Dealing With The Terrible Twos

Most parents know all about the “terrible twos.”Health care providers are often asked questions about their child’s behavior and what they can do to improve it. This is especially true for the toddler between 18 months and 3 years. Some parents feel the “terrible twos” start early.

The most troubling aspect of their behavior is temper tantrums. While most parents find this behavior unacceptable, this behavior is actually “normal” and a sign their brain is indeed maturing and they are demonstrating the development of their own ideas.

While we are all parents and remember this stage of development quite well, we understand that the parent(s) has been willing to say “no” to the child. Doing so teaches the child that certain behavior is unacceptable and that they need to respond in a different manner. They must stop what they are doing and begin to decide what else they can do. While this parental response doesn’t work immediately, it will allow the toddler’s brain to develop new pathways that tell them what behavior is acceptable and what behavior is not.

Some parents express concern that saying “no” to their child may inhibit the child’s creativity. Actually, the opposite is true. Saying “no” actually encourages a child to use their imagination and to develop resourcefulness. Occasionally, we will hear a parent say they don’t use no very often or put restrictions on their behavior or give time outs. They say their child is easily distractible and rarely having temper tantrums.

The toddler who doesn’t have limits placed on his behavior or learn that certain behaviors have consequences, will likely breed problems later when the child is a little older. When they get into school, they may rebel against the teacher putting constraints and limits on their behavior.

There are a few reasons why toddlers may have temper tantrums. Sometimes, they are merely hungry or tired. Sometimes they are frustrated at what they are playing with because they can’t get it to work like they want it to, and sometimes they are angry at another sibling. Most temper tantrums happen because the toddler is demonstrating a desire to show their own independence.

The reasons why a child is having temper tantrums is not as important to the parent as what can they do to stop this behavior. Most parents have heard someone tell them to “ignore the child,” and while this doesn’t seem to be good advice or work all the time, it is still the best advice. Of course, if the child is engaging in behavior that is potentially harmful or dangerous, immediate intervention is needed, but when possible, simply ignore the tantrum.

Offering a bribe to get them to stop may seem effective on the surface, but the reality is that the child will recognize that they can get something good or something they want, just by being bad. This should not be the message most parents would want to convey.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines for Effective Discipline report states, “It is often difficult emotionally for a parent to ignore the child during periods of increased negative behaviors, but parents should be reminded to be persistent and consistent with their response and be assured that they are definitely not harming the child psychologically.

When handled successfully, temper tantrums should stop within a few months. Children who have tantrums lasting longer than a few months or are excessively severe or harmful to self or others, may need referral for farther evaluation.

Be sure to discuss your concerns with your child’s health care provider.

Larry R. Darrah is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner for Wheeling Hospital’s Center for Pediatrics in Martins Ferry, under the direction of Dr. Judy Romano.