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How to Navigate the Terrible Twos

By Pam Dewey • terrible twos, how to manage the terrible twos, toddler behavior, kids behavior management, dealing with the terrible twos, kids testing boundaries, navigating the terrible twos, how to survive the terrible twos, teaching toddlers to behave, how to handle tantrums, managing toddler tantrums, parenting skills • January 07, 2021

We’ve all heard of the terrible twos. If you’re a parent, you’ve likely been on the receiving end of some of this behavior: a toddler who suddenly only seems to say the word ‘no,’ or is prone to frequent tantrums that may include crying, screaming and kicking.

While no one wants to be on the receiving end, experts say it’s typical for children from 1 to 4 years old to display this type of behavior. According to The Bump, acting this way is “all about testing boundaries, asserting independence and learning how to communicate needs and desires, as well as learning to recognize that those desires may sometimes be different than those of the child’s caregivers.” It’s an important part of a child’s development, and although it is unpleasant, it helps your child learn right from wrong and develop their sense of self.

But that doesn’t mean you should let bad behavior go. Here are some ideas to help navigate the terrible twos.

Have a consistent meal schedule

Sticking to a consistent meal schedule can help prevent meltdowns. Just like you get cranky if you’re hungry, so does your child. The difference is he or she doesn’t have the communication skills to express this. If you have to disrupt your child’s meal schedule, pack some healthy snacks to take with you.

Learn to redirect their behavior

When your child has a meltdown, try redirecting his or her attention. If you’re at home, you could sit down near your child, start playing with one of his or her toys and talk about how much fun you’re having. Or maybe you’re out in public, and your child wants candy. You could say, “What movie do you want to watch when we get home?” or hand your child a toy from your purse. You also might find it works better to remove your child from the situation as quickly as possible.

You may also be tempted to explain why your child’s misbehavior is bad. Your child likely won’t understand your explanation. It’s better to try to redirect his or her attention.

Avoid yelling

Yelling is often a knee-jerk reaction to bad behavior. However, try to remember when your child acts out, that this is a teaching moment. Yelling at your child will only scare him or her, and reinforce the idea that yelling is acceptable behavior. Instead, when your child misbehaves, get down on their level, and tell them in a firm voice that what he or she has done isn’t an appropriate way to act. Don’t explain why; instead, say something like, “No. We don’t kick people.”

Explain the plan

Your toddler doesn’t know you’re planning to leave the park in ten minutes. If you suddenly tell him or her that it’s time to leave, your child might get upset. Try explaining what is going to happen and give your child a warning. You could say, “We’re going to leave the park soon,” and remind him or her a few minutes later. Then right before you’re ready to go, say something like, “Okay, you get one more push on the swing, and then we have to go.” Your child might still get upset, but the more often you do this, the more he or she will come to understand the routine.

Limit choices

You might also be able to prevent tantrums by limiting choices for your child. Instead of having them pick out an outfit, give your child an option between wearing the red shirt or the blue shirt with stripes. That still allows your child a choice, but you aren’t presenting him or her with an overwhelming number of options.

You can also try eliminating questions with a yes or no answer. Instead of saying, “Are you ready for bed?” say, “Would you rather I read you ‘Goodnight Moon’ or ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ after I tuck you into bed?” Again, your child still gets an option, but you’re eliminating the possibility of a meltdown when your child says no.

Going through the “terrible twos” is an important developmental stage for children. They are learning to assert their independence. But you can prevent, or at least head off, some meltdowns by keeping a meal schedule, redirecting behavior, avoiding yelling, explaining the plan and limiting choices.