I remember when my daughter was still an infant, and I was already being warned about the perils of the “terrible twos.” It was well-meaning advice; enjoy your time with your pliable infant and prepare for when they become defiant, emotional, and challenging. Fear can be associated with the “terrible twos,” particularly the associated tantrums. So, let’s explore why we see such a shift in behavior and consider if our toddlers are really terrible or if something else is happening.
It’s crucial to understand that a lot is going on with our kids from 9 months to around three years, including motor, intellectual, social, and emotional skills development. Specifically, our little people are grappling with their desire for independence versus their ultimate reliance on their parents.1 They recognize that they are independent of their parents and that their actions influence those around them. In addition, they are learning what control they have over their world and how they can use this knowledge to meet their needs, which introduces tantrums.
Why the Twos Aren’t Really Terrible, and What is Going On
Tantrums are terrible, but it doesn’t mean your child is terrible. When we better understand why tantrums occur, developmentally speaking, it gives context to our child’s behavior, making it easier to handle. It also gives us more cues and strategies for supporting them through some big feelings. As I mentioned, our little people are starting to recognize they can impact the world around them, which is one trigger for tantrums.2 Yep, your child has noticed things that might happen when they have a tantrum; perhaps you don’t like tantrums and will give in to their requests for a chocolate bar or a small trinket when they throw one at the supermarket. Or you whisk them away from an unpleasant situation when they shout, kick, or scream.
Tantrums might also occur because your child struggles emotionally with their desire to be independent yet has little control over their world. This lack of control can result in some pretty big feelings and frustration. This may result in a tantrum because toddlers struggle with emotional regulation and haven’t yet learned how to manage emotions like sadness or anger. We are not born with these skills; we need to learn and perfect them as we age.2,3 In addition, our little ones don’t yet have the language to express their needs, so while they might feel the desire to have more control or independence, they cannot verbally express this, which in turn leads to frustration and anger (or even sadness) because they don’t feel heard or acknowledged and they have no way of trying to get their needs met.2,3
We must reframe things sometimes. Yes, the twos — and toddlerhood in general — can come with challenges, but there are some terrific things about our toddlers:
It may seem scary or sad for some parents to know their baby is growing up. But for many, it’s a relief to have brief snatches of time when you can enjoy your still-warm coffee while your little person is making a discovery.
It’s a privilege to watch our little people grow, develop their preferences, and figure out who they are as people who are unique and separate from their parents. This stage of development is when parents might notice their children saying funny things or showing their insights about how they see the world or the little quirks of their character.
As they recognize they are unique individuals, toddlers also recognize that other people “exist” and have unique thoughts and feelings. This is the groundwork required to build empathy, which helps them respond to others’ emotions and needs in sensitive and compassionate ways.
Clarifying your rules and expectations and ensuring you don’t give in to tantrums will reduce their overall severity and frequency. When your child knows what to expect, they feel more in control of their world, are less fearful or frustrated, and are less likely to tantrum. The key here is to balance their increasing need for independence and clear and consistent boundaries by giving them age-appropriate choices and keeping rules and limits to non-negotiables. This means not having too many rules and focusing on the important ones.
Every parent has a unique personality and skills and will be better equipped to manage different developmental stages throughout their child’s life. So, try and reframe, find the positives, ask for help, focus on developing a new skill set, and know that this phase, too, shall pass.
They are learning to be independent, which is new for both of you but will be essential for their development and growth as they become young children, teens, and adults. So, try and focus on the positives of what these skills (which might be frustrating now) will bring them as they grow older.
Your Child Isn’t Terrible, and Neither are You
Tantrums and big feelings are 100% normal, and it doesn’t mean your child is “bad,” nor is it (usually) a reflection of your parenting skills. It’s just part of a child’s development. Reminding yourself of this can help keep the judgment and your feelings at bay when managing tantrums.
The toddler years are a huge time for our little people. They are developing so rapidly that we can sometimes struggle to keep up. We learn how to manage one behavior when a brand-new challenge appears. But try not to get too caught up in the terrible twos. Are they challenging? Yes, absolutely, but this time won’t last forever, and the skills they are practicing will culminate in them becoming well-adjusted, empathetic, independent young people. So, try not to wish the time away, and enjoy every moment as you witness the magic of your toddler unfolding and growing into an independent, unique little person.
1. Fields MA, Cole PM, Maggi MC (April 2017). “Toddler Emotional States, Temperamental Traits, and Their Interaction: Associations with Mothers’ and Fathers’ Parenting.” Journal of Research in Personality. 67: 106–119
2. Hughes, C, Devine, R. T., Mesman, J., & Blair, C. (2020). Understanding the terrible twos: A longitudinal investigation of the impact of early executive function and parent-child interactions. Developmental Science, 23 (6).
3. Kuersten-Hogan R, McHale JP (1998). “Talking About Emotions During the Toddler Years and Beyond: Mothers’ and Fathers’ Coaching of Children’s Emotion Understanding.” Infant Behavior and Development. 21: 514