This toddler stage isn't just an awkward phase to be gotten through as fast as possible. It's an important period in your child's development.
"Over the next couple of years, she has to learn to do as kids do and babies don't, which means changing from diapers to underwear and out of a crib into a bed," says developmental child psychologist Penelope Leach, Ph.D., author of Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five. "She has to be able to eat and drink without bottles and sippy cups. And she has to know enough playground rules to get along with other kids."
The most dreaded of the signs of the terrible twos is public tantrums. Two-year-olds have always had a terrible reputation for delaying tactics, pickiness, and downright defiance. But the more we expect of young children, bringing them to restaurants and thinking they can control themselves in group settings like toddler classes, the more these behaviors seem to increase.
"A toddler isn't a baby anymore, and since he has to grow up whether he likes it or not, treating him like an infant will only make him balk," says Leach. "But a toddler isn't a preschooler yet either...treating him like he's older than he is makes him clingy.
While her in-between behavior—one of the hallmarks of terrible twos symptoms—is confusing for you, her own ambivalence is often painful for her, Leach explains. Your toddler has to pursue her own ends even when they're at odds with yours, but conflict feels desperately dangerous because she still loves and depends on you. "She needs to be sure you'll go on loving her," says Leach.
There are certain places parents visit as part of their weekly routines, such as health clubs, that provide childcare, and children are expected to accept the fact that they will be left under the watch of an unrelated adult for a stretch of time. "The reality is that while some do, many don't," says Leach. "And the fact that some kids will happily play with all those toys, not minding that Mommy or Daddy is going away, makes it hard for parents of the others to accept that it's age-appropriate for an under-3 to protest being left in that situation."
Bottom line: Some toddlers are more confident in social situations than others. If yours is a dive-in kid, fine. But if he's a need-to-know-you-first kind of person, that's fine too.
While discipline is needed in order to keep your toddler safe and teach her the difference between right and wrong, it is equally important to give your child some control over her life. To do this, give her options: Ask if she would like to wear a yellow or blue dress today or if she would like pretzels or an apple for snack. Avoid open-ended questions—they might cause frustration.
Temper tantrums are often sparked by your child's frustration at her inability to complete a task she thinks she should be able to do on her own. On top of this frustration, toddlers often get frazzled because they do not possess the language skills to express their feelings. Tantrums are normal for the development every child goes through and will decrease around age 4, once motor and language skills are better developed.
Temper outbursts are taxing on both parent and child. Luckily, there are tactics you can use to defuse the situation, according to Jeremy Friedman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto and author of The Toddler Care Book.
During a tantrum, it's important to remain calm and avoid inadvertently reinforcing the behavior. If your emotions escalate, so will your child's. Do not laugh or confront her. Instead, ignore your child without making eye contact and wait for her to calm down. This will ensure you are not reinforcing bad behavior.
After the tantrum, provide reassurance and guidance. Speak to her in a relaxed tone and teach her how to express her feelings to you through words instead of throwing a fit. Reassure your toddler that you love her, then move on to the next activity.
Letting your child cry at home is one thing, but when he throws a fit in public, it's embarrassing and chaotic. When a temper tantrum erupts in the middle of your weekly errands, remember that it does not make you a bad parent. Many of the people in the store are probably parents, so they understand the position you're in.
Start by removing your toddler from the situation by picking him up and taking him to a quiet place such as the car or the bathroom. Hug him until the tantrum stops and provide guidance as you would at home. Do not give in to your child's demands. If he knows he can throw a fit and receive a candy bar, you can bet on a repeat of the same situation next time you run errands.
The parents who have the hardest time with toddlers (and with teens, for that matter) are those who get into power struggles and feel they have a moral right to win them, says Leach. Most of the time, the harder you push, the more your toddler will resist and the more frustrated you'll get.
Instead, if you focus on getting your toddler to want to behave the way you'd prefer, you'll meet with less resistance. Think "potty mastery"—a matter of empowering your child by teaching him to recognize when he needs to go and get there himself—rather than "potty training," which is you taking charge of him and his body.
Temper tantrums often take place when your child is hungry, tired, bored, or feeling overwhelmed. Anticipate these outbursts by paying attention to your child's nonverbal cues and reactions to various situations. Provide a snack, settle him down for a nap, or play a quiet activity before he gets to the stage of potential tantrums.
If you want your toddler to understand something, you need to show her what you want as well as explain it, Leach explains. ("This way up for the sweater, see?") If you want her to do something, you usually need to do it with her. If you want her to go somewhere, take her there. If you want her to come, go get her. When you need to protect her from traffic, use your body to keep her in safety as well as your voice to tell her to stop.
Toddlers want their parents to be pleased with them so they can feel safe and pleased with themselves. "That's the key to understanding their difficult behavior and channeling it in a positive direction," says Leach.
Your child may behave badly because he doesn't know what you want. Or because he isn't capable of doing it. Or because he's capable under ideal circumstances but current circumstances aren't ideal for anything but a tantrum. Or just because (like the rest of us) he sometimes does what he wants instead of what he should. "However badly he may behave, it won't be because he intends to upset you," says Leach.
Even though the "terrible twos" is a trying period, this is an important time for your child to develop independence. Try to make this stage in his life as positive as possible. "I think the things that you do to help your children really blossom are to give your children freedom and to support them in their efforts," says Jen Meyers, co-author of Raising Your Child.
Provide support when your toddler gets frustrated, and help him find an outlet for his frustration. Take him on walks, or run around outside. Teaching your toddler how to deal with his emotions now will pay off for him in the future.
Copyright 2009 Meredith Corporation. Updated in 2018.