Dealing with the terrible twos

Watching your tot learn to walk and talk is exciting. But snatching, fighting or being downright mean? Don’t panic – your toddler’s just hit the selfish stage


Before toddlerhood your baby was sweet and friendly, happy to hand over her toys or even pass round bits of chewed-up food. But as the terrible twos approach, she refuses to share the toys she wants to play with – and even those she doesn’t.


From about 18 months, your little one’s developing cognitively, as she starts learning how to express what she wants. She’s also developing physically as her motor skills improve, and socially as you start going to toddler groups and introducing would-be friends.

So while you might cringe as she shouts ‘Mine!’ and simultaneously masters the art of snatch-and-grab, rest assured it’s part of normal development. “It’s an in-between stage, and as she grows she’ll become more socially aware,” says child psychologist Dr Rachel Andrew ( “Try not to put an adult spin on her behaviour – it takes time for her to learn what’s acceptable and what’s not.”

Hello, trouble

So what can turn your little darling into a little demon? The arrival of a sibling can be a common trigger. “This is a massive change for a family,” says Sue Atkins, parenting coach and author of Raising Happy Children for Dummies. “I tell mums to think of it in the same way as if their husband came home with a new wife and said: ‘Isn’t she lovely, she’s going to live with us now and sleep in my room, she’s smaller than you so I am going to give her all your clothes and she’ll take up all my time.’”

But sometimes selfish behaviour is simply part of growing up. “By this age children know what they want and don’t want,” says Rachel. “Her language is developing and she’s worked out that she can have some influence over her environment. But it’s also frustrating as her skills aren’t fully developed and she can’t always control her world, so it often results in selfish outbursts.”

Play nice

Sharing skills take time to develop but by the age of 3, most children begin to understand 
the concept and will try to behave kindly. That’s not much consolation if your tot’s only 16 months old and behaving like a little diva, but try to stay relaxed, as it’s just another phase and not a true reflection of her personality.
“Children who share and who show kindness are often the most popular,” says Rachel. “So other kids see this and want to be popular too. They’re also social learners – they’ll do anything to get attention.” Luckily, this includes being nice.

Even though your toddler’s still quite young, there’s nothing to stop you introducing the idea of sharing and caring for others. These concepts appear over and over again in stories and TV shows for little ones, so take the opportunity to talk about the issues when you come across them – ask her how she’d feel if someone grabbed her ice cream or didn’t want to play with her. Give her a chance to put her skills into practice, no matter how limited they might be.

Although it’s a nightmare when your toddler’s the one you think that all the other mums dread arriving, don’t give up – social interaction’s what she needs. “Talk to other mums,” says Rachel. “Even if their child is good at sharing, they may have other worries. Don’t lose confidence.”

Queen of mean

So what’s the answer to her not-so-nice behaviour? Time on the naughty step, a ban from activities? In fact, turning things around can work wonders, says Rachel. “Encourage and praise her when she does things in the way you want her to. And don’t overreact. It’s fine to ignore low-level bad behaviour so don’t jump in just because you’re afraid of it escalating.”

Sometimes toddlers will fight or act badly simply to get your attention. Rachel advises: “Always keep calm. Get down to her level and speak in short, succinct phrases that she 
can understand.”

Sue Atkins agrees: “You have to be consistent and reinforce what you want to see.” Suggest taking turns or try a diversion technique. For example, you could introduce a new toy or lead her away on to another activity. “Make sure you keep a sense of humour and count to three before you intervene,” Sue says.

Learn from mummy

As ever, it’s down to parents to lead by example. You can’t expect your toddler to behave if all you do is yell at her, snatch the offending item from her and lead her away from where she was having fun. “Parents have to be the model,” says Sue. “Children are always watching, that’s how they learn.” Let her see you sharing and explain how good this makes you and other people feel.

Sue adds: “Kindness is the key. Even if you need to be firm, treat her nicely, because that’s the way you want her to treat others.”

Mums’ stories

“Sasha’s started to be a little possessive at toddler groups. If she even sees another child approaching while she’s holding a toy, she immediately starts shouting ‘No!’ and gets angry. I try and stay relaxed and do my best to explain to her about sharing with the other children.”

Vladislava Ibberson, 35, from Surrey, mum to Victor, 4, and Sasha, 21 months

“Maisie’s quite happy to get stuck into other children’s toys, but when her friends come to our house they’re squabbling within 10 minutes. To stop it happening I try to do group activities so they’re both busy at the same time – playing a game where they take 
turns or painting.”


Jane Bryant, 40, from Lancashire, mum to Maisie, 3, and 24 weeks pregnant

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