The Terrible Twos: what's going on?

We’ve all seen them: the toddler screaming blue murder in the veg aisle at Tesco, the prostrate child thumping arms and legs on a pavement, a hissy fit over a “No” to an ice-cream. And nearby a wilted mum on the verge of tears. The meltdowns the calmest of toddlers can suddenly be susceptible to are bewildering, exhausting – and normal.

“It’s children doing what they are supposed to do,” explains Joanna Fortune cheerily, a psychotherapist at the Solamh Parent Child Relationship clinic in Dublin, who reckons the “Terrible Twos” should be renamed the less catchy Developmentally Appropriate Twos. “It’s such a negative phrase and gives the impression that it’s something to be stopped, when really it needs to be “supported”.

So, never be ashamed, embarrassed or despondent if you’re the one on the end of a toddler strop. Most people who’ve had children understand and the lovely ones even come up and say so. It’s not as though a bell goes at 24 months and the tantrums immediately start (they may never). Just as the age physical developments – such as smiling, waving, crawling, walking, jumping – occur depends upon the child, so children can hit emotional milestones at different ages. Between one and three, toddlers have an explosion of brain development and, on top, during their second year, they move around more and become increasingly aware of themselves and surroundings. As a result, they will show greater independence and defiant behaviour. Hooray!

So, do parents just have to ride out the storm?

Not really, there are subtle changes we as adults can make to our own behaviour which may discourage and deflect the tantrums...

  • In her book, The Significance Delusion, therapist Gillian Bridge argues that meltdowns are not inevitable but, rather, are the result of unwise parental decisions regarding where adults take their children and how they deal with the tantrums. Sounds harsh, but she justifies her view by describing how some toddler rages could easily be swerved by not taking two-year-olds to inappropriate “adult arenas” – such as loud restaurants and shops where they are overstimulated and going to get fed up. Joanna Fortune supports this line of thought: “Bright lights, loud noise, lots of people, heat… that’s a lot of sensory stimulation and two-year-olds don’t have the regulatory capacity to deal with it.”

  • Entertain your child in ways they will want. A play in the park is more their line than meeting your friends and their toddlers in Costa Coffee.

  • Don’t let your toddler become hungry or over-tired. We all get cranky when we’re tired or peckish, but toddlers can't rise above it the way adults do.

  • Be firm about your decision whenever you say ‘No”. All adults want to be their child’s friend but be consistent and clear in boundary-setting. It’s so much kinder in the long run.

  • Avoid transporting a toddler long distances in the car. Walk where possible, giving them your full attention.

  • Stay calm and always keep your tone of voice low so they know that you are serious. Get down to your child’s level and try to make eye contact. Distract them and keep offering your love.

  • Respond to wanted behaviour, more than you admonish for bad (keep time-outs brief) and tell a child afterwards what they should have done instead, how they could have explained what they were feeling.

And before you know it, this testing developmental stage will have passed.

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