Parenting a Terrible Two Year Old or Threenager sounds hilarious to those of us who aren’t doing it.

We think it’s pretty wild that you could “live in constant fear about what shape to cut a piece of toast” or dealing with “a child who goes boneless when you tell them it’s time to leave.”*

But the struggle is real for a lot of parents out there.


As the mom of a 19 month old, I have started desperately asking all of my friends, “What am I in for here, people?” “Somebody please tell me… is my angel going to be replaced by a petulant, scary, demanding little tyrant???”

As I scour my Early Childhood resources, I have found some articles that help me know what to expect and describe what our children are really going through:

Must They Be Terrible?

Maybe not terrible, but all children will probably progress through stages of aggression as they grow:

The principle of universality would suggest that children of all cultures should exhibit some degree of aggression as a developmental path and progression…**

Why Does Everything Change at Two?

We’ve talked about executive function before – this ability to stop and think before acting is a powerful tool that toddlers are just beginning to have.

Although regulatory processes start prenatally, toddlerhood marks one of the most important periods in the acquisition of self-control. From then onwards, increased cognition rules self regulation. Infants at one year of age begin to engage in effortful control; that is the ability to inhibit a dominant response to perform a subdominant response involving executive functioning in prefrontal cortex and associated areas.

Around 24 months, children are transitioning from egocentricity into social awareness. This means, they are beginning to see that the way people act and react is not always and/or directly influenced by them. This global shift in perspective also means that they may not feel in control.

Now, think, how does it feel to not be in control? And what do you do to regain control? What if you couldn’t subtly manipulate, withdraw, or employ one of the other coping mechanisms you’ve spent decades fine-tuning? What would you do? Scream? Throw things? Hm… so, maybe we understand the feeling a bit.

Do I Just Have to Suffer Through It?

Ok, you understand the science and can even empathize with how your toddler is feeling. But an all-out temper tantrum when your appetizer hasn’t even come yet feels pretty unbearable. Are there ways to head off some of these outbursts? And how do you come out the other side?

-Don’t withdraw.

The attachment system between infant and caregiver is essentially a biologically based regulatory system. Attachment is the cornerstone for security and comfort. During the attachment process children learn to develop self-regulatory capacity for both affect and behavior.**

The latest studies have shown that pretending you don’t see or hear your child’s outburst is NOT the way to go. They want attention: give them attention. Pick them up and move them if you have to, but don’t leave them to spiral out of control on their own.

-Stack the Deck in Your Favor

You know the drill: naptime looms and snack was a handful of crackers in the cupholder. You are setting yourself up for disaster. It may be inconvenient, but sometimes you simply have to tailor things around what your child needs: resting, eating, and playing on time. Disruption of routines is a key predictor of tantrums.

-This Too Shall Pass

Aggressive symptoms may change with developmental competence in motor and cognitive domains….Poor impulse control often underlies aggression. Regulatory controls gradually begin in the prenatal period with the development of physiological or state regulation, attentional mastery, and emotional regulation; especially selfsoothing or help seeking when upset.**

This means: yes, it will pass… as your child’s body and mind catch up they WILL grow beyond the Terrible/Terrific Twos. And, in all likelihood, you’ll survive as well.




***Mirsky, 1996; Rothbart and Bates, 1998