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  • Writer's pictureK.C. Dreisbach, LMFT

What are the Terrible Two’s & How to Manage It

Updated: Apr 8, 2022

As a mental health professional who specializes in parenting, toddler temper tantrums are a popular topic in my office. Parents frequently want to know more, asking a variety of questions:

> What is the Terrible Two stage in toddlers?

> How do you manage the Terrible Two stage?

> How do you manage temper tantrums in toddlers?

> How do you manage temper tantrums in public with your toddler?

If you have a toddler in your home, you’ve probably come to ask many of these same questions yourself!

Toddlers are like little adults in many ways. They have their own ideas on how things should be done, and usually on the stubborn and willful side. The Terrible Two's are a pretty well-known stage of child development… and dreaded by most parents. But why? Why exactly does this stage post such a difficult time in parenting?

What is the Terrible Two's?

The Terrible Two's can start as early as 18 months and last until about 3 ½ years of age. By the age of 4, most children have out grown this stage, and they go back to the desire of pleasing their parents.

During this time in a child's development, children are discovering themselves. They come to recognize that they have "needs" and "wants." They also discover that there are certain activities they just don't like.

Children during this time become “ego-centric.” This means that it becomes all about them all the time! At this stage, they’ve come to realize that they exist as independent persons, separate from you or anyone else. As such, you'll start hearing things like, "that's mine," or "I want that," or "give it to me!" Sound familiar? The words "I," "Me," or "Mine" will become very popular, and used in almost any phrase or sentence they say.

Now, the Terrible Two's are considered terrible, because children begin having tantrums at this stage. You might witness crying, kicking, screaming, hitting, biting, or watch the child throw himself on the floor. These behaviors are normal and to be expected.

There are many reasons why toddlers will engage in this behavior:

1) Inability to Communicate

Most toddlers around this age lack the ability to effectively communicate their wants and needs. They don't have an expansive vocabulary, and thus, struggle to communicate their feelings to others. As a result, children become frustrated, which then turns into negative behaviors that develop into tantrums.

2) Poor Modeling

Another potential reason for tantruming is poor modeling from parents or other important adult role-models. Most adults will raise their voice when they are angry, or will even "storm off" when they are upset. Some adults will slam doors, throw papers on the floor, or simply toss objects they are holding in an aggressive manner. When you think about it, that is simply an Adult Tantrum.

If your children are watching you engage in that behavior, they will assume that the appropriate way to communicate their own anger or frustrations to others is by imitating this same behavior.

If you are unsure whether you are guilty of this (HINT: most adults are), ask someone who knows you personally and has frequently seen you during times of anger and frustration. Let an objective person share with you what they have seen.

3) Impulsivity

Children at this age have a very difficult time controlling their emotions and behaviors. A large part of this has to do with impulsivity. Most toddlers are very impulsive, and will simply act out thoughts or ideas that come to their mind without stopping to think about the consequences of their behaviors.

The reason why young children are so impulsive is because the part of the brain that helps a person assess consequences isn't completely developed yet. In fact, this part of the brain isn't fully developed until the early 20's, which is why teenagers also engage in impulsive acts. This part of the brain does develop over time, however, so a child's ability to assess the outcome of any given event will improve over the course of time.

4) Poor Emotion Regulation

This is the ability to control and moderate one's emotions. Think of the knobs on your stove that control the temperature of the burners. You can turn the knob to increase the heat or lower the heat until you get the temperature you need. Very expensive stoves have temperature regulators that are very accurate, but cheaper models struggle more. Small children are like a cheaper stove in that they go from cool, calm, and collect, to very hot and angry, which then turns into negative behaviors that develop into tantrums.

5) Parental Reaction

Finally, once a child has begun to raise his voice or act out, parents tend to respond with anger and frustration in return. Adults will yell back, spank/hit, or threaten their children (Ex: “If you don't do ABC, I'm going to XYZ to you”).

Unfortunately, most of these reactions only cause toddlers to become more upset, and pushes them into the tantrum or worsens the tantrum. Furthermore, these reactions model these negative behaviors back to the child (see #2 above) and creates a vicious cycle that rarely gets better.

What do you do about it? How do you manage these tantrums and regain your sanity as a parent?

