Every father has stories. Many are cute, adorable, or silly. But not all of them are, and many of these survival stories are probably about the Terrible Twos. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely because you have a toddler right now.
There are probably a number of questions on your mind:
- Where did my easy-going toddler go?
- What is up with two year olds?
- How do you handle trying situations?
- How do you lessen them going forward?
We’ll answer these questions and provide you with the tools to keep cool in the face of white-hot toddler rage. Like everything else, it will pass with time… or at least lessen.
Missing: Your happy child
Around the time they started walking, your infant became a toddler. This happened sometime between 9 and 15 months, with a fair amount of variability based on what your child’s brain was prioritizing. But it was probably a happy period, minus the tears that came with bruised elbows, bumped foreheads, and scraped knees. Your infant graduated, and they were very pleased with themselves.
Even with walking, however, your newly minted toddler was still reliant on you for a number of things. They were still mastering the pincer-grasp, so eating still required large items or help. They did not have much of a vocabulary, if any, so they didn’t know they could ask for something they wanted; if they were bored, they just wanted something fun to do. And they still looked at you as a source of everything good in life, because you were. They had no idea what their little minds had in store for them.
Then one day, you could do no right. Favorite toys were angrily tossed aside and crying resumed. Meals became a battle over sitting at the table, keeping food and plates on the table, and general mayhem. And any kind of change in routine or current state turned into a meltdown. Your toddler was switched in the night with some pod-child, designed to sown maximum chaos and misery.
But this is normal (usually).
What makes them terrible
The problem comes down to a defining characteristic of humans: the huge brain.
Building the brain
A number of complications came with the large brain. You might have noticed how our distant mammalian cousins seem to give birth to children that are much further along than our own. Even with a 40 week gestation, humans are born in a helpless state that takes months just to be able to control their body enough to roll over. Puppies can crawl at birth, even if blind, and horses and cows can follow Mom around within hours.
But with the relatively huge head of a human, 40 weeks is as far as gestation can last before labor and deliver becomes a risk to mom and child. So evolution decided to pop them out half-baked and let the rest of development occur external to Mom. For the most part, it works because primates like humans also developed social groups to help care for and protect a mom and child that are not mobile and vulnerable to nature.
Another complication is keeping that huge brain fed and developing. It takes away from physical development, which causes it to take even longer for humans to master any kind of movement, let alone walk. Even with the delayed physical development, the brain requires a lot of time to mature. In fact, there is evidence that it isn’t until the mid-twenties that a human brain matures, especially in the areas related to impulse control and planning. So always remember that a toddler is only two, not twenty-two.
I do (it)
It just so happens that in toddlers, the brain reaches a stage of self-awareness that coincides with greater physical independence. At a time they understand they are an individual with thoughts, emotions, wants, and needs, they have a body that can help with those goals. But it’s not perfect. While they know they are a person, they have limited ways to express those thoughts. And the lack of impulse control and planning means when an idea enters their mind, they want to do it now.
Taken together, you have a recipe for a strong, impulsive being that thinks it can do everything themselves. Interactions with others become a possible flash point if the toddler isn’t able to get what they want. This isn’t to mean that toddlers are irrational; one limitation of development at this point is that toddlers don’t understand that others have different information. A toddler might know that animal crackers come from the pantry, but they don’t know that the animal crackers are all gone. So if they want animal crackers, they won’t accept the answer that there aren’t any, because they know the pantry is where animal crackers come from.
Respond with love
As a father, the best thing you can do is help your toddler handle the situation. Because of the drive for independence, the greater body control, and the limited skillset, a toddler can find themselves in a difficult place. Whether it’s a tantrum, getting into something they shouldn’t, or just refusing to follow direction, you will find yourself in a position where you might want to scream or shout. However, this won’t actually help the situation and might make things worse down the road.
