How to Deal with Toddler Tantrums & Understanding the Terrible Twos

Simply stated, two year olds may be little people who haven’t been around for very long, but they can be extremely effective in challenging our authority and our patience in a big way. (Of course, they are not as well skilled at dealing with their own frustrations.) Toddlers “want what they want when they want it” and will do whatever it takes to get it! This can get even more complicated if you are dealing with a “strong willed” two year old rather than a more “easy going” child. In either case, the results of their refusals can range from cooperation to confrontation and are affected by the personality characteristics of both the adult and the child involved.

We must first understand the world of a two year old in order to understand how to overcome the challenges of parenting a two year old and developing techniques that allow an adult to effectively handle the needs of these potential tyrants. As you will find in the Pillars for Success parenting program, the world view of a two year old is best summarized as: It’s All About Me. IAAM is “code” for:

“What I need and what I want is all that matters.”

“I’m the center of the universe and nothing else is as important as me.”

“I am in control of everything so stop trying to tell me what to do because you’re bugging me!”

Dealing with a two year old can feel similar to training a tiger. Despite the challenge, teaching him that safety, boundaries, and following directions really are important remains the goal. However, parenting an adorable two-year-old sweetheart who can seemingly “turn on you” in the blink of an eye can be unsettling. Techniques to overcome this barrier are easy to explain; applying these techniques to your daily parenting while you are being challenged is the hard part. It’s important that you “practice, practice, practice” the insights and techniques we discuss so that they become familiar items in your parenting toolbox.

Understanding your two year old

Examine the following concepts to help yourself learn the most effective ways to teach your child the lessons of life that are appropriate to their age:

1. Two year olds are “concrete” thinkers.

This means that they learn best from our actions, not our words. Concrete thinkers are all about the “physical” world. Communicating with a concrete thinker by talking is not nearly as clear as communicating with our body language: our gestures, our facial expressions, our voice (whether calm or forceful), how abruptly or gently we move our bodies. The most effective messages are the ones in which the words we speak match our body language because “concrete thinking” is all about what can be seen.

2. Two year olds are “egocentric”.

In typical human development, young children focus on themselves. They do not consider the needs and wants of others and instead focus on satisfying their own wants and needs.

3. Two year olds are not practiced in connecting their “behaviours” and resulting “outcomes”.

They simply haven’t had enough experiences in life nor have they developed to the point that they understand that how they get their needs met affects the responses they receive. Their primary concern is getting what they need and what they want in whatever way possible. As we discussed earlier, parenting a more “easy going” child can be a milder experience, but if you are the parent of a strong willed child then parenting is a much more intense challenge.

The rules of effective parenting 

1. Be consistent.

Once you set a fair boundary, do not change your expectations. Every time adults change the boundaries they are inviting new testing behaviors from the child just because the boundaries are new and uncertain and the child will want to test them. Be sure that your outcomes for different behaviors are also consistent so that your child clearly knows what will happen.

2. Remain calm.

The more dramatic your responses become the more the child will feel in control and will continue to try to evoke these responses (and will be surprisingly successful).

3. Speak briefly (in just a few short phrases rather than long and detailed sentences).

Children do not have the attention span to listen to long-winded lectures. This is especially true when they are upset. If a parent cannot say what is necessary in a sentence of 5-10 words then it is often unheard. You can even try asking an older child to “please tell me what I just said,” and he will usually be unable to do so because he wasn’t listening. Furthermore, in order to communicate a clear message your comments should describe the behaviour you are expecting without spending time on the moral aspects, such as “respect” and “cooperation.”

4. Respond to challenges by repeating your response slowly and calmly.

The more you become upset the more the child focuses on being in control of your “upset.” Conversely, the more calmly you respond, the more you are communicating that you are in control of both your feelings and the situation.