Effective Toddler Discipline

The effectiveness of different disciplinary techniques for ANY child at ANY age lies, not in the technique being used, but in HOW it’s being done. Discipline is one of the 4 core components of my Wholistic Parenting system. The key lies in Parental Consistency and in providing Rewards & Consequences for behavior and NOT Bribery & Punishment. This part is a biggie, and it’s one of the traps that parents can easily fall into without even realizing it!

Let’s take a closure look at both of these key components to effective discipline in your household.

Parental Consistency

Parental Consistency can be incredibly hard to master. It sounds easy, but the reality is, that after a long hard day at work, the last thing you are going to want to do is argue with your child for the 100th time about jumping on the sofa. But there is so much more to parental consistency, and you really need to master all 3 parts to this item if you are going to truly master effective discipline.

Not too long ago, I wrote a post on Parental Consistency that goes into greater detail on this topic. For this post, I’m going to provide you the 3 components, but I recommend you go back and check out the other post so that you gain a full understanding of this topic.

Parental Consistency consists of the following 3 parts:

1. Consistency day by day

2. Consistency between parents (or other caregivers assisting with parenting)

3. Consistency between children

Always keep these 3 components in mind as you begin applying your chosen parenting technique. Parental Consistency will go a long way in helping you manage any child’s behavior.

Rewards & Consequences

Do you use Rewards & Consequences to help manage your child’s behaviors? Or do you engage in Bribery & Punishment? I’m hoping that you find yourself confused… and that’s exactly where you should be!

Many parents come to me and share how they are disciplining their kids, thinking that they are engaging in giving rewards for wanted behavior and giving consequences for unwanted behavior. They soon learn from me, however, that what they’ve been doing all along is bribing their kids and punishing them. When this happens, the kids are actually the ones in control, not the parents.

Rewards & Consequences plays a major role in my Wholistic Parenting system. It’s a critical component to a structured, healthy, loving home. And the trick is all in HOW you administer the reward or consequence. It’s a fine line, but all the difference is made in the details.

Bribing vs Rewarding

If you were to google “bribe” you would get the following definition:

“to persuade (someone) to act in one's favor, typically illegally or dishonestly, by a gift of money or other inducement”

In this definition, we understand that we are trying to push, beg, and plead for someone to do something for us. Perhaps it is something that they would never do of their own volition. In this situation, the person receiving the bribe has control of the situation.

Let’s compare this definition to that of “reward.” Googling this word would turn up the following:

“a thing given in recognition of one's service, effort, or achievement”

In this definition, there is no begging, no pleading, no pushing for the other person to do what we want. The other person has done the work, and we are offering a prize for a job well done. In this situation, the person offering the reward has the control.

So how does this relate to parenting? I mentioned earlier that the difference lies in the details. To help explore this concept, I’m going to provide 2 examples:

Example 1:

Mom: Molly, please turn off your tablet. We got to get ready for school.

Molly ignores Mom and keeps playing.

Mom: Slightly more irritated, “Molly, turn off the tablet now. We are going to be late!

Molly:Ok Mom,” she says, but continues to play on her tablet anyways.

Mom:Molly, if you turn your tablet off right now, then I’ll let you stay up 15 minutes later tonight.

Molly then proceeds to turn off her tablet.

Example 2:

Mom:Molly, please turn off your tablet. We got to get ready for school.

Molly ignores Mom and keeps playing.

Mom: Slightly more irritated, “Molly, when you turn off the tablet, then I can reward you for following directions.

Molly then proceeds to turn off her tablet.

Mom: Thank you for listening to me and turning off the tablet. Since you listened to me, I’ll allow you to stay up 15 minutes past your bedtime.

Take a moment to see if you can tell which example is “Bribing” and which example is “Rewarding.”

If you were able to identify it, then good for you! If you weren’t able too, don’t feel bad. Most parents struggle to see the fine line. Maybe you can identify which one is which, but don’t know why. That’s ok too! I’m going to help you learn all those nitty gritty details right now!

Let’s start by identifying which one is the bribe and which one is the reward. Example 1 is the example of “Bribing,” which means Example 2 is the example of “Rewarding.” But why? What are the details that make these examples different?

