The “terrible twos” can feel very real to a parent who is dealing with a toddler. It’s understandable why children might act out at this age. They’re still learning to talk and expand their vocabulary, but they may not be able to articulate what they want or need. And they are just embarking on the journey of experiencing the world through strong emotions.
Two-year-olds also may not be able to understand concrete reasoning yet, which can end up leading to a lot of irritation, and even tantrums. Because of their limited communication skills, even more, frustration can start to build up.
The “terrible twos” can be hard enough to deal with when you have one child, but if you’re about to have another baby with a two-year-old in the house, you might be feeling extra stress. That can lead to feelings of anxiety and depression, and create even more significant problems for everyone in your home.
So, what can you do to survive the “terrible twos” in a positive way?
1. Don’t Deny Naps
Some children will stop napping at two or three years of age. But, if your child tends to get fussy and irritable around their usual nap time, let them rest and respect that time. Many two year olds will try to "drop the nap" for a short time, but if you press on, setting firm and consistent boundaries that they need quiet, restful time in the afternoon, most will eventually fall asleep on their own and get back into a nap routine. And keep in mind, that some children need more rest than others to be able to function correctly and to be happy.
It might also be smart to schedule things around your child’s nap time. Let them rest as long as they need to, and you might find they’ll be less irritable.
2. Diffuse the Situation Before It Starts
You’ll start to become more aware of the things that “trigger” your child as time goes on. Know your child's triggers and also avoid activities or outings that might introduce those triggers at times of the day when they are tired (i.e, right before nap or at the end of a long day.)
For example, if you take them to the grocery store, you might start to notice that they throw a fit whenever they can’t get a candy bar or toy. Set expectations ahead of time and talk to your child about them. Let them know before you even enter the store that they aren’t getting candy or a toy. They might be upset, but it can help to diffuse the situation before stepping into the store itself.
3. Don’t Give In
If you tell your child no, it needs to mean no. Using the store example again, if your child does start throwing a tantrum in the store and you give in to what they want, you’re only perpetuating the cycle.
It’s hard to hear your child get upset. It can be even harder to be embarrassed by a child having a tantrum. But, when you don’t give in, you’ll make it less likely for your child to throw another tantrum if they know it doesn’t get them anywhere.
4. Stay Calm
It can be tempting to let your temper show when your child starts having a tantrum at home or in public. But, one of the best things you can do is to stay calm.
At home, your best tactic may be to let them work through the tantrum without giving any extra attention. Many times, a two-year-old will act out for attention. You can calmly tell your child that you can’t help them unless they say what they want or need in a quiet voice. Eventually, they will learn that throwing a fit doesn’t get them what they want.
The #1 rule for diffusing any upset person (toddlers included) is to de-escalate the emotion by remaining calm. If they are upset and you become upset, they will become further upset. The same applies with your toddler. Meet high emotional intensity (aka tantrums) with steady calmness and your toddler will melt into your arms before you know it.
5. Show Consistency
As a parent, you already know how essential it is for your child to have a consistent routine. The same goes for dealing with your child when they are struggling to communicate. If your child is acting out, respond in the same way each time.
If you tell them something, mean it and follow through. Instead of explaining to your child while they shouldn’t be doing what they’re doing, try to redirect their behavior each time.
Explaining things will come with time. But, your child’s communication skills are still limited.
It’s better to show them that it’s more appropriate to do something else. But, again, follow through every time.
6. Know Your Triggers as a Parent
Does an upset and demanding toddler trigger feelings of anxiety or inadequacy within yourself as a parent? Does it trigger a feeling of lacking control and create a power dynamic? As parents, our children trigger emotional reactions within all the time. We need to tune into what it is we are feeling when our toddler is having a meltdown and understand at a deeper level why we feel an urge to respond in a particular way.
If it's an anxiety driven response, work to develop go to coping strategies to self-soothe and calm in the moment. With older children such as toddlers, make sure they are in a safe space and then take 5 minutes yourself to self-soothe and calm down. Then return to your toddler and try again. Chances are you will be calm by now and can approach the situation differently.
If you are feeling a lack of control, regular mediation and mindfulness practices can go a long way. Also keep in mind that it is often by surrendering control that we gain control of the situation. It is counter-intuitive but effective with toddlers. And recognize that often toddlers act out because they themselves feel like they lack any control of their environment. By ceding a bit of control on both sides, equilibrium can be achieved more easily.
The “terrible twos” can be challenging for any parent, whether you’re expecting another child or not. Keep these tips in mind to positively and effectively help your child through them, while reducing stress on yourself, too. For more support, please reach out to me today. I offer a complimentary phone consultation to all potential clients. To schedule yours in a matter of seconds, please check here.
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Jennifer Perera is a mom, spouse and Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has over a decade’s worth of experience in mental health. She has a private practice in New Jersey, with locations in Cranford and Princeton. Her passion is helping new moms and dads find their joy again in parenthood through individual, group and couples counseling. Jennifer specializes in working with parents during the prenatal and postpartum periods and those coping with a pregnancy loss or infertility. Her other passion is travelling to different parts of the world and her goal is to vacation in a different locale every time. She also has a great fondness for cats!