Getting Through the Terrible Twos

Getting Through the Terrible Twos

The "terrible twos" conjures up a picture of a raging toddler pitching a very loud tantrum in the seat of a shopping cart in the grocery store while her very distraught mother (or father) frantically tries to soothe or distract him (maybe shoving cookies in his mouth) as others look on disapprovingly with looks that say "Can't you control your child?" If you've been a parent of a young child, you have probably experienced something along these lines at some time or another when your child was in her second or third year.

So what is it during this phase of development that seems to bring about such quick changes of mood accompanied by rather intensive emotional outbursts at the drop of a hat? Well, actually these outbursts are common during this phase, and signal the complexity of the fast growth the toddler is experiencing along with her difficulty at times in assimilating the new challenges with which he is confronted. In particular, there is one challenge that stands out above the others, and this is the growing need to develop a sense of independence while at the same time maintaining a close, loving bond with the parents.

The Need for Independence

The need for independence has come about as a result of the new skills and capacities your toddler has acquired as she enters her second year. During the first year of life, parents are primarily concerned with the comfort and happiness of their baby as a close attachment is formed that is facilitated by regular nurturing and loving contact. This is a mutual need-fulfilling situation that poses very little conflict between parent and child. As the second year begins, however, most children have acquired the ability to walk, allowing them to begin practicing moving short distances away from the parent, while still engaged through hearing and seeing mommy's voice and face and exchanging gestures with her that make baby feel secure with the distance. As the budding toddler moves toward eighteen months of age, her capacities have expanded significantly. She not only walks, she can run and move about with much greater agility, allowing for greater distances between her and mommy. Her new cognitive capacities allow her to be able to begin solving problems such as figuring out how to climb up in the chair to get the toy that is sitting on top of the table. She is acquiring the ability to learn and use symbols, which means she is connecting words to objects. Instead of just pointing her hand toward the object she wants, she can now combine pointing with a word to indicate the object, and as such, is able to better communicate to the parent her exact wishes.

In addition to these new cognitive skills, the toddler has a greatly expanded emotional life. She has a variety of new feelings, desires, and interests. There is the need to explore the world around her, to be assertive and independent, and to express her pleasure and delight in her newfound capacities and interactions. At the same time, she becomes angry and frustrated when her desires are thwarted by mommy and daddy who are now beginning to set limits upon her activities. This clash of wills between the toddler and her parents threaten her continued need for dependency and closeness, resulting in the addition of separation anxiety to the newer experience of negative emotions. The toddler finds herself in the position of alternating between the new joys of independent exploration, the continued need for closeness to mommy and daddy, and an increasing clash of desires and will, all of which serve to produce quick mood changes and sometimes intensive emotional outbursts as the toddler is unable to adequately satisfy these seemingly opposing needs at the same time.

It is the parents' job to assist the toddler with the negotiation of these different needs while also protecting her from her inability to rein in her emotions and desires when they lead erm toward danger. Parents can and should delight and share in the toddler's new independence, yet must also set limits that help her begin to develop some self-control while also integrating positive and negative emotions into a more whole and complex sense of self. The key is to provide a nurturing, secure backdrop upon which limits can be experienced and negotiated, along with the emotions they produce.


The purpose of setting limits for toddlers is to help them organize their behavior and gain control over their emotions. We give the toddler boundaries so that she can explore the world with a sense of freedom without being in danger. Stanley Greenspan calls this establishing "behavioral fences," (from Building Healthy Minds, 1999). The key idea here is that limit setting is not the same as punishment, but rather a way of teaching the toddler to internalize self-control without squelching her independence.

How Is It Done?

By the time you need to set limits, you have already begun to establish a means of communicating with your toddler through gestures and cues. You will use this same methodology to set limits. By pointing your finger, changing the tone of your voice, and looking straight into your child's eyes while giving a strong "No," you will begin to attune the toddler to cues that tell her to inhibit her behavior.

Let's take an example. Say your toddler goes over to the coffee table, picks up a magazine, and begins to tear the pages out of it. You have already shown her several times that she may look at the pictures, but must not tear them out of the book. This time, you get down on her level and look her firmly in the eye while gesturing (pointing forcefully) at the pages being torn out, and say with a slightly elevated voice, "No!" If she continues, you continue to elevate your voice (not yelling) and repeat the command. If she still doesn't respond as you wish, you then remove the magazine. Very likely this will result in the toddler's crying, or perhaps even wailing and screaming in frustration and anger.

