The sudden refusal of favorite foods. The obstinate opinions. The public tantrums. The sympathy from parents who've been there.
That road to the terrible twos rarely begins and ends at your child's second and third birthdays. As your little one learns to walk, talk and play independently, she develops her own ideas, moods and opinions, but can’t always communicate them.
As she grasps for control, she runs head-on into parental boundaries. She also knows just what she’s missing when she doesn't get her way. This frustration leads to the terrible twos — as much a state of mind as a stage of development.
The key is to understand where your child is coming from. The same qualities that make these months so “terrible” also make them terrific! Toddlers are insatiably curious, whimsical and active. And, unlike cagey teenagers, you always know where you stand with a 2-year-old.
Embrace the terrible twos
This is an important point in early-childhood development. Your child is grasping for independence, exploring her surroundings and showing her likes, dislikes and temperament. She’s also finding her place in the family and learning the difference between right and wrong.
What's more, that stubborn streak has a flip side. Two-year-olds are learning to assert themselves, a handy trait in the adult world. First, be proud that your kid won't be a doormat. Second, make sure you don't turn into one. Teach her how to assert herself in an acceptable way. Don't give in to the very tactics that have earned twos their bad rep. Biting, hitting and kicking are off the table. Make it clear that making eye contact, using words, sharing and playing fair are most effective.
Not all twos are terrible
The terrible twos are different for each child. Temperaments vary widely, even among siblings, and a child with a vivid flair for drama could have a sister whose moods seem muted by contrast. Instead, she’ll find ways to test boundaries in her own unique way.
Dangerous exploration should, of course, be discouraged. Keep your child away from electrical outlets or places where she could fall. Safe exploration should be encouraged, be it paging through your new issue of People or climbing a tree (with your close supervision).
No matter what buttons a 2-year-old pushes, parents should react calmly. Children need a safe space to explore their emotions and learn how to express themselves properly. Which is exactly what you can provide.
The red face, flailing limbs and piercing screams of a tantrum can be alarming, but rest assured, they’re also normal. When a young child can't express her feelings, her frustration turns to anger and her anger to rage. Tantrums sometimes seem to come out of nowhere; other times, they are the culmination of a long chain of events.
Either way, your first step is to ensure that your child is safe. If she has a habit of breaking things, running into walls or throwing herself on the ground, you may want to hold her close or move her to a safe space, like a crib. Then simply let the tantrum run its course. Once she has calmed down, soothe her, give her a hug and — if she is able — let her tell you just what happened.
If you find that the tantrum is pushing your angry buttons, it’s sometimes best to remove yourself from the situation. Put your child in her crib or ask somebody else to care for her while you calm your nerves.
There are things you can do to help avoid (though, alas, not entirely prevent) tantrums. Enforce scheduled nap times. Provide regular meals and healthy snacks. A hungry or overtired child is more prone to outbursts.
Give your child some measure of control, offering choices within the boundaries you set — does she want raisins or bananas, for example. Would she like to go to the playground or the library. Setting limits in a loving way reduces her sense of powerlessness and feelings of frustration. You can hold your ground with a smile and a fair tone of voice.
Remember, 2-year-olds have very little self-control, so avoid punishment. Aggressive actions can be ignored as long as nobody was hurt. If a timeout is warranted, limit it to just a couple of minutes.
Talk to your child about how she is expected to behave, but in a positive way. Be clear and encouraging. Instead of saying, “Don't howl and scream when we turn off the TV,” try “We get to watch one movie today. Which would you like to choose?” If she behaves, give her a heaping dose of praise. If the tactic fails, stay calm and encourage her to do better next time.
And please, don't worry about strangers' opinions when your child throws a public tantrum. Most parents have gone through this. Avoid reacting in an overly harsh way, which sets a poor example for your child. Likewise, giving in to her demands sends the message that tantrums are a good way to get what she wants. If she sees that her tantrum is getting to you, she'll try it again and again. So stay cool.
If you are concerned about the intensity of your child's tantrums, or you are concerned about your reaction to them, consult your pediatrician.
And finally: When do the terrible twos end?
Most children put the terrible twos behind them around the time they turn 3. That's not to say that every day will go smoothly. But as they get better at expressing themselves with words and can communicate their wants without resorting to drama, they throw fewer tantrums and better understand the boundaries set by parents.