We’ll start with the one fathers are often most frustrated by: Tantrums. The good news is that it’s nothing you’ve done. All children go through them, even the most angelic. Tantrums usually start to surface around the 2nd birthday,
When a toddler’s ambition is thwarted or isn’t possible given the physics of the universe, the result is often tears or a tantrum. But as a father, it’s important to realize that this isn’t intentional misbehavior. A toddler who can’t satisfy a desire isn’t much different from an adult who didn’t get an expected result. Both will be angry, upset, sad, etc. But an adult (usually) will express those feelings, examine the situation for clues as to what happened, and eventually create a plan to attain the desired outcome or modify expectations.
A toddler lacks those tools. They feel the emotions, but don’t have a way to deal with them. Such strong feelings overwhelm the basic problem-solving and self-soothing skills a toddler has learned, resulting in the meltdown. And this occurs even in the most routine of situations, like mealtime or at the park. As a father, this is not the time to scold, cajole, or punish the child for “misbehaving.” Instead, you need to help the toddler calm down and return to a space where they can access their toolbox.
Don’t tantrum yourself
Stay cool and collected, even if you are stressed out yourself. Shouting or yelling back will only escalate the situation further, as will other outward signs of anger, fear, or other emotion. You’re allowed to feel them, and we urge you to vent your frustrations with your partner, parents, siblings, and anyone else who will listen. But for that moment, you need to keep a cap on it since it will likely help the situation.
This can be a tough one, especially when you’re in public. But if the tantrum is caused by you or your refusal to indulge your toddler, ignoring the demands that triggered the storm can be helpful.
Ignoring it doesn’t mean walking away or leaving the toddler alone, especially in public. It means that regardless of what your child wants, you will ignore the request and focus on keeping them safe. This is especially important if you are in a situation where a tantruming child can hurt themselves. Sometimes your toddler will want to run away and hide or otherwise disappear from your sight. If that’s the case, follow them, keep them out of unsafe spaces, and let them stew. Use judgement and experience to know how close to be, but if they want to run up to a wall and scream, it’s probably best. You likely want to do something similar. This can be helpful too, as if there is a certain item or person causing the tantrum, leaving the area can help your child cool down. Distraction can be a useful tool.
Ignoring the demands, especially if it’s one you can’t or won’t satisfy, is better for everyone. Tantrums shouldn’t lead to rewards, other than your child learning that you’ll still be there for them.
Talk about it later
While your toddler might only have just turned two and have limited language skill, you can still talk to them about it. Once they calm down, you can explain the situation. Let them know you understand they were frustrated, that you love them, and you’ll always help them out. If it was a meal they didn’t want, you can try to get them to ask for something else. Obviously if they want cupcakes, you might say no. But if they can express themselves, even in a simple way, rewarding them for calm words and actions is the goal. It might have been a toy out of reach or a lovey that was missing.
You can’t prevent all tantrums, nor should you try. Life is frustrating, especially when you can’t communicate clearly, your body doesn’t quite do what you want it to, or you hurt. Always keep this in mind and you can cut down on tantrums. Because frustration is often at the center of a tantrum, learning what sets your child off helps. Almost all toddlers will tantrum when stressed, hungry, or tired, and it’s a guarantee if all three are present. If you have to go out somewhere that is unfamiliar to your toddler, full of strangers, boring, or otherwise filled with things you know will stress you little one, at least make sure their belly is full and they had a good nap.
It also about adjusting expectations and your scheduled. If your child is sick or hasn’t slept well, it might not be the time to bring them somewhere. Kids are a great excuse to get out of things you don’t want to do, so use it when it makes sense. The more you push your toddler, the more tantrums you’ll see.
If you are worried about the number of tantrums, the length, or their behavior during it (often hurting themselves or others), talk to your pediatrician. Most of the time, it’s normal from a developmental standpoint, but there can be underlying issues contributing to it. It could be undiagnosed pain (infection, injury, etc.), sleep problems, or a sign of poor mental health that needs treatment.
