the consequences if limits are infringed.

Don’t let yourself be overcome by the magnitude of a tantrum. As general rule, don’t give in. If you do, your child will get the message that rules and consequences are optional and unenforced. They may deduce that it’s okay to ignore them.

Concerning consequences, make sure they are useful, restorative, related, and proportional to the infraction, achievable, not stressful, and above all, that they don’t touch on the fundamental needs of the child (food, sleep, etc.).

4. Stay close and show love

At this age, children seek recognition and love. They want to capture our attention, even while asserting themselves as unique individuals. This is the ideal time to engage them in tasks they can accomplish by themselves and to give them responsibilities at their level of capacity. Love and attention are key.

Be affectionate with your children. After a tantrum, don’t hesitate to give them a hug. This will communicate to them that even though they behaved inappropriately, your love for them is unchanging.

Your children need to feel reassured and loved. Your unconditional love will give them confidence as they learn to manage and express their emotions, especially during this intense phase of development.

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