5. Respond to physical challenges by creating a “safe space.”

In the event that your child becomes physically aggressive (either throwing an object or trying to hit or bite or hurt you in some way) put a barrier between yourself and the child (perhaps a pillow or a chair). Calmly inform him that you will not allow him to hurt you or break things. Create a “safe space” in your home that is stimulus free and has clear boundaries, such as your laundry room, a hallway, or a corner space in a chosen room with nothing in it but a soft blanket. Practice taking your child to the “safe space” to teach him that when he is aggressive he will be in the safe space so that everyone is safe. The younger the child, the shorter the time in the safe space, but it should always be at least one minute. Make sure the “safe space” is experienced as a location that is safe and comfortable. Your purpose is not to punish the child but to teach him about safety and protection.

6. Make sure that what you say matches the way you feel.

Do not say, “I’m not angry,” if you are feeling angry. Calmly inform the child that his behaviour is not alright and that you are not okay with his choices. Then let him know what behaviours are acceptable.

7. Continue to be consistent.

Once you have decided on a calm, consistent response, be sure to repeat that response in the same way each time the behaviour reoccurs.

8. Reinforce safety.

If your child responds in tears, frustration, and behaviours intended to vent and gain control then repeat your directions again. Perhaps take him to the “safe space” and tell him why he is there. Explain that you will “set a timer” and when it rings you will ask him if he can be “safe.” If he says, “Yes,” he can come out.

9. Offer choices.

When possible, offer your child a “choice” that will empower him to stop the undesired behaviour, hopefully well in advance of any additional negative behaviours. As an example: “I will put your toys away when you throw them. Would you like to throw the bean bag on the floor instead?”

10. Practice.

Remember that situations like these provide an opportunity to develop and practice effective techniques for responding to challenging behaviour that will eventually result in a decrease and often elimination of that same challenging behaviour when used consistently.

The Challenges of Inconsistency

Most of all, remember that if your own past responses to your child’s behaviour were inconsistent you may have created additional challenges. Inconsistency results in repeated testing behaviours. Once you have your plan in place then each time your child tests you is a brand new opportunity to be consistent and set boundaries in a positive way. It is also an opportunity to reinforce positive behaviour choices. Eventually the testing/control behaviours will lessen in response to your calmness, fairness, and consistency.

Remember, too, that praising your child for good choices reinforces those choices and establishes positive exchanges between you and your child.

Bonus suggestion: try “marvelling” to your child when he makes a good choice. Here’s how that might sound: “What a good job you did when you ________________. How did you remember to do that? Hooray for you!”

The Seemingly Inevitable Tantrum

 Many parents struggle with what to do about tantrums and upsets that literally seem to happen without warning.

As hard as it may be to accept, with rare exception, tantrums NEVER happen without warning. The answer to “where did THAT come from?!” can be found by increasing your awareness of the events that lead to a tantrum as you observe your child more carefully. Try looking for the following:

  1. How long does your child entertain himself independently?
  2. What time of day and under what circumstances does that occur?
  3. What are the early signs that your child is getting “antsy” and may begin seeking attention?
  4. What are the causes for attention seeking behaviour? Hunger? Boredom? Needs to be cuddled? Diaper needs changing? Tired?
  5. What have I done in the past that has calmed the child?

Behaviour is almost never “random,” and the more carefully you are able to identify the events and needs that lead to the undesired behaviour, the more efficiently you will be able to meet those needs and avoid the ensuing tantrum.

Developing social skills

How can a parent encourage cooperative ways to share and play with other children?

Try these techniques to teach your child how to greet other children:

  1. Practice saying “hi” when you and your child see other children by first role playing this skill at home. Role play using dolls and stuffed toys. Simply practice saying “hi” to others in the home and reinforce this behaviour by rewarding/praising your child every time this occurs.
  2. Praise your child for greeting other children in such a kind way, and thank him for being friendly.
  3. Role play saying “hi” whenever your child comes over to you and encourage him to say “hi” also. Praise him for being friendly and/or give him a little treat or a hug or a big smile.

