The Terrible Two (and Two Parenting Strategies to Replace Them)

March 8th, 2012 by Dionna | 9 Comments
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

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Terrible Twos

Function: noun
1. An annoying alliteration used to describe the emotional breakdowns that occur (in both toddlers and parents) when parents spend more time attempting to control behavior and engage forced cooperation than they do in nurturing their toddlers’ natural growth, independence, and curiosity;
2. A self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ok, maybe that isn’t the dictionary definition of the “terrible twos,” but it is pretty close to reality. Toddlerhood is challenging, no doubt.  But spending the toddler years in a relentless power struggle is bound to result in frustration for both parents and children.

Here is a better definition of the Terrible Twos:

1. Spanking;
2. Yelling.

These terrible two disciplinary measures have detrimental effects on a child’s self-esteem (they devalue the child and lower his self-image), they teach children that violence or anger (physical and/or emotional) is an acceptable way to solve problems, and they promote anger in children and parents.1 Spanking and yelling never leave either party feeling good about themselves or each other. Following are two ideas for more gentle parenting strategies that are based on respect and cooperation between parents and children instead of control and compliance.

1. Love Your Toddler Through a “Tantrum”

Temper tantrums are usually viewed as something to be avoided (or at least ended) as quickly as possible. We are uncomfortable with and often embarrassed by strong emotional outbursts. Our toddlers, however, are just learning how to express themselves. “Children express themselves not only to maintain their own emotional well-being, but also for their intellectual and social development. Stopping a child from fully expressing his feelings does not stop the feelings, it only stops their expression.”2

Allowing your toddler to fully express his feelings has both short and long-term benefits. In the short-term, he will recover more quickly from emotional and physical hurts if he feels that he has been heard and acknowledged. In the long-term, allowing your toddler to experience his full range of emotions will help him “become emotionally resilient and capable of facing and resolving difficulties. [Children] must experience living with emotional storms if [they are] to master them.”3

Showing your child love, even in the aftermath of behavior that you find undesirable, is not rewarding “bad” behavior. Your toddler’s behavior is his cry for love or help for an unmet need. Toddlers have no control over their big feelings and how they show them – they do not want to be aggressive or whiny.4 When you love your toddler despite undesirable behavior, he will feel relieved, not rewarded.

To love a child through a tantrum, make yourself available physically and emotionally. Do not pressure your child to stop expressing himself. Practice Aldort’s SALVE:

(S)eparate yourself from your child’s behavior. Don’t say the first thing that pops into your mind. Focus on being gentle and loving.

(A)ttention on your child. Shift the attention from your own reactions to what is going on with your child. Be present for her.

(L)isten to your child without judgment. Really listen to what she is saying. Make eye contact and ask questions if appropriate.

(V)alidate his feelings without dramatizing or inserting your own. (“You are upset because you wanted that toy.” or “You are frustrated because you could not open the door by yourself.”)

(E)mpower your child to resolve the problem. Don’t rush to fix everything.5

2. Love Your Toddler at Her Current Developmental Stage

Expecting more than your toddler can give developmentally sets her up for failure, shame, and self-doubt. Resist the urge to constantly teach and push your child to reach new milestones. Enjoy where she is today, stay in the present with her. Loving a child should be simple: love her for what she is right now. Love should not be a reward for your evaluation of the child, nor should love be based on achievements or behavior.

Loving our toddlers at their current developmental stage can be summed up in one word: relax.

Did your toddler ignore your request to help pick up the toys? Relax. Toddlers don’t understand or appreciate our need for order. Model it, tell her you need order. Let her happily flit around you as you show her how to clean up the toys. But don’t shame her into helping.

When your toddler splashes water all over the kitchen floor, relax. Observe instead of critiquing: There is water on the floor, if someone slipped on it they could fall and get hurt. Let’s clean it up. If your toddler helps, that’s great. If not, she is learning anyway. Would you rather have a content toddler who learned (by watching) that water needed to be cleaned up, or an anxious and upset toddler who was forced to clean by an angry parent?

“When reprimanded, young children are often too scared by a parent’s intense emotions and judgment to be able to even grasp the nature of what is being communicated.” When our toddlers feel safe in our gentle attention and love, however, they “become aware of the many habits and needs of” others and are able to learn social graces.6

Our Terrific Toddlers

Moving away from a punishment mindset involves a mental shift: instead of control, focus on compassion. Instead of “molding” or “shaping” your toddler, realize that children are designed to blossom – it is our privilege and responsibility to nurture them along the way. Yes, toddlerhood can be challenging, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. When you feel the urge to yell or punish, take a breath and relax. Imagine how you want the scene to end: with a scared toddler and a regretful parent? Or with a parent-child team that feels safe in a nurturing and loving relationship?7

For more ideas on how to transform the parent-child relationship from reaction and struggle to freedom, power and joy, I highly recommend Aldort’s “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves.” It applies to all ages, not just toddlers.