Closer Look at Example 1: The Bribe

Hopefully you can feel right off the bat that Molly is the one in control of this situation from beginning to end. If you’ve read my post on How to Get Kids to Listen the First Time you Ask, you already know that Mom’s first mistake in this example was asking 2x before acting. (If you haven’t read that post, I highly recommend you do).

The next issue with this example is all about Mom’s word choice. When it comes to bribing vs rewarding, those fine details I’ve been hinting at have to do with semantics. Words have great power in parenting, and you’re going to want to harness the power of words to your advantage!

In Example 1, Mom says:

“Molly, if you turn your tablet off right now, then I’ll let you stay up 15 minutes later tonight.”

She has engaged in a If-Then sentence structure that sets up the bribe. Think of other examples like this….

If you stop tantruming right now, then I’ll give you a cookie!

If you behave for me in the store, then I’ll buy you something.

If you do your homework, then I’ll let you have dessert tonight.

Sometimes, bribes are even more obvious, usually because we are desperate:

Please stop screaming… Here, do you want a candy?!? How about this toy?!?

I know you can’t have that, but LOOK! Look at this… How about you play with this one instead?!?

When we bribe, the kid is in complete control of the situation. And every time you bribe, you shift the power differential in your household. This means that the authority and power shifts from the parent to the child. The more often you do this, the more often your child has the power. Overtime, if done frequently enough, that power shift becomes permanent, and the child loses respect for the parent.

It might sound silly, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen whole households held hostage by the youngest member of the family. And when I say youngest, I’m talking about kids who are only 13, 10, and even 6 years-old! It takes A LOT of work to undue this kind of situation, and the work is usually with the parents. But the good news is, it CAN be done! So, don’t give up! Stick with me, and you’ll learn everything you need to bring your household back into harmony.

Closer Look at Example 2: The Reward

At first glance, you might argue that Mom is still engaging in bribery. But I’m going to show you that fine detail that makes Mom retain the control in this situation.

“Molly, when you turn off the tablet, then I can reward you for following directions.”

In this example, Mom engages in a When-Then dynamic. This is slightly different than If-Then. WHEN has an unspoken message, of “you WILL do this,” whereas IF has the unspoken message of “you MIGHT do this.” IF offers room for the child to say “no,” whereas WHEN offers no room for disagreement. WHEN is a command. IF is a plea.

Now, this doesn’t mean that you can’t successfully use If-Then statements with your kids. If-Then statements have their place and can be very useful. But when giving commands, we want to make sure we stay in a place of control. As such, these subtle shifts in our language can make a huge difference.

The next difference is that Mom doesn’t “show her cards” to Molly prematurely. The second part of her statement simply offers a “reward,” but it doesn’t give away what that reward is. Here’s why that can be an important piece to this puzzle:

Let’s say Molly isn’t motivated by staying up late. In Example 1, Mom reveals the potential reward to Molly. If Molly wasn’t motivated by this reward, she would continue to play on her tablet. Why would she stop for something that doesn’t motivate her?

Think of it this way, if you were offered an additional, monetary incentive at work for working longer hours, and your company shared that the incentive is $1 for an extra hour of work. Chances are, $1 isn’t going to motivate you, so you’re not going to bother. You’d rather go home. Same idea applies to Molly.

By keeping what the reward is vague, Mom doesn’t place herself at risk of Molly snubbing the incentive. Additionally, by revealing the reward at the onset, this opens the table up for bargaining.

Bargaining and Negotiations

Have you ever experienced your child negotiating with you? In Example 1, Molly could have easily stated, “I want to stay up for 30 minutes.” This becomes a slippery slope when we start talking about power dynamics and control in the home.

Just like If-Then statements, allowing your child to negotiate or bargain with you about things is not necessarily bad. In fact, it can be a very positive thing in your home! But, once again, there is a time and place for these kinds of dynamics. And when you are running late to work/school, the last thing you want to do is get into a bargaining match with your kid.

Furthermore, bargaining is a dynamic better reserved for older children, and not when you are working with toddlers or very young children. In these early years, you are trying to teach your children how to listen and follow directives while establishing the power dynamics in your home. Young children also require structure and very clear directives. Negotiating doesn’t provide that. It’s a grey area, and most young children aren’t cognitively ready to understand or manage this type of dynamic.

