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How to Deal with the ‘Terrible Twos’ and Temper Tantrums?

Is your toddler throwing more tantrums than usual? Do you feel overwhelmed and frustrated by this sudden shift in behavior? If so, your child might be going through what’s known as the ‘terrible twos’ or terrible 2s.

Want to know more? Keep reading. This article contains everything you need to know about how to deal with the ‘terrible twos.’

Contents:

What Are the ‘Terrible Twos’?

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You’ll likely notice a few changes as your baby becomes a toddler.

Maybe they’ve become difficult to predict and like to challenge you or the world around them. Unfortunately, your toddler might also get mad or angry easily, creating conflict and problems where there were none before.

While it might feel like your toddler’s sweet disposition has suddenly turned sour, this really isn’t the case.

The simple answer to this question is that the changes you notice in your child are a perfectly normal part of their development. The ‘terrible twos’ is a term that describes this rather crucial developmental phase in a toddler’s life.

Terrible Two Causes

how to deal with the terrible twos

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The leading cause of the ‘terrible twos’ lies in a critical developmental stage in your child’s life. Simply put, your toddler will begin to test boundaries to assert their independence.

This is a good thing! Independence helps foster high self-esteem and self-reliance, essential skills for success later in life. However, the challenge here is that your toddler doesn’t yet have the language skills to communicate their needs.

At this point in their young lives, your child can speak in two to three-word sentences and understand concepts like “bad,” “no,” and “mine.” In addition, toddlers’ needs and wants don’t often align with what you, the parent or guardian, need or want.

So, when toddlers assert their independence and want help make dinner, clean, or pick out their clothing, they’ll likely have their parents watch—but only watch—nearby. However, toddlers’ expectations can shatter when they don’t yet have the communication skills to express this specific need.

And what’s a typical response of a frustrated child? Tantrums, of course! But we’ll get to those in more detail a little later on.

Why Are the Twos So Terrible?

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The twos are so terrible because it can often seem like a once sweet baby or infant has suddenly blossomed into a toddler terror.

Uncontrolled and unreasonable behavior is challenging to deal with on an ongoing basis. Why? Well, problematic behaviors cause frustration and concern, which is entirely normal.

However, constantly dealing with these emotions also means that the ‘terrible twos’ can genuinely feel terrible for parents and guardians trying to help their toddler(s) through this developmental phase.

Learning how to handle the ‘terrible twos’ in a way that supports and nourishes a toddler’s growing sense of independence is the only way to make this stage more comfortable for everyone.

Do All Children Go Through This Phase?

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In North America, the majority of children between 18 months and 3 years will experience and display at least one of the signs or symptoms of the ‘terrible twos.’

So the general answer to this question is that the ‘terrible twos’ occurs in most 1–3 year-olds.

However, your infant can turn 18 months and not outwardly display any emotions associated with the ‘terrible twos.’ Your 4-year-old can also show ebbing signs of the ‘terrible twos.’

Since this is the case, it’s also plausible for your child not to exhibit any typical signs or symptoms at all.

When Does it Start and End?

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It’s true that the ‘terrible twos’ can start as early as 18 months and end around a child’s third birthday.

That being said, every child is different. Each has a unique personality and learning style, so it’s challenging to pinpoint an exact age range for this phase in their life.

As a result, your child might begin throwing temper tantrums that peter out by their fourth birthday. Or, your toddler might not exhibit the need for independence or any anger, yelling, or screaming until they reach three years of age.

Signs and Symptoms of the ‘Terrible Twos’

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Developmental phases hit every child differently. However, when it comes to identifying the ‘terrible twos,’ you’ll notice some pretty specific behavioral changes.

The terrible 2s can be characterized by several signs and symptoms. Here are a few examples of signs and symptoms that likely mean your toddler has entered this important stage of development.

Don’t forget! Every child is different! Your child might:

  • not demonstrate any of these signs or symptoms.
  • demonstrate one or two signs and symptoms.
  • exhibit many or all signs and symptoms.

Keep this in mind as you review this list.

Temper Tantrums

‘Terrible twos’ symptoms include tantrums. Tantrums are the most common sign or symptom of the ‘terrible twos.’

If your child displays more emotional distress than usual, it might mean they’ve entered this developmental phase. Tantrums can include many of the other symptoms and signs you see listed below.

For more information on tantrums and how to cope with them, see this article How to Deal with Tantrums or watch this helpful video!

