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The Informed Parent

Terrible Twos

by Marjorie Cain Mitchell, Ph.D.
Published on Jun. 11, 2001

Twenty-eight-month-old Linda was becoming a terror when she could not get her way. The area of concern was toddler-temper tantrums, and how to gain control. The baby would resort to violently pulling mom’s hair whenever she was tired or upset. Both parents had tried everything—reasoning with her, spanking and even pulling her hair at the same time to demonstrate how painful it was. Nothing seemed to work. Mom and dad were concerned that their inability to correct this would have much larger implications later on. Ordinarily Linda was a very sweet and gentle child.

Welcome to the world of the “terrible twos” aptly describing the period when toddlers experience tantrums as an emotional release. Pediatricians and child psychologists agree that behaviors such as violently pulling hair when tired or upset are not emotional problems; rather they are the normal and healthy release of stress and frustration. Mark Roberts, Ph.D., professor of Clinical Psychology at Idaho State University, has noted, “Acting out in the form of tantrums is not only common in toddlers, but also perfectly normal.”

As noted above, this child’s tantrums appear to be most prevalent during times when she is tired or upset. It is not unusual for toddlers to have daily tantrums. Since children of this age are still in the pre-verbal stage of development, they do not have the communication skills to express their frustration. When tired the toddler will become more vulnerable to their emotions, and the smallest frustration will set the child off. At these times they have more difficulties repressing their feelings and dealing with frustrations. As any harried parent knows, there are days when a spilled cup of coffee can bring tears or expletives—a sign of feeling overwhelmed. A temper tantrum is the release of stress from an overwhelmed, exhausted, and immature nervous system.

The period of the “terrible twos” is filled with frustrations. At this stage the toddler (1-3 years) has developed mobility, only to be faced by the frustration of having to curtail their normal exploration. It is no wonder that the favorite word of children in this age group is “no”. Toddlers are faced with innumerable commands or directions of “don’t touch”, “NO”, “leave it alone”, “NO”, “don’t do this”, “NO” and “NO”. Normally, generally early in the day, toddlers can better handle frustration, but, once exhausted, all bets are off.

So, the good news is that Linda is experiencing behaviors that are common to 28-month-old children. Normally she is “sweet and gentle”, which is a good sign that this “violent hair pulling” is indeed only a temper tantrum. These temper tantrums are not precursors to future behavioral and emotional problems, or indicators that the parents are not able to handle her.

These temper tantrums will gradually subside as Linda gains greater ability to express her frustrations, usually around three years of age. During the pre-school period children have developed great language skills as well as a higher level of coping skills. Until that time, the best approach is prevention.

It is helpful to study the pattern of her temper tantrums. Mom should chart when and where they happen. Attempts should be made to understand if there are common factors that tend to ignite the temper tantrums. Then, try to avoid these situations that are likely to precipitate her “melt downs”. Consistent and regular routines and schedules are helpful, as children do best with predictable meal times, naps, and limits. It is not unusual that toddlers may have an increase in temper tantrums during periods of change, or if they are attempting to master new skills.

Don’t offer too many choices to toddlers. Rather, it is important to present realistic choices such as “It’s nap time now” rather than “When do you want to take a nap?” Giving toddlers advance warning that there will be a change in activities can avoid the disappointment and anger associated with changes. Insure that your toddler is engaged in activities that are age appropriate so she doesn’t get too overwhelmed which can elicit a tantrum. Finally, as any general will tell you, it is wise to choose your battles.

It is best that a calm approach be utilized with babies experiencing tantrums. Spanking or hitting back is generally not effective, and may even make the tantrum worse. Toddlers cannot comprehend “reasoning”, so that will be a futile approach at 28 months. Instead, attempt to use an ounce of prevention. Then, if the tantrum still ensues, hold Linda’s hands and tell her that pulling your hair hurts. You may need to hold her and say, “I’m going to hold you right now until you can calm down.” Many parents find it best to sit their toddlers down in a safe and calm place to allow them to self soothe.

Children of this age often become frightened by their out-of-control behaviors. Reassure Linda that you will not allow her to hurt you, as this is reassuring to an out-of-control child. Attempt to stay calm while she completes her tantrum. After she has calmed down you can attempt to help her find words to express her frustration. Let her know that it is not okay to pull your hair, but that you love her.

Unfortunately, many parents feel pressured to give in to the demands of their children. Toddlers and pre-school age children may use a tantrum to emotionally blackmail their parents. During these times parents need to remain calm and not give in. It is especially difficult for parents to try and ignore a tantrum in public. Inevitably well meaning “child experts” will appear on the scene with verbal and non-verbal criticism of the child’s and parents’ behavior. Giving in to your child’s demands during a tantrum will only reinforce the behavior. Remain calm, and remember that you are in control; it is your child who is not. You and your child are not one and the same.

A final word of encouragement. Child psychologists have found that bright, sensitive, and inquisitive children are often the ones who become overwhelmed with intense emotions, resulting in tantrums. But, be reassured. This is a stage of development that both parent and toddler will outgrow.

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