If you have a child who has proven to be responsible, mature, and well behaved, you can consider allowing bargaining because your child has EARNED it. Children who struggle with healthy boundaries, don’t follow directions easily, are immature, or frequently misbehave are not good candidates for negotiating. These children require cleaner, clear lines that are more “black and white.” The grey areas of bargaining will only confuse them and set you both up for frequent frustration and arguing.

Consequences vs Punishment

Now that we’ve figured out how to give effective rewards, our last step is to understand consequences. As mentioned previously, Rewards & Consequences is an important component of Wholistic Parenting. And, just like most people are “bribing” instead of “rewarding,” I find many parents are administering punishment instead of consequences. Just like before, the difference lies in the fine lines.

Let’s look at the definitions of “consequence” and “punishment.”

Consequence- “a result or effect of an action or condition.”

Punishment- “the infliction or imposition of a penalty as retribution for an offense.”

Hopefully, you can already see the mild differences between these 2. And if you can’t, don’t feel bad. This can be tricky.

The easiest way to break this down is to think of it as a “state of mind.” It’s the big difference between Conscientious Parenting and Reactive Parenting.

Conscientious Parenting vs Reactive Parenting

Let me start off by saying that Conscientious Parenting is what you are aiming for. That’s the goal. But parenting from this state of mind is hard, and the reality is, none of us can parent from this place ALL THE TIME. It’s impossible. Why? Because we are all human. So, don’t be too hard on yourself.

Reactive Parenting is whenever you are parenting from an emotional state (namely when you are angry). This is when you are yelling, disciplining harshly, or find yourself saying things like “You are a bad boy,” and so on. These are not our finest moments… and we are all guilty of them (even me).

As you can see, it’s truly a state of mind, and when you are engaging in Reactive Parenting, you are much more likely to engage in “punishment” instead of “consequences.” Why? Because you tend to administer a “penalty as a retribution for an offense.”

In these situations, you are trying to exert your power over your child, and want to “get even” with them for whatever it is they did. In most cases, if someone was to ask you why you administered that specific punishment and how that punishment links back to the offense, you probably would come up with a pretty lame answer.

It’s ok…. Like I said, we all do this at some point in our parenting career. Just be honest with yourself, recognize it when it happens, and then correct the mistake. The more you do this, the better you will get at it, and the less you’ll be parenting from that state of mind.

Conscientious Parenting, on the other hand, is when you are in control of your emotions and know exactly why you are giving that specific consequence and how that consequence links back to your child’s offense. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t angry or frustrated, but you are “in control” of those emotions.

When you are parenting from this state of mind, you are typically not yelling, are disciplining fairly, and are being careful with your word choice when lecturing your child. You are being thoughtful. Furthermore, during the disciplinary session, you are demonstrating that the purpose behind administering your consequence is to help “teach” your child, not just “punish” them. As such, the consequence is the natural result of your child’s behavior. It makes sense, is logical, and fair.

You Can Do This!

Wow! We tackled A LOT in today’s post. Hopefully you have a deeper, richer understanding of the Terrible Two’s and now know how to set yourself up for effective toddler discipline. After reading this article, I’m hoping you have a clear understanding of:

> Parental Consistency

> Rewards vs Bribery

> Consequences vs Punishments

If you take only one thing away from this post, I would want it to be a deeper understanding and acceptance that, as parents, we have to be willing to work on ourselves if we are ever going to expect our children to grow up happy, emotionally & mentally healthy, and well-adjusted. It’s a long road, but you can totally do this!

For more great parenting help, download my free mini-ebook, Eliminating Temper Tantrums: 4 Keys to Mastering Your Child's Anger Outbursts. Or, you can check out my full-length series, The Art of Parenting. With 5-stars on Amazon, Bookbub, and Barnes & Nobles, you can't go wrong!

As always, Happy Parenting!


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Krystal Dreisbach is a licensed therapist, mindset coach, adjunct professor of counseling, and published author.  Her specialties include depression treatment, anxiety counseling, stress management support, and mindset coaching.  Learn more about Krystal and see how she can help you live a better life.

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