How to Deal With the ‘Terrible Twos’

While the ‘terrible twos’ can be tough, we caught up with some experts to help us understand how to get through this phase with patience, understanding, and grace.

By Wendy Wisner 

If you are the parent of a little one, you probably are feeling some trepidation about your child entering the toddler years—specifically the phase known as the “terrible twos.” The terrible twos is a term used to describe the challenges that come with raising a 2-year-old.

But although the name makes this phase sound, well… terrible, not every moment of parenting a 2-year-old is dreadful. In fact, 2-year-olds are inquisitive, imaginative, adorable little creatures. Moreover, having the right attitude—and a few tricks up your sleeve—can make the hard parts much easier to navigate.

We caught up with some experts in the field to help us understand the terrible twos better and to offer some tips for getting through this phase with grace, know-how, and a healthy perspective.

What Are the Terrible Twos?

“The ‘terrible twos’ is a term used to describe the sometimes challenging behaviors of kids around the age of 2,” says Ali Alhassani, MD, pediatrician and head of clinical at Summer Health. Interestingly, according to Dr. Alhassani, the term “terrible twos” has been used since the 1950s or so. It generally describes a toddler who says “no” frequently, tends to challenge authority (i.e., their parents), and has frequent mood swings, he says.

Oh, and don’t forget about tantrums. Kids in the throes of the terrible twos tend to throw tantrums “at the drop of the hat,” Dr. Alhassani describes. Still, he assures, however loud and disruptive 2-year-old behavior can sometimes be, parents should be aware that this is a developmentally normal phase.

“Parents may be annoyed to hear this, but this is normal, healthy behavior for a child whose brain is rapidly developing,” explains Dr. Alhassani. “They are learning to express their desires but still lack the ability to have patience and emotional regulation.” He also notes there is a wide range of normal when it comes to the terrible twos. While some toddlers are quite challenging at this age, others are more easy going and calm.

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When Do the Terrible Twos Start?

The terrible twos tend to hit hardest around the age of 2, but there are no hard and fast rules. Some children are early bloomers while others come into their fussy, obstinate phase a little later. “While there are some early birds who may begin to demonstrate terrible two behaviors prior to 2 years (18 months+), most children begin to exhibit increased emotional instability, outbursts, and oppositionality between the ages of 2 and 3 years,” says Jennifer Weber, PsyD, director of PM Behavioral Health for PM Pediatric Care.

Of note, Dr. Weber says that it’s also common for kids to develop terrible two behavior after they turn 3. This can be an unwelcome surprise to parents who thought they were well and done with this phase! “When it manifests a bit later, it is often due to the demands of toileting, preschool/daycare, and social constraints they are struggling to adjust to,” Dr. Weber explains.

What Are the Signs of the Terrible Twos?

So how do you know your child has entered the dreaded terrible twos? One classic sign is that your toddler will frequently refuse to do things you ask them to do, says Dr. Alhassani “Your toddler will frequently say ‘no’ to things like getting dressed, eating, and going to sleep (often called a sleep regression),” he describes.

Your child will also begin to throw tantrums over seemingly small grievances, Dr. Alhassani says. Furthermore, you might notice your child deliberately not following their normal routine as well as exhibiting troubling behaviors such as biting, throwing objects, and destroying toys, Dr. Weber explains.

How Can You Deal With the Terrible Twos?

It’s normal to feel distressed about your toddlers’ new and sometimes explosive behaviors, but there is hope. Here are some expert tips for getting through this challenging stage.

Adjust your expectations

Having realistic expectations about what the 2-year-olds are like and what you should expect of them in terms of behavior can go a long way. Just because your child now knows how to walk, talk, and feed themselves doesn’t mean they are ready for high-level instructions, says Dr. Alhassani. So cut your toddler (and yourself) some slack.

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Have a behavior plan

Dr. Weber suggests having a clear plan to reward positive behavior and also plans for how to address any off-task behavior. Every parent is different, but this may involve removing your child from situations that are unsafe or disruptive and/or implementing time-outs. Rewarding positive behavior may include praising your child consistently when they behave well. All of this will teach your child which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. This also gives your kiddo plenty of opportunities to learn to emotionally regulate.

Set up consistent routines

It can be super helpful to pre-empt any negative behaviors, says Brianna Leonhard, founder of Third Row Adventures, certified teacher, and board certified behavior analyst (BCBA). “Parents can help manage terrible twos by setting up routines in advance before tantrums begin,” she says. Again, this may involve consistent responses to unwanted behaviors and consistent positive affirmations for good behavior. Additionally, creating predictable, persistent routines around daily activities and naps/sleep can reduce anxiety and decrease tantrums, says Leonhard.

Give your child two choices

Leonhard is a fan of giving your child choices whenever possible. “Parents can provide two choices to toddlers to give them a sense of authority while still maintaining parental control,” she says. For example, during snack time, you can offer your child a banana or an apple, both healthy choices. “The toddler is given a choice and can take ownership in their snack, but the choices presented are both acceptable options for the parent,” she describes.

Help your child find their ‘calm body’

Dr. Weber says that, young as they may be, even 2-year-olds can learn calming techniques to deal with “big” feelings. Start early by helping kids develop skills like deep breathing and finding their “calm body,” Dr. Weber describes. You can teach these skills when your child is not in tantrum mode so that, when they are, they will be able to draw on those skills and use them.

For example, if your child is beginning to become dysregulated, you might be able to remind them that they are not having a calm body, which should remind them to use previously learned techniques for calming down. According to Weber, you can say something like, “Honey, your body is not calm. You are crying so hard. We are going to step into the other room and I am going to wait for you to have a calm body before we continue playing.” Praise any attempts your child makes to calm themselves. With time, they will get better at doing so.

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When to Seek Outside Help

While most “terrible two” behavior is normal, and something your child will outgrow, there are some behaviors that warrant a bit of outside help. “If you feel your child’s behavior is escalating to include potentially dangerous behaviors, such as head-banging, hurting siblings, or property destruction, it is essential to loop in your child’s pediatrician,” says Dr. Weber.

Your pediatrician can help you understand if this behavior is normal, or whether a referral to a child therapist, neurologist, developmental pediatrician, or other behavior specialists is needed. Whatever the case, remember that you are not alone. Raising 2-year-olds is hard. But like everything else parenting-related, this too shall pass.

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