If it is difficult/uncomfortable for your child to share, try some of these suggestions:

  1. Have two sets of toys: one set that belongs to the child and a separate set of random toys that the child knows belong only to you.
  2. Honour the fact that for some children sharing is experienced as an uncomfortable invasion (similar to “theft”) that remedies over time as the child matures. If your child is not developmentally ready to share his own toys then don’t require this from him. Instead, tell your child that you will share your toys and offer the child to play with and share YOUR toys with his playmates. This will set a clear example and give your child opportunities to practice sharing while honouring his need to control his own toys.
  3. Remember that learning to share is a developmental skill and when your child is ready to share his own toys he will do so.
  4. If the child randomly decides to share one of his own toys, praise him and let him know that if he wants to put his toys away it is okay with you if he decides to share your toys.

How to deal with aggression towards pets

There are several reasons this may occur:

  1. The child may be seeking a sense of power and control. Doing something to an animal generally results in an immediate response from the animal and the child feels powerful as a result.
  2. The child may be deciding that being rough with an animal is a fun way to play (especially if the animal does not retaliate).
  3. Remember, it is likely your child has an inability to consider that being aggressively playful with an animal can scare or hurt the animal.
  4. Being rough with an animal is an almost foolproof technique to capture the attention of the adult.

Here are a few techniques to reduce aggressive behaviour toward animals:

  1. Ask the child if he can help you take care of the animal. Tell the child specifically what you want him to do. For example, “Can you please whisper when you talk to the dog and pat him very gently so he feels safe?”
  2. Demonstrate the suggested technique to the child.
  3. Praise the child for being gentle with the animal so that the animal feels safe.
  4. Using a stuffed animal, you and the child can role play ways to be gentle and caring followed by praising the child and offering him a treat for such gentle care. Rewarding this good behaviour will reinforce it and help eliminate the undesired behaviour.
  5. Practice with a real animal to reinforce the expectations you have defined with the child.
  6. Remember to reward the child for his gentle caring (with a hug, a big smile, a “thank you,” a treat, etc.).

Is your parenting cup half full or half empty?

The world of parenting is rich with challenges and opportunities. Is the cup half empty or is it half full? The challenges you face can be defined as opportunities for growth (both your growth and the child’s growth) or they can be defined as hurdles. In all cases let’s look at the opportunities and redefine conquering the hurdles as opportunities to gain wisdom and insight. Yes, there will be times of frustration and failure! Yes, there will be days you wondered what you were thinking when you decided to have kids! It is at those times that the strength of conquering the challenges will empower you to overcome what is currently being experienced as hurdles.

Article by Sandra Kwesell, Child Development and Family Dynamics Expert, Pillars for Success

About The Author

Sandra Kwesell
Child Development Expert

Sandra Kwesell, Child Development and Family Dynamics Expert is the founder of the Pillars For Success program, and she learned many lessons growing up in a home with an older brother who had significant behaviour issues that tore at the foundation of the family. With undergraduate degrees in Elementary Education and Special Education and a Master’s degree in Counselling, she has worked with youth and families in preschool and other educational, therapeutic, day treatment, residential, and correctional settings. She has witnessed firsthand the life-altering catastrophes that can arise from behaviour that is out of control. Sandra is honoured to serve on the Board of Directors of Joint Initiatives for Youth and Families in El Paso County, Colorado. Sandra is also the mother of four children, and has been a foster parent for 25 years, sharing her home with children for whom living in a home… and participating in family and community life… would not have been possible without the rules and tools in the Pillars for Success program. She has “walked the walk” and continues to do so! Throughout her journey she has tested, re-tested and simplified interventions that are based on established research in child development. She discovered that there are actually only three core needs that explain why children act out and she has developed amazingly effective techniques to meet those needs. Learn more about Sandra and what the Pillars for Success program can do for your family at http://pillarsforsucces.com. Contact Sandra directly at sandra@pillarsforsuccess.com with comments, questions and concerns on any subject related to children’s behaviour and positive solutions.

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