Terrible Twos? Why Two-year-olds tantrum

Every new parent hears the stories of how two-year-olds are awful.

They tantrum, they talk back, they throw things and bite and run away. Giggling maniacally while they do it. But raising a two-year-old doesn’t have to be a throw-away, grit-your-teeth-and-get-through-it year. Two can be a terrific age.

My youngest daughter is approaching two, and, having raised 5 other two-year-olds, I am anticipating her 2nd birthday with a certain amount of fear. After all, two is an age full of changes and transitions, and that can always be difficult to manage. But, having raised those other two-year-olds, I’m reminding myself that it can be quite fun too.

Two is a transition age.

Two year olds are moving from infancy to preschooler-hood. They’ve generally mastered communication, and while their vocabulary will grow by leaps and bounds daily, they know how to tell you what they need. Usually at the top of their lungs.

Two-year-olds aren’t quite as dependent on their parents as they used to be. Where as a baby, they needed you to do everything from put food in their tummies to helping them go to sleep, two-year-olds are usually in the stage of growing out of diapers. And with that new-found independence comes opinions.

Two-year-olds are some of the most opinionated creatures on the planet.

A determined two-year-old will outlast and out-manipulate the most defiant teenager or crotchety elder. A two-year-old on a mission is one of the scariest people out there. You don’t want to mess with a two-year-old who has decided on what they want.

Fortunately for us parents, they tend to have a short attention span and a short memory. And they can be negotiated with, somewhat. You can bribe two-year-olds fairly easily — and they’re cheap! Unlike teenagers, two-year-olds are happy with ice cream cones, rather than movie tickets or shopping trips. So you can distract and redirect a two-year-old. And, if it really comes down to it, you’re still bigger than a two-year-old, so you can still pick them up and move them if you have to.

Why do two-year-olds tantrum?

All those opinions and independent determination can’t make up for the fact that your little one is still just two. And two-year-olds can’t do a lot of the things they decide they want to do. Two-year-olds get frustrated really easily.

And our little ones are still little. They still need naps, frequent snacks, and lots of hugs, even when they resist. So a two-year-old who hasn’t had their nap, is a little hungry, or dealing with a big emotion they don’t know how to express is going to let it all out the only way they know how: with a meltdown.

Though on the surface they look quite similar. Meltdowns happen when a child is overwhelmed. Tantrums are when a child is trying to control their world.

Meltdowns are what most parents see, as their little ones navigate a big world.

And these periods of upset are difficult for both parent and child, because there isn’t a lot that can be done to stop a meltdown. Think of a meltdown as a volcano. All that pressure has to go somewhere, and once it explodes, you can’t stop until the pressure is fully released.

Tantrums are controlled and controllable.

A tantrum-ing child will adjust their tantrum mid-scream based on their audience’s reactions. They’ll always be watching you to see if you’re paying attention. And if they get what they want, those “tears” can be turned off immediately. A tantrum is like turning on a tap. It can look like a flood, but they can turn off the water anytime they like.

The best way to solve a meltdown is to prevent it.

You know your child best, so you know your child’s trigger points. You can tell when they’re getting hungry, even when they don’t say they’re hungry. And an apple, a granola bar, a few crackers, or even the occasional cookie can go a long way to preventing a meltdown.

Regular naps, frequent hugs and kisses, tickles and cuddles will also help prevent those meltdown moments. And when you know your child is getting close to their limit, you can remove them from the stressful or overstimulating environment.

You can also begin to teach your child some self-regulation and relaxation techniques, even at two. Try having them blow all their big feelings into your fist, or do a silly stomp dance with them. Stomping is a common anger response in children, but if you turn it into a silly dance, you can quickly change that anger into giggles.

Don’t treat tantrums the same way as meltdowns.

While meltdowns are a natural response to overstimulation, tantrums are a way to get attention and manipulate the situation.

The best way to handle a tantrum is to ignore it.

After making sure that your child is not in danger of hurting themselves, someone else or something, just ignore the tantrum and the child. Stay close, but don’t react. You may want to make a show of looking anywhere else but at them, while, of course, keeping an eye on them. Tantrums will soon stop as soon as the child realizes that it won’t get them what they want.

How do you tell the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum?

Tantrums are easily controlled and the child can stop quickly and easily. So if you can stop the tantrum by giving your child the toy or drink or whatever, it was a tantrum. A child who is in the middle of a meltdown will continue to whine, cry or yell, despite being given whatever it was they claimed they wanted.

Obviously, giving your child what they’re screaming for is not the best way to check for tantrum vs meltdown.

The easy way to check is to look at their eyes.

If they’re watching you for a reaction, chances are it’s a tantrum. If they’re not really looking at you, or at anything else in particular, it might be a meltdown instead.

Another way to tell is to listen.

You can tell the difference in what the child is saying, and how they’re saying it, or if not using words, how they’re crying. A child who’s mad and defiant sounds different than a child who’s tired and upset. A tantruming child will be looking for something specific, and they’ll repeat their demands. A melting child won’t necessarily be looking for something specific, and their demands will change frequently.

