The Terrible TWOs

The Terrible TWOs

We’ve all been there! Not so long ago you were singing the praises of parenting and now you’re watching your little tornado run havoc around the living room in a fit of rage because you won’t let them draw on the wall. Or because you just spread butter on their bread and they wanted it plain. Or rather, that was yesterday, and today the bread needed to be buttered but they wanted to spread the butter themself. And then just when you thought everything had been sorted-out and you had put the knife in the dishwasher, they wanted to put it there THEMSELF! 

Are you familiar with situations like these? This post is all about that famous period of toddler defiance: the terrible twos. 

Is it normal?

Although we parents often emerge from the ‘terrible-twos’ with a few more grey hairs and dark circles under our eyes, it is a developmental phase that every child goes through. Some children will behave more demonstratively than others, but regardless of how it presents itself, this ‘special’ lifestage is perfectly normal. It certainly isn’t due to an error in parenting, however much those know-it-all passers-by might suggest it is, nor is it an indication of a child’s ‘bad character’, as certain scornful relatives might wish to point out. No matter how it unfolds, this tendency is most prevalent between the ages of two and three – hence the expression. 

Why does it happen?

Children develop extremely quickly during this period. They become increasingly independent, learning to do more and more for themselves. They can feed themselves, go to the toilet, put their clothes on, and talk about everyday things without too much difficulty. Suddenly, they can manage enough on their own that they feel like they can do absolutely everything by themselves. What’s more, at this age, children begin to perceive themselves as independent beings for the first time. They stop using the third person when talking about themselves and become more aware of their own desires and of the ability to make decisions on their own. That’s why we constantly hear them say “me do it” and “no, no, no”. Children need to establish where their boundaries are and to test-out those limits. Their desire to assert their own will is extremely strong! And this often means they come up against barriers and experience failure. When your child doesn’t succeed in doing what they wanted to do or doesn’t get what they wanted (i.e. when reality fails to meet their expectations), it causes frustration. But at this age, children don’t yet know how to cope with frustration other than by exhibiting a strong, purely emotional reaction: screaming, crying, kicking, hitting... in other words, throwing a tantrum. And that’s how we end up in those notorious situations with our child sprawled across the floor in the supermarket (or in another very public space). 

What can I do?

If you’ve already experienced such a situation, or if you fear it might be on the horizon, you may be wondering whether there’s anything you can do to help your family make it through this phase in one piece. Or perhaps you’re trying to imagine a way to even enjoy it, despite its challenges. 

5 Tips for coping with defiant toddlers:

1. Keep calm

This is difficult, fiendishly difficult. Let’s face it, it’s pretty unlikely you’ll be feeling calm when you’ve just heard your toddler say “no, me!” for the 50th time and you’re standing there, soaked in sweat, waiting to see whether they will finally manage to zip-up their coat. Or when your nearly-three-year-old is sprawled across the floor in the shopping centre screaming at the top of their lungs because someone else pressed the button in the lift. But without exercising your own inner calm, it will be difficult to resolve these kinds of situations. Our own anger often just pours fuel on the fire, or turns the volume button up a notch. And it’s not only anger that gets in the way – you’re also apt to feel helpless, ashamed, or even scared in such circumstances. Try to ignore any thoughts of what others will think, breathe deeply to quell your own emotions, and then briefly and clearly explain to your child what you expect from them. Don’t make light of the matter, don’t laugh at your child. Something that seems totally trivial to you could genuinely mean everything to your child at that moment. Always try to suggest what they could do instead, rather than stating what they should not do. For instance, instead of telling them to stop rolling around on the floor, you could say “Stand up and let’s see if we can walk a bit further.” 

2. Set boundaries and stick to them

It might seem as though your child would be the happiest child in the world if they were allowed to do whatever they like. On the contrary! Boundaries give children a sense of security: boundaries establish clear confines, fixed walls to bounce off of. Thanks to knowing these limitations, children can move around with greater ease and freedom within the space provided. It is important, though, that you set those boundaries firmly. If you ban television one day but give-in to your child’s plea the next day, you send a message that they cannot believe anything you tell them – that if they pester you enough, or act up, they’ll get what they want. If your child is uncertain about what the rules are, they’re bound to try whatever they can get away with, every single time, in order to see whether you’ll give-in. So it’s best to establish the rules early-on, affording you room to manoeuvre and to find solutions together with your child. 

3. Encourage your child’s independence

Children need to try-out the new skills they have learnt. They are delighted with every little bit of progress they make, because they have finally succeeded in becoming a bit more like their role model – which is You. Support them by giving them tasks they can already manage on their own. Instead of ordering them to do things, ask them to help you: it’s always better to say “Please hang your coat up on the hook”, rather than “You didn’t hang your coat up again! Come and do it right now!”  Let your child make mistakes. Sometimes this might mean counting to 100 rather than to 10, but it will pay off. Did your child spill their glass of water? Don’t scold them straight away: first wait to see what they will do about it. You might be surprised to discover that your toddler goes and fetches a cloth to mop up the spill, all by themself. 

Satisfy your child’s desire for independence whenever you can. Let them choose which t-shirt and trousers to wear, decide whether they want their pasta sauce mixed-in or separate, etc. These are small things, but they can make a huge difference to their wellbeing. 

4. Respect your child

A lot of conflicts stem from the parent deciding things without taking our child’s viewpoint into account. We simply assume that our children will immediately adapt. Children are meant to do as they’re told, aren’t they? But the thing is, we also don’t like it if someone interrupts us in the middle of something and expects us to drop whatever we’re doing and to do what they want. For example, let your child know ahead of time when you’re going to be leaving the playground: “You can have five more goes on the slide and then we’re heading home because I want to cook something tasty for lunch.” Many children also find it helpful when you give them a ‘countdown’ (i.e. five more minutes, three more minutes). It is nice if you give them enough time to finish whatever they are currently doing.  

5. Work on your emotions

It’s not possible to prevent your child from getting angry, and it is worth remembering that there’s nothing wrong with anger in itself. Anger is one of our most fundamental emotions and one that helps children draw the line in situations that don’t go as they would have liked. When your child is throwing a tantrum, there’s no point shouting at them, let alone smacking them. That would just relieve your own anger and further upset your child. But equally, don’t try to reason with your child in the middle of a tantrum. Just stay with them and prevent them from hurting themself or others, letting them know that you love them, no matter what. 

You’re bound to receive a plethora of advice from your family and friends, not to mention well-known and lesser-known internet sources, and sometimes even total strangers. Some of those tips might or might not work for your particular child. You may also wish to have a look at our article about working with anger and other emotions. And if you feel like nothing is working at all, don’t hesitate to turn to a child psychologist for advice: they will discuss your specific situation and help you to come up with new ways of helping you and your child. 

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