• Tantrums and other challenging behaviour often erupt when children fail to regulate their emotions, a skill we learn on the way to adulthood. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Two-year-olds are famous for their tantrums, but what is normal and when do you need help? Two child psychologists offer expert tips for surviving the 'terrible twos'.
By
Nicola Heath

8 Jan 2016 - 10:01 AM  UPDATED 8 Jan 2016 - 10:01 AM

Two-year-olds are a lot of fun. Their funny chatter and make-believe entertain us, their unbidden affection melts our hearts, and we can’t help but laugh at their slapstick humour.

And then…there are the tantrums. Serve your toddler’s cereal in the red bowl instead of the blue one, and screaming, crying, hitting, kicking, spitting and in extreme cases, vomiting can follow. As you watch your two-year-old flail about on the floor, it’s easy to grasp why this age is called the ‘terrible twos’.

It may be little help to the parent of the toddler who is screaming on the floor of the supermarket, but tantrums are a completely normal part of development, peaking in frequency at age two. A look at what is happening in a two-year-old’s brain can help carers, and bystanders, manage toddlers’ tantrums with less stress.    

EMOTIONS ARE HIGH

Toddlers have undergone huge advances in language and their understanding of the world, says Dr Nick Marsden, a clinical psychologist who works with families at his Wollongong practice. “What they lack is their ability to understand concrete logic and to put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” he explains. Part of the problem with dealing with toddlers can be our own too-high expectations. A tired and hungry two-year-old who hits his sister lacks the cognitive resources at the time to control his behaviour. Toddlers can now verbally communicate, says Dr. Marsden, but “they don’t always understand our reasoning and their egocentric mind does not stop them from hitting.”

 A tired and hungry two-year-old who hits his sister lacks the cognitive resources at the time to control his behaviour. 

Tantrums and other challenging behaviour often erupt when children fail to regulate their emotions, a skill we learn on the way to adulthood. Two-year-olds “find it difficult to control their impulses and urges, and regulate difficult emotions like anger and sadness,” explains Dr Marsden. When emotions are high, their reason and rationality go out the window. None of this is their fault, he says. It simply reflects the limitations of a toddler’s developing brain.

CHANGES IN ENVIRONMENT

What’s happening in the world around a toddler can play a role too. The arrival of a new baby, attention-seeking older siblings, financial stress, and inflexible parenting styles exacerbate troubling toddler behaviour. “Throw into the mix the sleeplessness, various forms of illness, teething, growing pains, and there you have it, a recipe for a terrible year, or two,” says Dr Marsden.

There are strategies that can help make the twos less terrible. Fostering emotional intelligence will help ride out the roughest waves of a toddler’s stormy outbursts. “The brain grows and develops depending on how it is used,” says Dr Marsden, who emphasises the importance of allowing children to make choices to practice regulating their behaviour and emotions.

TAKE A NEW APPROACH

Dr Marsden recommends revising traditional notions of discipline. “If we are to think about teaching our children, rather than punishing them, they will grow and develop the ability to think for themselves and make good decisions.” While there is still a place for “consequential parenting”, he believes yelling and smacking can be avoided. Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, child psychologist and Managing Director of The Young and Well Cooperative Research Centre, agrees. Instead of smacking (usually ineffective anyway), he says we should praise children when they get it right and try to prevent tantrums before they happen. Managing sleep - “picking up the signs when they’re tired, and not taking them to the supermarket when they’re exhausted” – is a good place to start.

We should praise children when they get it right and try to prevent tantrums before they happen.

Some behaviours however may warrant expert help. “If, as a parent, you feel you are regularly struggling with managing your toddlers’ behaviours and emotions, it might be worth seeking additional help from either a trained professional, such as a clinical psychologist, or through self-help parenting books and educational workshops,” says Dr Marsden, who runs the 1-2-3 Magic and Emotion Coaching Parent Workshop.

Other warning signs of more serious problems include persistently aggressive behaviour, and a failure to hit developmental milestones. In these cases, says Dr Marsden, an assessment by a clinical psychologist is recommended. “They will be able to help you find new ways of managing the difficult behaviours and emotions the child is experiencing.”

Love the story? Follow the author on Twitter at @nicoheath.

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