Posted on: December 24, 2019 at 8:03 am

As a young parent you’ve probably heard the warnings- “they’re perfect now, but wait till they turn two!”. Maybe you haven’t gotten to that stage yet, or maybe you’re already in the thick of it, wondering how you’re sweet, cooing baby turned into this irrational little monster seemingly overnight.

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Even if you’re not a parent, you’ve probably heard the term “the Terrible Twos”. This is the stage in your child’s life when an untied shoelace results in a complete melt-down, or lunch time turns into a warzone because you “cut the sandwich wrong”. 

Yes, this can be a frustrating, bewildering, and down-right exhausting period for a parent. But what is really going on here, and how can you navigate this crucial time in your child’s life?

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Why is Your Two-Year-Old So Terrible?

When your child is a baby, you cater to their every need. The world, and your life, revolves around them. By the time they are two, however, you start to place certain expectations on them. Now, they are expected to be nice and polite, to behave, to listen, and to follow rules [1].

This coincides perfectly with a period of profound changes in your child’s moods and behaviours. Two-year-olds undergo major motor, intellectual, social and emotional changes [2]. They also have reached an age where they understand a lot of what is being said and done around them, but they lack the vocabulary to adequately express themselves [2].

This is also a time when you’re toddler is struggling with their reliance on you, the parent, and the desire for independence. They want to do things on their own, but the expectation to follow rules can contradict their desires, which leads to temper tantrums and what you might regard as irrational behaviour [2].

This is the perfect storm of factors that creates conflict between you and your toddler, and may even leave you wondering whether you’re a good parent. Don’t dismay- while it may seem like you’re never going to be able to enter a grocery store again without causing a scene, this is a completely normal part of your child’s development, and will get better as time passes.

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Aggression is Normal

It may be shocking to see your child hit, push, or scratch someone else. You might think “why are they doing that? I certainly didn’t teach them to hit!”

The truth is, while it is not something to be encouraged, aggression is completely normal, and is something that has to be unlearned, rather than learned [3].

Aggression is simply the automatic response of the underdeveloped brain to a threat, and is actually a part of our biology that can be potentially life-saving. Without it, we would be unable to defend ourselves or others against threats [3].

What your child needs to learn, of course, is how to suppress their aggressive impulses when they are unnecessary [3].

As your two-year-old matures and their brain develops, their ability to suppress aggressive behaviour will increase, and their impulse to lash out will diminish. Essentially, your child will gradually evolve into the age of reason [3].

Tips For Parenting a Two-Year-Old

Your child at this age is learning for the first time to navigate strong emotions, and it is your job as a parent to guide them through this challenge. Here are a few ways you can help your child cope with their feelings and emotions:

Talk about feelings. Learning to identify the emotion they are experiencing is an important step in teaching your child to handle that emotion. You can do this by reading books and noticing out loud how the characters are feeling and why. You can talk about your own feelings- if you spill something, tell your child you are frustrated that you spilled, and ask for help to clean it up. Offering a suggestion for how to handle the emotion or solve the problem teaches them to do the same [4].

Validate you child’s feelings. Saying something like “you are really angry right now because I said you couldn’t have more dessert”, shows your child that you understand their feelings. You can then offer suggestions for how he or she can express that emotion in a healthy way [4].

Let your child make age-appropriate choices. A two-year-old might be too young to decide what’s for dinner that night, but giving them the autonomy to make their own decisions in other, more age-appropriate areas gives them confidence and a sense of control. Maybe you give them two outfits to choose from, or let them decide which book to read – even small choices can go a long way in giving your child a sense of competency [4].

Sometimes, you have to ignore them. This sounds harsh, but when you have tried a number of other ways to calm your child down during a temper tantrum, sometimes the best thing you can do is walk away. At this point, their emotions have gotten the better of them, and the best thing you can do is make sure they are safe, then wait until they have calmed down a bit to talk about the emotions they are feeling [5].

Lend a helping hand. Sometimes your toddler will have a meltdown because they are having difficulty with a task, like they can’t get the juice container open or they can’t find the toy they want to play with. Calmly offer to help, and explain to them why it is better to ask for help than to get upset [5].

Set limits. “Because I said so” is not a great way to discipline your child. Set limits and explain to them your reason why. They may be upset at first, but having limits teaches them self-control [5].

Use time-outs. This is a classic strategy for a reason – it works. If you have already disciplined your child but they are continuing with their negative behaviour, remove them from the situation. A good rule of thumb is one minute for every year of age. Do not respond to anything they say or do during this time, instead wait until timeout is over and they have calmed down. Then you can explain to them why they were put in a timeout  and why what they did was wrong [5].

Hang In There

The terrible twos can seem like they are lasting an eternity, and you will never see the light at the end of the temper-tantrum-filled tunnel, but rest assured this stage will come to an end. Try your best to be patient and understanding, and remember that stage of life is crucial for your child to develop into rational, emotionally-capable adults.

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Brittany Hambleton
Team Writer
Brittany is a freelance writer and editor with a Bachelor of Science in Foods and Nutrition and a writer’s certificate from the University of Western Ontario. She enjoyed a stint as a personal trainer and is an avid runner. Brittany loves to combine running and traveling, and has run numerous races across North America and Europe. She also loves chocolate more than anything else… the darker, the better!

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