April 4, 2022


Meet Eli. He entered the second year of his life with gusto and 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 and erupts into frequent meltdowns. Words and phrases like “no”, “do it myself” and “mine” are used often.

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

Research shows tantrums occur in 87% of 18 to 24-month-olds, 91% of 30 to 36-month-olds, and 59% 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 and exhilarating.

What’s going on?

Eli is at a “developmental touchpoint”, where a unique surge in capacities is coupled with behaviour 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 and sadness. Researchers are still discovering what a normal trajectory for emotional regulation development looks like, and what might help or hinder it.

Intense, uncontrolled feelings and 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 behaviour fails to capture the significant role sensitive care-giving plays in social and emotional development in the early years.

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

A child’s-eye view

Being able to understand the world from the child’s perspective helps a parent to anticipate, interpret and respond to the child’s behaviour 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 and yells at him to “stop it!”. This frightens Eli, who sometimes retreats and sometimes escalates in his distress.

Eli’s dad is unaware of his toddler’s internal experiences and 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 and behavioural problems.

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

Terrible twos

3 guidelines for parents:

1. Be aware of your own responses

Tantrums can be emotionally activating for parents. Being aware and 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 and validate your child’s difficult feelings

Young children need help from their parents to recognise that the feelings they are expressing through their behaviours are just that: feelings that will pass in time. They need help to name them, work out what is causing them and 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 and 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 and 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 and developmental knowledge. However, these can be difficult to access and 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 and for society.The Conversation

Rochelle Matacz, Adjunct Senior Lecturer, Edith Cowan University and 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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  • I totally missed the terrible twos with my kids, but they sure made up for it later on! My son, when he started school, he started attitude. My daughter, as a teen became difficult and still is at age 28


  • Every age group has it challenges! IT is called parenthood!


  • My son turned 2 in Jan and we are definitely going through this!


  • I can relate to this. My twin boys are 2 1/2 and the terrible twos are in full swing.


  • …..and then get ready for it all again when they hit fourteen.


  • Ive heard three-nagers is a think..send help haha


  • With us I think it was the terrible 4’s! No massive tantrums in public though, thank goodness. But our 5 year old does have the bad habit of lying down in the middle of a store because he’s tired.


  • Our 1st child never had a single tantrum and the second one is enough for 2 kids at a time. I have rough nights and great days. My days are tiring due to household and kid responsibilities so I want to have a peaceful sleep. It all depends on my lil one what she has decided for that night. Whenever i get upset as i am tired i am very stern and she does it more. When i calm down and give her a cuddle she starts to mellow down. The article is very informative and helpful. Thanks


  • Do you know what — it all depends on the kind of day you’re both having, the energy tank of Mum, etc. on how you might behave on any given day. Generally, fine but sometimes you do just break.


  • So much nowadays is all about parents putting aside their feelings for the benefit of their children… this is not always a reality. This article says Eli’s dad needs to put his sons experiences at the forefront of his mind. That sounds like he should take a step back from parenting … this is the time when you need to step up your parenting! My 21 month old likes to sit in front of the over and try opening it. I don’t allow that and will never allow that even when the oven isn’t in use. I don’t care if she is developmentally learning from this, it’s a dangerous thing. Children of this age are wanting to do everything, but lack knowledge of safety, and I’m sorry but if I have to yell at my child to stop screaming so they can get the message that something isn’t safe, that’s what is going to happen!


  • Oh gosh, I remember the terrible two’s! But nothing beats teenage years-the saying is true, small children, small problems, big children, bigger problems!


  • Glad we are passed the terrible twos at our place. It felt long it went on for a very long time!


  • A very insightful post that I will remember next time somebody’s youngster decides to have a melt down in the supermarket when I am shopping. Thankfully I never experienced these problems with my brood.


  • This was quite an informative read.


  • So true. My 8yr old has Down Syndrome whereby we still see tantrums. She had a severe speech delay, is not able to recognise and give words to feelings and is due to her disability also impulsivity. It’s so important to be able to understand the world from my child’s perspective and anticipate, interpret and respond to her behaviours in ways that builds her capacity to regulate her emotions.


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