Kicking or Biting

At this stage, toddlers can string together 2-3 words at a time. They’re still learning to form complete sentences, which can cause extreme frustration as they don’t yet have the vocabulary to express themselves properly.

To express this frustration, toddlers might resort to kicking or biting instead of using words. Sometimes toddlers will scratch too. Aggression is one of the forms of expression that signifies your child has entered the ‘terrible twos.’

Screaming or Yelling

Similar to kicking or biting, a child will resort to screaming or yelling when they don’t yet have the vocabulary they need to state their needs and wants.

Fights with Friends or Siblings

when do the terrible twos start

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Part of asserting or expressing independence means your child will experience moments of confrontation between siblings or friends.

For example, maybe an older sibling wants to play with blocks while your toddler or preschooler wants to stack the same blocks. Instead of sharing (and being unable to express their wants), your toddler or preschooler might start a fight, a common sign and symptom of the ‘terrible twos.’

Read more Why Doesn’t My Toddler Interact With Other Kids? All About Parallel Play.

Mood Swings

One minute, your toddler is happy. The next? Upset and crying.

Mood swings tend to indicate a variety of different behaviors in children. For example, it could mean that they’re tired or hungry. It could also mean they’re trying to express their independence but don’t quite yet have the language skills to do so.

Behavioral Issue or the ‘Terrible Twos’?

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Telling the difference between behavioral issues and the ‘terrible twos’ is tricky. Often, behavioral issues can cause signs and symptoms of the ‘terrible twos.’ And there’s also a fine line between behavioral issues and behavior disorders.

Let’s examine each to identify the differences.

Behavioral Issues

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Young children often exhibit difficult behavior due to their natural needs and wants not being met.

Older children and adults can express emotions like being hungry, tired, frustrated, or bored.

Unfortunately, expressing emotions doesn’t come naturally to toddlers and preschoolers, and it’s something they must learn.

Behavioral issues include biting, hitting, yelling, screaming, and tantrums.

Implementing consistency in your toddler’s life will help manage behavioral issues. For example, ensuring your child gets enough sleep, has snacks on hand, or fun activities to try will help to prevent problems. As a result, your child won’t be tired, bored, hungry, or frustrated, which will help to lessen tantrums and outbursts.

Behavioral Issues & The ‘Terrible Twos’

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Addressing behavioral issues can help to tackle the ‘terrible twos.’ Meaning: the anticipation of a child’s behavioral issues can prevent things like temper tantrums.

For example, an overtired child will struggle to find the words they need to express the problem. As a result, they become easily irritated and frustrated, resorting to behavioral issues to get what they want.

A well-rested child can better express their wants and needs. So anticipating that your toddler needs a consistent nap time will help decrease behavioral issues.

Behavior Disorders

The difference between behavioral issues and behavior disorders is tricky to define for children under the age of 5. This is because the ‘terrible twos’ can often make an adult think something is very wrong with their child when what’s actually happening is simply a period of rapid development and growth.

While it’s rare for toddlers to receive an official diagnosis, they can display some symptoms of certain behavior disorders early on in life.

Here are a few examples of some common disorders.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

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A mental health condition. It can cause impulsive actions and hyperactivity.

Depression: a mood disorder. Depression can interrupt a person’s daily activities with extreme feelings of anger, loss, and/or sadness.

Language Disorders: a disorder where it’s difficult for the child to understand or express themselves. Learning disorders are more common in younger children and can typically be assessed by age four.

Anxiety Disorders: an extreme reaction to stress over time. It’s a debilitating and intense sensation that lingers with a person all the time. Anxiety disorders include phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, separation anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

A neurological disorder where symptoms can appear in early childhood. In the United States, approximately 1 in 68 children are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. ASD can affect a child cognitively, behaviorally, and socially.

Avoid diagnosing a toddler or preschooler with a behavior disorder, and approach with caution! Instead, if you’re truly concerned, speak to a healthcare professional who can help.

When to Seek Help?

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The ‘Terrible Twos’ should work themselves out after age 4, when your child’s communication skills improve.

So yes. It’s possible for terrible two symptoms to last a month or much longer.

However, if you believe your toddler’s behavior is extreme, it’s best to schedule an appointment with a health care provider or doctor. A doctor or health professional can properly identify treatable developmental issues, differences, or delays.

So if you or a caregiver notice the following signs, you should contact your child’s doctor or related health care professional.