The toddler’s favorite word once they learn it and the power behind it. There is nothing you can do to prevent them from using it, because it represents a simple way to communicate a decision or idea. But it’s also a word you need to use sparingly if you want it to have any impact
Pick your battles
The first thing to realize is that not all hills are worth dying on. Once you do that, you’re already miles ahead of your toddler. To toddlers, even the smallest hill can be a great place to fall in battle. Did you pick out the wrong socks? They’ll fight you to the death. The plate has the wrong character on it? They’d rather starve. In a room of identical toys? There’s only one that’s any good, and it’s the one someone else already has.
Simply put, toddlers want to make decisions about anything they can. They’ve watched you make thousands of decisions every day for the last 18 months or more and now it’s their turn. And the truth is this: let them. We’ve sent our kids to daycare in mismatched, from-the-hamper socks, wearing their pajama shirt, and carrying a reading light. Whatever it takes to get them out the door and into the car.
Another way to get around no is to provide options or make them part of the process. Give them two or three shirts to wear in the morning and ask them to pick one. Put a few different socks in from of them. Ask them to help you make dinner (it might just be spreading peanut butter on the bread or picking out fruit). They get the illusion of control, you get one less contest of wills.
The exception to the above is when it’s about staying healthy and safe. Toddlers will get themselves into trouble if given even a moment of time.
That’s where childproofing and removal of tantalizing items or areas is necessary. It’s impossible for them to fight you on something they don’t know about.
To that end, when you use no, it needs to have authority behind it. Our experience says the less frequently we say, “No,” to our toddler, the more power it has when we do. Reserving it for safety or truly dangerous misbehavior means that when used, it stops them in their tracks. And even then, it’s usually only broken out when they are really about to something risky. If we just want them to move on to something else, we redirect, distract, or just remove them from the situation. If they’ve backed the cat into a corner, guide them away.
When you break out no sparingly, you tend to overcome their resistance to being told what to do, if only for long enough to get them somewhere safe.
Looking for trouble
It’s not so much that toddlers intentionally misbehave. Rather, toddlers learn quickly that certain behaviors elicit certain responses. They bang on the table because they think it’s fun, their friends go along with it at daycare, or it gets them out of their booster seat.
That doesn’t mean they know it’s the wrong behavior, though. Discipline for a toddler is more about rewarding the right behaviors. This means that you praise and reinforce the things they do right. If they want to say they are all done eating, you have a positive reaction to when they ask or signal they are all done, even if manners say they should stay at the table. If they lie still for a diaper change, you praise them for being calm. If they share toys, congratulate them.
The underlying desire for the toddler is your attention. They want your love, you affection, your approval. So if you provide them with numerous positive ways to get it, you’re more likely to see good behavior.
That isn’t to say they will always behave. And as they get further into their toddler years and approach preschool, there is a better chance they will intentionally misbehave. When those times come up, punishment may have to come into play. The common one to use is a time out, though it’s hard to get your two-year old to understand it. Punishment when still young will likely be removal from the situation, getting them to calm down if they are upset, and keeping them away from the problem area.
Asking them more than a few times to stop an activity (such as climbing on something) usually means that you need to make it clear what the consequence is. So if they are standing on something they shouldn’t, correct the behavior. But if they continue to do it, give them an ultimatum (such as losing couch privileges). If that doesn’t work, remove them from the situation, deal with the upset child, if necessary, then distract them with something else. At some point, they will recognize that failure to follow direction means they no longer get to do what they want.
If you find yourself having trouble staying cool, keeping your toddler safe, or are concerned that your child has a behavior problem, by all means seek out a doctor or other professional. It could be your child is just exhibiting a lack of control around you and is an angel at daycare. This is known to happen, to the point you’ll believe that you aren’t actually bringing home the right kid each night.
If you need other resources, we recommend the following:
Just remember that at the end of the day, your toddler wants you around. They trust you and expect you to love them no matter what. And at this age, it’s all you can do. It will pass, and you’ll be on to new challenges and opportunities.