Updated: Mar 18
Does this sound familiar? Your cute-as-a-button 2-year-old asks for candy in the check-out line at the grocery store. You say no. What happens next is the stuff of parent nightmares: Your child melts into a screaming, crying heap right before your eyes — capturing the interest of ALL of your fellow shoppers.
Ah, the “terrible twos.” While the phase won’t last forever, it sometimes can feel like it will never end. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to have some strategies for handling your toddler’s unruly behavior.
The toddler years: What’s happening?
For every child who seems to skip the meltdown stage altogether, there’s another whose terrible two phase seems to last for years. “While most children fall somewhere between those extremes, it is very common for children to go through a phase of unruly behavior somewhere between the ages of 18 months and 4,” says pediatrician Mary Wong, MD.
“The toddler years are a time of rapid growth — physically, mentally and socially,” she says.
During this time, most toddlers develop their sense of self and start to want to do things independently.
“When a toddler’s desire to do something doesn’t align with their ability, frustration is often the result,” Dr. Wong says. “To further compound things, toddlers typically don’t have the language skills to ask for help if things don’t go smoothly.”
This gap between desire and ability can cause frustration, unruly behavior (like biting other children) and tantrums.
Tips for coping with the terrible twos
“While there is no quick fix for undesirable toddler behavior, you can take steps to help things go more smoothly when the terrible twos emerge,” Dr. Wong says.
Respect the nap. Try to plan outings or errands around nap time, when your child is less likely to feel irritable.
Stick to a schedule with meals. Plan outings at times when your child won’t be hungry. For longer trips, pack healthy snacks and drinks so your child has something to nibble on, if needed.
Talk through triggers ahead of time. Talk to your child about potential triggers before entering a store. For example, let her know she is not allowed to have a candy bar, but if she is good at the store she can have a treat afterward.
Don’t cave in. If you give in when your child throws a tantrum about the candy/toy/whatever-they-want, it will only be harder next time. Head off tantrums over the long run by standing firm with your child.
Cure boredom. Instead of harping on a child who is acting up out of boredom, try to come up with creative, socially acceptable ways to keep them occupied.
Be consistent and calm. At home, it’s best to let your child work through their tantrum. In public, remove your child from the situation as quickly as possible. If your child throws a tantrum, take a deep breath, respond calmly and don’t give in to demands.
Redirect when necessary. When your child misbehaves, it’s tempting to explain why the behavior isn’t OK. Instead of offering a lengthy explanation — which your child may struggle to understand — try to redirect your child either verbally or physically to help her focus on something else.
When misbehavior strikes, it’s helpful to remind yourself that you aren’t alone.
Rest assured, “Your child won’t still be going through this phase when they go off to college,” Dr. Wong says.