  1. Extreme violence toward themselves or others.
  2. No eye contact.
  3. Withdrawn.
  4. Doesn’t seek attention from family or friends.
  5. Heightened and drawn-out household stress.

In general, if the signs and symptoms of your toddler’s ‘terrible twos’ become disruptive, frequent, or prolonged such that your child won’t sleep, eat, or can’t participate in group activities, it’s a good idea to check for other issues.

Tips for managing the ‘Terrible Twos’

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Unfortunately, no magic button will turn off your toddler’s undesirable behavior. However, you can do a few things to help your child through this stage of life.

Check out these tips for managing the ‘terrible twos.’

Consistent Sleep Schedule

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Children ages 1–2 should get 11–14 hours of sleep in a day. Children ages 3–5 need 10–13 hours of sleep. Ensuring your child gets enough good sleep will help decrease the ‘terrible twos’ symptoms.

Practice Calm Breathing

This tip is for parents!

Dealing with the ‘terrible twos’ requires a lot of patience and a calm manner. Sometimes, however, when your child is yelling or screaming at you while working through intense emotions, it’s easy to feel like they’re deliberately putting your patience and calm manner to the test.

Breathing exercises help. Taking a moment to breathe deeply before reacting to your child’s tantrum decreases your stress and frustration so that you can guide your child into the right behaviors.

For more information, check out this video on a great breathing technique. The benefit? You can practice with your toddler or preschooler.

Create a Safe Space

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New environments can sometimes feel overstimulating to young children. This is particularly true for toddlers going through the ‘terrible twos’ because they can’t express what they need to feel safe, which often leads to tantrums.

What might help is to remove the child from the situation and take them to a safe, quiet space.

A safe space can include a bedroom, bathroom, vehicle, and more. The key here is to change the environment so that your child can take a moment to calm down.

Limit Choices

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Similar to new environments, too many options can sometimes feel overwhelming. This is especially true for children. To help manage your child’s need for independence, give them two to three options instead of endless choices.

For example, if your toddler wants to dress themselves in the morning, set out two or three outfits. Then allow your child to pick out the one they want to wear. Even if they decide to mix and match, limiting choices fosters a sense of independence that will leave your child feeling in control while boosting self-esteem.

Set Boundaries

A parent, guardian, or caregiver must set boundaries for a developing child. Boundaries help to keep toddlers safe and establish a sense of control.

A child going through the ‘terrible twos’ will test you to see what they can get away with in their day-to-day activities. When you don’t set boundaries, your child will continue to take advantage of you and others because they haven’t been taught otherwise.

For example, toddlers might want to use a sharp knife to cut the crust off their sandwich. Unfortunately, sharp kitchen knives aren’t made for small hands. So, the boundary here is that an adult will cut off the crusts until the child is old enough to handle a sharp knife.

Clear Communication

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As your child works on their communication skills, the language you use is essential for their development. Use short sentences that encourage your child to express how they feel so they can begin to express their needs and wants.

Teach Your Child

As mentioned in previous sections of this article, the ‘terrible twos’ means your child is going through a developmental stage. But they can’t do it alone! It’s up to you, the caregivers, and other adults in your child’s life to help guide them through.

Teach your child how to express their needs and wants through words and actions. Working on communication will help your child learn the independence they crave while interacting with others.

Praise Positive Behavior

When your toddler works through a problem or task without throwing a fit, yelling, screaming, hitting, or biting, you should reward them with praise.

Praising positive behavior lets your child know they’ve done a good job. When they feel good about something, they’ll want to repeat that behavior to elicit that positive response again and again.

It’s for this exact reason that rewarding a tantrum with candy, or giving your child what they want after they’ve screamed at you for five minutes, is better discussed but not praised.

Read also What is Positive Parenting? A Close Look at the Topic and All About Positive Discipline.

A Final Tip

One last thing to remember is the word ‘no’ isn’t helpful for the ‘terrible twos.’ It might be a personal favorite of your toddlers, but saying ‘no’ to a toddler or preschooler only reinforces negative behavior!

How to Deal with Tantrums?

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There’s no question that dealing with a toddler’s tantrums is emotionally draining and frustrating. The good news is that parents can use three different tactics to stop a tantrum in its tracks.

