Surviving the terrible twos

When the tears and tantrums reach crisis point, help is at hand for you and your toddler

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  • Screaming, stomping feet and an angry toddler. Yes, we’re talking the terrible twos, where your tot can suddenly have an issue with everything and feel entitled to air her grievances in front of everyone.  “Toddlers between the ages of 2 and 3 often have temper tantrums when they don’t get what they want,” explains Dr Miriam Stoppard, author of Complete Baby And Childcare. “This is quite normal, and may be brought on by frustration, anger or jealousy.”

  • Know why

    “Unfortunately, the terrible twos are a very real developmental phase that nearly all toddlers go through,” says psychotherapist Angela Evans. “It stems from a wish to gain control of mum again after your toddler reaches an age where she doesn’t have you to herself any more, and she realises for the first time that there are other people in your life she has to share you with.”

    Frances Mills, Tinies childcare expert, agrees. “The terrible twos have got their name because during this time she’s developing from a baby into a child. Suddenly, she’s at an age where she’s interacting far more with the world than ever before, but finds herself unable to communicate effectively. If she’s finding these transitions difficult and frustrating, it’s natural for her to get upset.”

  • Show empathy

    Temper tantrums often start with a child feeling hard done by,” explains Frances. 
“She may want something she can’t have or reach, or simply feel like she doesn’t have any control over a situation. This can lead to a lot of whinging, crying or generally being stroppy, which in turn can result in screaming, or throwing herself on the floor.” And while there’s not much you can do to completely stop this tantrum phase happening, there are ways to control the outbursts.

    “You need to try and understand your toddler’s feelings as she goes through this time, and be there for her to feel safe with you, while also setting boundaries so she doesn’t win every battle.”

    But what happens when she kicks off at home, at the dinner table or in public? Here’s how to get you both through the tantrums…

  • At home

    If you’re home alone with just the two of you, an effective technique is to simply leave the room and let her get on with it, providing she’s in a safe environment to do so. “Explain to her that while you still love her, you have to leave the room because you’re getting angry,” explains Dr Miriam. “But never confine her in another room as this denies her the option of coming back and saying sorry.” It’s also good to keep communicating with her so she knows what’s happening. “Think and talk fast, but calmly,” suggests Frances. “The good thing about tantrums at home is that you don’t have an audience if it does get out of control.”

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  • Visiting friends

    “Never be embarrassed if she has a bit of a moment at a friend’s house,” says Frances. “Try distracting her with something else, or take her out of the room along with some toys, perhaps suggesting it’s time for a drink which will take her mind off the situation.”
    Angela agrees. “If it’s possible, remove her from the scene for some time out with you, and no other children. Getting down on the floor to her level will soothe and calm her as she’ll realise she’s not completely in control but she’ll know her mum is there for her.”

  • Out in the park

    If it’s time to leave but she wants to stay, it could be the perfect spot for a meltdown. 
“To avoid this situation give 30, 10 and five-minute warnings so she knows exactly what’s going to happen,” suggests Frances. “If she does act up, try phrases such as ‘I’m sorry, it’s time to go so that’s what we’re going to do,’ or, ‘I know it’s sad to leave, but we’ll definitely come back and play here again another time’. Just be decisive and keep going, ignore the behaviour and try and talk about what you’re going to do now. If you’re having tea, discuss tea. If dad’s soon to be coming home from work, talk about how lovely it will be to see him as you begin to move away from the park.”

  • Public display

    “As difficult as it might be, try not to feel judged by other mums if she acts up in public,” says Angela. When you’re out and about, try your best to interest your child in the activities, no matter how boring they may seem. “If you’re doing your weekly shop and she has a tantrum, ask a member of staff to watch your trolley and take a short break outside with your child rather than give in to her demands and pleas,” advises Frances.

    “Being out in public is the perfect place and opportunity for your toddler to try and manipulate you, and those mums watching will have more respect for you if you show you’re the adult and don’t give in.”

