The ‘terrible two’s’ – an important stage in development

When you’re in the second year of your life, every day is one of discovery and new possibilities.  These have to be explored immediately. At this age, waiting is not an option, especially as you are discovering that you are your own person who should be able to choose and do some things for yourself.  Language becomes peppered with “no,” “mine,” “me do it.”  This excitement is accompanied by emotions that have still to be mastered.  Too often you become overwhelmed and meltdowns follow even the smallest thing.

Writing for The Conversation, Rochelle Matacz and Lynn Priddis report research that shows tantrums occur in 87% of 18— to 24-month-olds, 91% of 30 to 36-month-olds, and 59% of 42- to 48-month-olds—often on a daily basis.  With these percentages, labelling toddlers as being in the ‘terrible twos’ might sound accurate but is not wholly fair.  Such a derogatory label fails to grasp the huge developmental growth happening at this age. It also fails to celebrate the developing emotional life of a toddler, at once complex, multifaceted and exhilarating.

What’s going on?

In the second year, we see a huge surge in capacities coupled with lots of seeming inappropriate behaviours.  At this age, children begin to establish independence while simultaneously needing to learn ways of coping with intense feelings such as fear, anger, frustration and sadness. Intense, uncontrolled feelings and defiance are normal at this age.

Although it is challenging stage, sensitive parenting plays an important part in social and emotional development during this time.   One important component of responsive parenting is the ability to empathise with your young child; to understand that the child’s behaviour has meaning and is driven by feelings, thoughts, desires and intentions.

Trying to understand the world from the child’s point of view helps a parents anticipate, interpret and respond to the child’s behaviour in ways that build the child’s growing capacity to regulate and ultimately control their emotions.

Responding to a tantrum with anger or an attempt to stop the behaviour by raising one’s voice can frighten a child and this raises the distress already fuelling the meltdown.

Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a tribute to tantrums He gives the following Three guidelines for parents:


  1. Be aware of your own responses

Tantrums can be emotionally activating for parents. Being aware and making sense of your own feelings will help you to respond sensitively to your child’s distress. When you realise that you are not managing your anger caused by the child’s meltdown, you become calmer and can better focus on the emotions experienced by the child.

  1. Identify and validate your child’s difficult feelings

Young children need help from their parents to recognize that the feelings they are expressing through their behaviours are just that: feelings that will pass in time. They need help to name them, work out what is causing them and figure out what might help. 

  1. Search for underlying meaning

Remember not to take emotional outbursts personally. Viewing a tantrum as a means of communication helps parents consider the likely causes of a child’s distress and to think through possible solutions. 

With consistent support, toddlers gradually learn to tolerate frustration, gain a sense of how to control their strong feelings and find words to express what is happening inside them.

The good news is that this stage does not last too long!






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