Facing The ‘Terrible Twos’? Science Can Help You Deal With Toddler Tantrums

Meet Eli. He entered the second year of his life with gusto now, aged 18 months, he is discovering new things every day including ideas he wants to try out immediately. Like, right now. Waiting is not an option.


Combined with his passion for life he often becomes emotionally overwhelmed erupts into frequent meltdowns. Words phrases like “no”, “do it myself” “mine” are used often.

Sometimes the smallest thing ends with Eli kicking, biting crying. Although he’s still developing a commof words, he shouts “I don’t love you, Dad!” with devastating accuracy. These outbursts happen at home out in public.

Research shows tantrums occur in 87 percent of 18 to 24-month-olds, 91 percent of 30 to 36-month-olds, 59 percent of 42 to 48-month-olds – often on a daily basis.

The “terrible twos” might sound accurate, but branding toddlerhood (18 months to 36 months) this way is an injustice to this group. The generic 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 exhilarating.

What’s going on?

Eli is at a “developmental touchpoint”, where a unique surge in capacities is coupled with behavior falling apart. At this age, children begin to establish independence while simultaneously needing to learn ways of coping with intense feelings such as fear, anger, frustration sadness. Researchers are still discovering what a normal trajectory for emotional regulation development looks like, what might help or hinder it.

Intense, uncontrolled feelings defiance are normal at this age. But it can be challenging for parents to support their toddlers through this stage.


Focusing solely on a toddler’s behavior fails to capture the significant role sensitive care-giving plays in social emotional development in the early years.

A core component of sensitive responsive parenting is a parent’s capacity to put themselves into the mind of their very young child understthe child’s behavior has meaning is driven by internal experiences such as feelings, thoughts, desires intentions.

A child’s-eye view

Being able to understthe world from the child’s perspective helps a parent to anticipate, interpret respond to the child’s behavior in ways that build a child’s capacity to regulate their emotions.

Eli’s dad didn’t experience tantrums with his first child, who had a calmer disposition, so he finds Eli’s emotional outbursts hard to tolerate. He becomes angry when Eli refuses to do what he is told yells at him to “stop it!”. This frightens Eli, who sometimes retreats sometimes escalates in his distress.

Eli’s dad is unaware of his toddler’s internal experiences is confused by his own “out-of-control” feelings when parenting him. Frequent emotional outbursts coupled with an authoritative parenting style places children at risk of developing more serious emotional behavioral problems.

Eli’s dad needs to understthat his primary role at this stage is to put his child’s experiences at the center of his mind. This requires him to try to make sense of what Eli is communicating about himself through his behavior to respond in a sensitive way. This can help a child like Eli not be overwhelmed by intense feelings.

3 guidelines for parents:

1. Be aware of your own responses

Tantrums can be emotionally activating for parents. Being aware making sense of your own feelings will help you to respond sensitively to your child’s distress. When Eli’s dad makes sense of his struggles with managing anger, he is calmer, enabling him to focus on Eli’s emotional experiences.

2. Identify validate your child’s difficult feelings

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

3. 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 to think through possible solutions.

Making changes

With new insights, parents like Eli’s dad can can help their child put themselves back together again after emotional outbursts, which may be less frequent. With consistent support, toddlers can learn to tolerate frustration, gain a sense of control of strong feelings find words to express what is happening inside them.

Parenting a toddler is no easy task. Today’s parents have the advantages of remarkable leaps in neuroscientific developmental knowledge. However, these can be difficult to access even more difficult to put into practice. Unwittingly we can fall back into the familiar ways we were parented, or we might attempt try to do the opposite of how we were parented only to find we have lost direction.

Investment in early intervention programs for everyone or at a targeted level where the parent-child relationship is in trouble, could provide the building blocks for lifelong emotional well-being for families for society.

Rochelle Matacz, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University Lynn Priddis, Adjunct associate professor, The University of Western Australia.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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