  • Teatime trauma

    If she’s acting up at the dinner table and starts throwing food around, ask her calmly if she doesn’t want it, then remove it from her and don’t give her anything else. “Try to eat with her, and, where possible, the same or similar food to set an example,” says Frances.

    Try not to get into a fight, and if she does go into meltdown, remove her from the room, and explain you’re having dinner. “Unless her behaviour seriously escalates, try to ignore her until dinner is finished and then see if she’s calmed down enough to come back in,” suggests Frances.

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  • Bedtime battle

    Overtiredness can be a common cause for problems, but as bedtime comes around, make sure you have a good routine so your tot knows what’s happening in advance. Try winding down for bed slowly but surely to avoid an angry toddler when it suddenly happens, and talk through the routine with her, explaining what’s coming next and why it must happen. “At bedtime, I’m a fan of being firm,” says Frances. “She must stay in bed, no matter what she says or the temper tantrum she’s throwing. Stay close by, but don’t interact. Simply keep repeating, ‘It’s bedtime, night-night,’ putting her back in 
bed if necessary.”

  • Where does it all end?

    “The terrible twos will gradually phase out as your toddler turns 3 or 4, but remember every child is different,” explains Angela. “It takes time for the tantrums to fade out depending on different factors, including whether she has siblings or other people in her life, as well as whether you’re in a single parent household.” Lots of interaction with other adults and children can help your toddler through this time, as she’ll realise there are other people who will be sharing you.

  • 5 golden rules for coping with the terrible twos

    1. Always make a fuss of positive behaviour and underplay negative or unwanted behaviour.

    2. Be an adult and never scream and shout back. Understand his behaviour but don’t repeat it.

    3. Set a good example and always remember you’re his most influential role model by far.

    4. Get out! Never stay in if you’re finding the environment suffocating, go for a walk, visit a friend, just do something to get out and about.

    5. Call a friend. You’ll be amazed at how having someone around can keep you (and your child) sane.

  • Celeb temper tips

    “I just hope she’s not looking at me thinking, ‘Mom, are the terrible 30s coming on 
with you?’”

    Katie Holmes worries 4-year-old Suri’s habits are rubbing off on her

    “When he was in the terrible twos and throwing himself to the ground, I’d leave him to it until he got worn out!”

    Emmerdale star Suzanne Shaw would let son, Corey, 5, get on with it

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  • Mums’ stories

    “We try to compromise”

    “If Scarlett has a tantrum, I usually let her scream it out and then explain why she can’t have or do what she wants, and if I can make a compromise with her, I will. I also try not to threaten something that I’m not prepared to carry out, so if I say to her that I’ll take her toy away if she doesn’t stop doing something, then I make sure that I take it away.”

    Steph Stephens, 33, from Epsom, mum to Scarlett, 2, and Harvey, 4 months

    “I ignore her”

    “I try to ignore Maisie’s tantrums as much as possible and she soon gets the message that she isn’t getting our attention with that sort of behaviour. We try to distract her by giving her a toy or by doing something else in front of her, so she can easily see that what her dad or I are doing is much more exciting than just screaming the house down.”

    Charlotte Goatman, 27, from Cornwall, mum to Maisie, 2, and Emilia, 1

    “I mimic him”

    “With Joseff, I find that ignorance is bliss. By that, I mean that in public I won’t rise up to his tantrums at all and if people want to stare, let them, and good luck to them if they have nothing better to do than look at us! I also try not to take either of the boys out if they’re overtired or hungry as this can make them grumpy. While at home, I simply mimic Joseff’s unreasonable behaviour as best as I can until we both have a fit of giggles and it’s all totally forgotten about.”

    Rachel Jones, 33, from Chester, mum to Tomos 3, and Joseff, 2

    “We distract her”

    “I think we’re very lucky with Cerys as she’s generally well behaved, but when she does have a tantrum, I find the distraction method works well. If she’s upset, I try to find something to divert her attention, like reading her a book, suggesting a game of hide and seek or drawing around her hands which she loves. She usually soon forgets she was upset and becomes happily engrossed in the new activity.”

    Siân Lyde, 35, from Surrey, mum to Cerys, 2


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