Now here's where the tricky part comes in. You do not at this point want to punish the toddler. You have already set the limit. What's more important now is to help her gain control of herself, and you do this by sympathizing with her feelings. After all, tearing the pages out of the magazine was fun! It made a fascinating sound and the toddler is upset at having her fun interrupted. You want to let her know that you understand how she feels. You might say something like, "It made you mad when I took away the magazine, didn't it?" All the while you are rubbing her back to soothe her. When she has sufficiently calmed down, you can reengage her in the activity of looking at the magazine while reinforcing that the pages cannot be removed.

What you have done is assisted the child in gaining some control over her emotions and behavior, while also allowing her to experience her very natural negative feelings. By this action, you are telling the toddler that her feelings are normal, but at the same time, there is a better way to handle them. What you don't want to do is inhibit the normal expression of negative emotions. Your first job is to help the toddler experience them (through sympathizing with and acknowledging them), and then to teach her more appropriate ways of expressing them such as through verbalization. You will notice that over time, particularly as the child moves into the third year, that you will have success at helping the child label the feelings with words, and that this very act of verbalization will assist her to more quickly diffuse the intensity of the feelings.

Keep in mind that allowing your child to express feelings does not spoil her. It is only in not setting limits, and teaching your toddler how to rein in her behavior and emotions that you spoil her.


Time-out has become the favorite all-American mode of trying to control behavior, however, it should be used in moderation with toddlers. If you have tried every thing else and decide time-out is necessary, you will need to make some allowances for how it is used with this age group. Remember that our toddler is struggling with both the need for independence and the need to maintain closeness with parents. If you feel you need to impose a time-out, it should be very short in duration and should take place in the same room where you are located. Children this age should not be separated from their parents in the course of limit setting. Instead of helping the child gain control of herself, you will increase her separation anxiety. Further, she will associate her negative display of emotions with emotional abandonment.

The more your toddler is able to experience the combination of positive and negative emotions within the presence of the same caring and nurturing adults, the more likely she will be to form a complete sense of self that smoothly integrates the positive and negative aspects of the personality.

As adults, we know that the hallmark of mental health is having the ability to access all of our tendencies, emotions, and thoughts, and then be able to channel them in ways that are productive and that promote our well being. It's when these various parts of ourselves are split off into categories that we run into to trouble. The second and third years of life are where these patterns are established. You are teaching your toddler that "angry me" and "loving me" are both part of the same person. First they see it in terms of "bad mommy" (mommy who won't let me tear that magazine), and "good mommy" (mommy who hugs me and tucks me in at night). These two mommies coexist within the singular person who is ultimately nurturing and provides a sense of love and security.

Play Time

Limit setting must occur in equal amounts to play time, or time spent that is not conflictual. "Play" is the language of children, and for the toddler is a must. If you are not used to engaging in play, begin by simply making a large space on the floor that is perhaps gated off so there are no temptations in the way. Use simple toys or just regular items that are available such as pots and pans, blocks, dolls, etc. What you want to do is allow the toddler to be the boss. This means letting her lead the play and make the decisions. If she wants to bang on pots, then join in.

Most endearing to all toddlers and young children are adults who are able to act silly. If you make funny faces and sounds, you'll find your toddler rolling over with laughter and telling you "Again, again!" Also, big body motions are popular - jumping, dancing around, skipping, etc. Avoid sitting for periods of time with educational type toys at this age. Looking at books is great, but be sure to balance this with more creative, free form play. Don't get too involved with trying to make complex stacks of blocks, or doing puzzles, etc. More likely, your toddler will build blocks and then knock them all down.

A regular rule of thumb regarding play time is that if your toddler is experiencing increasing tantrums, or seems more emotionally discontent than usual, then it means you need to add in more play time. Play time restores the bond of closeness that is threatened by the toddler's angry feelings, and also allows the toddler some very needed power to offset the loss of power experienced from limit setting. As your child gets older, she will be able to play for longer periods of time alone and thus soothe himself. But for now, you and she are partners. Enjoy it - it doesn't last forever!

 Brazelton, T. B. Toddlers and Parents: A Declaration of Independence. New York: Dell Publishing, 1989.

Greenspan, S., with Lewis, N. B. Building Healthy Minds. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.


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