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Terrible twos – how to deal with temper tantrums in children

Child in a temper tantrum laying on the floor and screaming

This post is also available in: Svenska

Facts and advice about managing the terrible twos or temper tantrums. This blog post is written by pediatricians for parents. Terrible twos, temper tantrums, three-year-old defiance, toddler defiance, hissy fits etc and the list goes on. Some of us have felt the full brunt of this and others have seen it. The terrible twos is a period at around the age of 2-3, when children have mental breakdowns and outbursts of anger for usually negligible reasons. So, how do you cope with this?

Start with yourself – make sure you do not end up throwing a tantrum yourself!

When your child has reached this developmental stage, higher demands are temporarily placed on you as a parent. You may feel like breaking down or bursting! But try to not have as many, nor as long, outbursts as your child. And especially not at the child. If you manage to lure the child into eating food, getting to preschool and getting the child to sleep for a reasonable amount of time, despite the tantrums, you should applaud yourself.

So start with yourself, make sure you have the strength. Just like you would normally – eat properly, go to bed in the evenings, exercise and make sure you meet friends occasionally. If you are very tired when you pick up your two-year-old from kindergarten, take a break at a café, have a coffee and a banana, or bun, or smoothie, and unwind for 20 minutes before going to preschool. If you do not have time, have a snack on the commuter train.

Never forget the snacks!

It does not always help, but if you have a child who is close to bursting with anger, then make sure the child gets food every three hours. Hunger is your worst enemy, especially during a tantrum. Bring a fruit or a packet of raisins to eat in the stroller on your way home from kindergarten.

Angry defiant child eating snack in carriage
Snacks at daycare pick-up are good for three-year-olds

Read more about picky eaters

Sleep for a three-year-old defiant child

Much easier said than done. Try to maximize the child’s chances for a good night’s sleep by making sure the bed is comfortable, the room is dark and reasonably cool.

Practice the same bedtime and routine every night. Conflicts over bedtime are usually worth taking, I believe. In my family, it is important that the parent decides when it is time to go to bed. If the child protests, I stay with them and remind them of this. If they get up, I put them back in bed.

Read more about getting your baby to sleep – tips for a good night sleep

Choose your battles!

As I said, I choose the bedtime battle. However, not the dispute about which bed they should sleep in; which stuffed animals they should have; what they should eat from the food on the table; or what they should wear.

My two-year-old decided which raincoat, sun hat, backpack and rubber boots they wore, when we went out in the sun or when we are ice cream. Why not? They were happy and I was happy. Cute, matching pajamas may not be the most important thing to argue about during the ages of defiance.

What about Ipads, mobiles and other screens? Is it helpful? Is the battle worth it?

Read about children and screen time

Validate the child’s feeling!

This is my second favorite tip, validation. “Wow, you are angry and sad” is something my kids usually like to hear when they are angry. They want their feelings recognized. Sometimes they say, “Yes! Stupid mom, stupid dad, stupid big brother!”. Then you can try to respond, “It feels that way. It must feel very lonely for you if mom is stupid, dad is stupid and big brother is stupid. What about your favorite teddy bear? Is he also stupid?” . Try it! It often has a redemptive effect on a child.

Do not argue against them

Saying “who cares if you’re wearing the wrong colored socks. It’s not important. The pink socks are as nice as the red ones” doesn’t ever help. And it will never help! Find a way around the situation and the tantrums will pass more easily.

Remind the child of the rules

It may seem close to arguing, but it is not the same thing. As an adult, you determine the child’s everyday life. When it’s time to go to bed; when it’s time to eat; what should be on the table; when it’s time to go on the potty / change diapers; when a movie is turned on and off; that the child must not fight… During the age of defiance, the child will question their routine. It is important to stick to the rules and structure of the day as an adult. If necessary, remind them, “You can be angry, you can say I’m stupid, but you must not bite! Stop!” or “I hear you want to build Lego, but now it’s dinner time. I’ll take you to the table.”

Prepare for the next activity

If the child’s outbursts often occur when the child has to change activities, such as stopping a movie and starting a meal, or stop playing etc, prepare the child for the other activity. Not infrequently, the child can then say, “yes, I’ll just finish building the sand castle first” or “yes, when I have finished watching Bob the Builder” or so. In my experiences, waiting those few minutes results in everything going more smoothly afterwards.

When you cannot cope

When you can no longer cope with the child, take a break. Let the child be with someone else, and feel free to read this post about the topic:

Read more about feeling like a bad mother – when you can’t cope with your kids

Also feel free to read the nice guest blog post of a mother with borderline personality disorder and a broken childhood, who had to struggle extra hard to learn to be a good mother.

Experiences from a mother with borderline personality disorder

If you want to read about really good advice on how to best handle defiant and angry children, I recommend Explosive Children by Ross Greene .

Read more:

Help babies fall asleep – tips for a successful bedtime routine

Children and screen time

Feeling like a bad mother? – When you can’t cope with your kids

Experiences from a mother with borderline personality disorder

Food for children who eat poorly or refuse to eat – picky eaters

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