What has been the most challenging part of parenting your toddler?

Do you try to parent peacefully? What benefits have you seen with your child(ren) from parenting peacefully/gently?


This post has been edited from its original version previously published at Good Googs.

  1. Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Child
  2. Aldort, Naomi, “Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves” at 99. For more on how parents sometimes deal with uncomfortable emotions, see Riders on the (Tantrum) Storm.
  3. Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves at 105
  4. See Neville, Helen, “Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth Through 6 Years” at 157 (available in part on Google Books)
  5. Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves at 7-10
  6. Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves at 20-22
  7. Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves at xvi

9 Responses to:
"The Terrible Two (and Two Parenting Strategies to Replace Them)"

  1. Karen at MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    this is a great post! We are struggling even more now with the three’s, but I won’t call it “terrible” any more…

  2. Sheila   agiftuniverse

    Though I agree with your advice, you make it sound as if two is only challenging because I’m not parenting right! I’m as gentle and understanding as I know how to be, but my son is still challenging. He melts down over the most unavoidable things — or even over nothing at all! He just wasn’t like this at one, or fifteen months. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admitting that this is an intense and challenging age. I love it, because of all the new stuff he’s learning and communicating, but it’s a heck of a lot more tiring than nursing a newborn. And even if I were the “perfect parent,” it still would be.

    • Dionna   CodeNameMama

      Oh wow, Sheila – I’m not sure how that message is coming across to you, but it certainly wasn’t intended. Having lived through the toddler years and now parenting a 4yo, in no way do I believe that meltdowns or difficult behavior is necessarily a product of incorrect parenting. It’s normal!! These are simply suggestions for working through some of those challenges without losing our heads as parents – every child is going to have countless meltdowns. It’s part of becoming independent, asserting power, etc. We can only control how we respond, and I wrote this hoping to offer a couple of tools that are alternatives to yelling/hitting.
      Thank you for reading and responding!

  3. Erin OK   OK_Erin

    Great post. I find it helpful to remind myself that toddlers are not being bad, they are having strong feelings and impulses and their brains are not yet capable of controlling them. It helps me not get mad.

    I do practice peaceful parenting. My son started a few months ago having screaming fits when he couldn’t have something he wanted. I thought, well here are those terrible twos beginning, and then I sat down to listen to him until he calmed down and came to me for comfort. I just realized he hasn’t had any of those fits in over a month. I know there are far more challenges to come, but I can’t help feeling that my response to his tantrums has something to do with their disappearance.

    Feeling very good about nurturing my little guy through his struggles!

  4. Andrea   talesofgoodness

    Goodness how I needed this pep talk tonight. I found myself starting to raise my voice more than once today. But you’re right, modeling that kind of behaviour doesn’t teach my little one a better way to deal. Thanks for this.

  5. Rachel   racheljonat

    Lovely timing on this piece as we’re in the “terrific” twos here. I’ve been doing a lot of the things you recommend, allowing him to have his “moment”, asking him to use his words and tell me what he needs and giving lots of hugs.

    Oh, and reminding myself that this too shall pass and when it does he’ll be bigger and not the person that he is today. And I love this small person and want to cherish him and enjoy him and connect with him – tantrums and all.

  6. Ursula Ciller   ursula_ciller

    This is a really great post and has also been my experience. When my toddler shakes the barrier gates, no adversive approach matters to her, but gently holding her back and explaining that this is not the right thing to do is so much more effective.

  7. I actually linked this to my Sunday Surf a few weeks ago. I really like the philosophy of giving your toddler respect as a person and loving him even though he’s behaving “badly.” I’ve found that I have more success with my daughter when I kindly ask her if I can change her diaper or explaining what needs to done in a respectful tone. Of course, it’s not fool-proof! It does set a great precedent for our future relationship!

  8. Emily

    I’ve actually told my husband “what do you expect him to do? You just told him he can’t have something he really wants. You’re not going to give in, it’s not something he can make you do, and he can’t tell you all the frustration. All he can do is scream and throw a fit. Be still, he’ll get out of it eventually.” The tantrums for everything else have eased, the things HE can fix. But for his parents and our annoying “no, you can’t have candy” he can’t do much except rant to the sky.

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