A third way to tell is to watch their behaviour.

Tantruming children tend to be specific in their actions. They will throw themselves on the floor deliberately, but a melting child will fall or drop. A child who is throwing a tantrum will be stiff and aggressive. A child who is having a meltdown tends to be floppy and defensive.

Sometimes the differences can be subtle, but if you pay attention, you can pick up on the cues.

Two -year-olds are testing the boundaries.

If you are frustrated because your two-year-old’s ears seem to have suddenly stopped working, it’s because of this testing.

Because two-year-olds go through a huge developmental shift just before they turn 2, their whole worlds have changed. Suddenly the world is a bigger place, and full of things to learn and explore. And they want to get out there and find out everything! Since they are now capable of more — and they know it — they are looking for where the boundaries are.

It’s our job as parents to carefully, frequently remind and teach our little ones where those boundaries are. Some things might have changed. The naptimes that your 1 year old had may now be reduced to one bigger nap, and the time of that nap has changed. They might be eating different foods – and they might not be as hungry as they were as 18 month olds. Their bodies, routines and abilities have changed.

Be patient with your two-year-old.

They’re having to learn the rules all over again. And they will push you over and over again. It doesn’t help that because they are exploring more, figuring out how to open doors/drawers, undo locks, open boxes, and pull things out, you’re probably chasing them more than ever. And why do they have to laugh about it?

I think it’s that laugh that drives me the craziest. It’s so adorable, but at the same time, it’s so inappropriate! It almost feels like they’re deliberately trying to drive us crazy. But I promise you, they’re laughing only because they learned something new, and mom reacted to it.

Why are two-year-olds so picky?

Barring sensory issues — which you’d probably have noticed before age 2 (I sure did!) — this again goes back to the amazing amount of changes that are going on inside and around a two-year-old. The pickiness that seems to happen around age 2 comes from, in my opinion, the need for things that are comfortable and familiar.

If your two-year-old is figuring out toilet training, no they aren’t going to be interested in trying out dragonfruit too. New foods, new clothes, new people and places might be too overwhelming for a little one to handle on top of their newfound ability to feed themselves, dress themselves, climb out of the crib and color with crayons.

Think about this for a second. Most of us wean our kids off breastfeeding or bottles between 1 and 2, and many of us will also try to get our little ones out of diapers and off a pacifier too after age 2. Is it any wonder they will insist on a favorite pair of pants, even though they now look like shorts?

Being 2 means there’s a lot of changes to cope with all at once.

Naptime changes. They may move up a room — with new kids, more kids, new teachers & new rules — at daycare or preschool. Or they may start a daycare or preschool after being at home all the time. They might outgrow a crib, or have a room change. And sometimes they get a new sibling at that age too!

Pickiness then comes from a need for control and a clinging to what’s familiar.

In all those changes, having the same thing for breakfast every day helps create some predictability and security for your little one. And wearing the same clothes every day might help them feel a little bit less anxious about the changes in their routine.

Help them manage their anxiety, and you might find their natural curiosity come back to play.

If you have the same routine every day, they might be more willing to try that strange spotted fruit (dragonfruit is yummy btw!). And don’t push. If they aren’t ready to try yet, just wait a little bit and ask again later. What they aren’t willing to try now might happen in another few weeks.

Why does a two year old’s favorite word always seem to be “no”?

Two-year-olds love to say “no”. Even when they mean yes, they can say no. This may be because “no” is one of the most common things your two-year-old hears. No, don’t touch. No, don’t hit. Or no, we don’t throw our toys. No leave the dog alone. Etc. Etc. We tell them no a lot. And they tell us no too.

Some of the “no”s might come from that burgeoning independence a 2 year old is developing. After all, if you’re going to actually let them choose, they might just test that ability by saying no.

It’s important to remember that we as parents need to respect our child’s “no”. And we need to teach them that saying “no”means something — it isn’t just a game.

So I always start by making sure that I phrase my sentences differently, and I’m only offering choices when there’s actually a choice they can make.

For example, I’m not going to say, “Do you want to come here, please?” when I mean “Get your little behind over here!”. I will say “Do you want juice?” when I’m asking them if they want juice for their drink. Then if they say no, I can give them water, instead, because whether they take juice or not doesn’t matter to me. And if they really did want juice, but said no, I can then remind them gently that “no” means no, and I respect their no.

We have a rule in our house that when someone says stop, or no, even if they’re laughing, you stop. You back off, right away. It’s not always perfect, because, as kids, sometimes it’s hard to remember to stop when you’re having fun and don’t want to stop. But I enforce that rule. And when the person who said “stop” says they didn’t mean it, it’s ok, I always remind them that words matter, and if they didn’t want to stop, they need to say that.

After all, consent matters. And it starts young.

Being two is a challenging age. It can be a terrible time. It can also be a terrific time. Two year olds are full of surprises. As their vocabulary develops, you can have the best conversations with a two-year-old. And as long as you remember that they are still little, and still need you to set firm, consistent boundaries, age 2 can be the best year yet.

I can’t wait for 2.

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