Here’s how:

  1. Remove: Whether in public, at home, or elsewhere, pick up your child and move to a quiet space like a bathroom or car. Once in a safe space, you can reassure your child with hugs, but don’t give in to their demands.
  2. Redirect: Try and get your child to focus on something else. For example, distract them with a fun activity you brought along to occupy their time.
  3. Ignore: Don’t make eye contact or acknowledge your child’s tantrum. By not giving your child the attention they want, their tantrum will peter out on its own.

Above all else, remain calm and don’t reward your child’s tantrums. Giving your child a treat or whatever they want will only reinforce negative behavior.

Meeting Resistance

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Pushing your toddler to do something will only be met with resistance. The more your child resists, the more frustrated you’ll feel.

So here are two tips on what you can do instead.

  1. Time-Out: If your toddler or preschooler is having a horrible tantrum, it’s okay to give them a time-out. Sometimes you both need a little time apart. The time-out will let your child know that screaming, crying, and kicking won’t get them what they want. Instead, it will give your child the space they need to calm down.
  2. Praise Good Behavior: Always give your child praise when they demonstrate good behavior. You want to reinforce the good behavior, so your toddler will begin to manage their own needs and wants without the temper tantrum.

The most important thing you can do as a parent is to speak to your toddler calmly. It’s critical to help them find the words they need to express their feelings. This will teach your child that it’s better to express themselves through words instead of tantrums.

And what’s the final step in dealing with tantrums? Tell your child you love them and turn their attention to whatever you need them to do next.

What About Kicking, Hitting, and Biting?

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Sometimes tantrums can escalate. Unfortunately, this can lead to aggressive behavior like kicking, hitting, and biting.

Kicking, hitting, and biting aren’t unusual behaviors in toddlers. It’s how children test boundaries, assert independence, or simply satisfy curiosity. However, part of the developmental process means that children must learn that these actions can cause pain.

In this situation, toddlers must understand that getting physical isn’t an acceptable form of behavior. Here’s how you, the parent or guardian, can deal with kicking, hitting, and biting.

DON’T

  1. Don’t kick, hit, or bite back. Reacting with violence and aggression (spanking included) will only teach your child that their behavior is acceptable. If you need to, take a deep breath or a time out.
  2. Don’t punish your toddler with negative talk that makes them feel like they’re ‘bad’ and ‘naughty.’ This only discourages a child and pushes them into acting out with more aggression.
  3. Don’t worry about what other people think. Respect those who might be in the vicinity, but make sure to respond to your child’s needs in the moment.

DO:

  1. Remain calm. Raising your voice will only scare your child, making learning more difficult.
  2. Calmly talk to your child. Tell them that you understand they are frustrated, sad, or mad but biting, kicking, or hitting is not okay.
  3. Separate your child’s feelings from their behavior. Tell them it’s okay to be mad or frustrated, but there are other ways to show that feeling instead of kicking, hitting, or biting.
  4. Give your child a re-do. When they calm down, ask your child what they think they could have done differently. This will require patience as big emotions require lots of practice.

Here’s one last tip: it might sound strange, but there’s no need to force your child to apologize to the person for their actions. Most forced apologies aren’t heartfelt and don’t mean anything. So when your child is calm, work together to find a way to make things right.

What Comes After the ‘Terrible Twos’?

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Want to hear a little secret? After the ‘terrible twos,’ your child will begin to enjoy imaginative play. This is an exciting time!

Imaginative play includes playing pretend, a phase where children experiment by taking on different jobs or roles. For example, a pirate captain searching for gold on a pirate ship or a veterinarian taking care of animals.

The benefits of this phase in a child’s life are tremendous.

Imaginative play allows your growing preschooler to practice being in charge while working with others. And because they now have the communication skills to express their needs, your child won’t resort to tantrums to get what they want.

Facing the Terrible Twos

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Guiding your child through the ‘terrible twos’ might feel like they’re on a mission to provoke you daily. But there’s no need to be on high alert!

It’s crucial to remember that your child isn’t misbehaving because they want to upset you. Your young child simply isn’t able to communicate their desire to show you their developing independence.

Encouraging your child’s independence is critical. It allows you to teach them how to positively handle big emotions, which will help build the confidence and self-esteem they’ll need to succeed in life.

Are you going through the ‘Terrible Twos’ with your toddler or preschooler? Why not get involved? Share your tips, tricks, and techniques for working through this developmental phase in the comments. 

The picture on the front page: NadyaEugene/Shutterstock.com

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