The Terrible Twos – three little words that send a shiver down every parent’s spine. There’s no denying that toddlers are utterly adorable but they can also keep you on your toes and test your patience to the limit. One minute you’re creasing up with laughter at something funny they have said or done, the next you’re wishing the ground would open up and swallow you as your tiny tot has a meltdown in the middle of the supermarket. We’ve put together some top tips to survive this stage and come through it with both a happy toddler and your own sanity intact.
Be well prepared
Whenever you leave the house be as prepared as possible. Pack snacks to ward off hunger pangs, drinks to keep hydrated and toys as distraction if your toddler gets bored. If you put in a bit of preparation beforehand you’ll have a better chance of your outing running more smoothly.
Let them know what to expect
Toddlers love routine and to know what’s happening next and why. Tell them what is going to happen in their day but break it down into a simple and short sequence of events. ‘We’re going to brush your teeth, then put our shoes on and then we’re going to go to the park to feed the ducks.’ They will be much calmer when they know what to expect.
Give fair warning
Once you are at the park (or the soft play or the library) give your toddler a clear warning of when it is time to finish playing and leave. Lots of parents tell their toddler that there are ‘5 more minutes and then it’s time to go.’ As a toddler has little concept of time (and can get so caught up with the enjoyment of their activity) it’s worth breaking this down into something even more concrete, such as ‘I’ll push you 5 more times on the swing and then we can have one go on the slide and then it’s time to go.’
Be aware of your child’s moods
If you know your child is knackered, has missed a nap and hasn’t eaten much lunch then it might not be the best time to take them to the supermarket to do the weekly shop. Equally, if they are on a play date and you notice signs that they are tired or hungry and getting a bit fractious then it might be wise to say no to that offer of another cup of tea. Take your cues from your child’s mood and make life a little easier by cutting any social engagements short when you think they are running low on energy.
Offer two clear choices
A toddler’s favourite word is ‘No’. If you ask a question such as ‘Do you want to put your pyjamas on to get ready for bed?’ the most obvious response from your toddler will be ‘no’. Instead, offer two clear choices so that your toddler has some say but the job will still get done. So you could ask ‘Which pyjamas do you want to wear – the red ones or the blues ones?’
Often you can stop a tantrum in its tracks before it hits full kilter with a bit of distraction. When you first notice your toddler’s lip wobbling you might suddenly use an excited voice to point out a funny dog you have just spied outside the bus window, or exclaim loudly that you have suddenly remembered you brought a little bottle of bubbles along in your bag. Distraction doesn’t always work but it’s worth a try, especially before a tantrum has become full blown.
Use positive language as much as possible
Your toddler’s favourite word might be ‘no’ but yours doesn’t have to be. Toddlers respond well to positivity. If they ask for a biscuit before lunch then say ‘Yes, after you’ve eaten your pasta.’ If they are saying nasty things to you or their siblings, then instead of saying “Don’t talk like that” it can be more effective to say “kind words please”. Not only do toddlers respond better to positive language but it makes you feel better too, as it’s all too easy to get caught up in a spiral where all you seem to do all day is say ‘No’ and nag your child.
Shout it loud when they do something well
If your toddler is going through a tricky phase and keeps forgetting the house rules then remember to cheer loudly and make a big fuss when you notice them doing something good (or even something nearly good). Praise is such a powerful motivator. So if they pick up a Cheerio that they dropped on the floor and pop it in the bin, praise them. If they share a toy with another child, even if for just a few minutes, then make sure you let them know how pleased you are and why. The idea is that if they get so much attention for the good things they do, and very little for the not so good, then they want to do the good things more to please you.
Keep your cool
It’s not easy when your toddler is screaming and bashing their little fists on the floor but try to keep your own emotions in check. If you are TOO calm it can actually increase a toddler’s frustration but if you can acknowledge their feelings and remain calm it can help. So saying something like “I can see that you are feeling really cross because Mummy said you couldn’t have a biscuit”, then staying near them and waiting for their temper to subside can be a really good way of dealing with a tantrum. After acknowledging their feelings don’t say anything more, as when a toddler is in the height of a tantrum they can’t hear you anyway. So take some deep breaths, quietly wait for it to subside and then you can give her a hug and walk away from it. A little later, when everything is quiet again, if you want to talk to her about it you can sit down with her and ask her why she got so upset.
Remove your child from the situation
All parents know that tantrums that happen in public are harder to bear. When they happen in the middle of a busy place your own emotions can be heightened and if people stare or tut it can make the whole experience even more stressful. If you can pick up your child and find a quiet spot to wait while the tantrum takes its course it can make both of you feel a lot calmer.
Try a calm down jar
It’s actually really hard for a toddler to calm down once they have got themselves into a tantrum. If you can understand what is happening when they are angry and upset it can help you respond in the best way. Here’s the science bit:
When toddlers are in a tantrum their emotions overwhelm them and send stress signals to the limbic system of their brain. The limbic system is the most primitive part of the brain, which controls the fight or fight reflex and floods the body with adrenalin. As this part of the brain is flooded with adrenalin, the outer parts of the brain (the neocortex) that we use for processing language and for reasoning, doesn’t work as well. That’s why your toddler will not be able to listen to you very well in the height of a tantrum.
Try a calm down jar to help the tantrum pass. You can make these very easily by filling a jar with water and adding a spoonful of glitter glue and some larger pieces of glitter or sequins. When they have a tantrum ask your toddler to shake the jar and watch the glitter swirl and slowly sink to the bottom. It gives them time and space for their nervous system to slow down and helps calm their breathing and heart rate.
Remember tantrums are a normal part of toddlerhood
If you are out at the supermarket and notice lots of other parents with seemingly angelic toddlers, while yours is flailing on the floor in the frozen food aisle, it’s easy to feel like you’re a rubbish mum and that you’re getting it all wrong. You’re not. Remind yourself that all toddlers have tantrums and it is a normal and healthy part of their development. All parents will have lovely, peaceful moments with their toddlers and all parents will have loud, messy ones too. It’s just part and parcel of the journey through toddlerhood. If you can take a moment and remind yourself that tantrums are normal and just the way that toddlers handle big emotions and let off steam, then it can make you feel calmer and less alone as a parent. Remember you’re doing an amazing job!
This too shall pass
The terrible twos don’t last forever, although it is hard to believe when you’re in the trenches and in the thick of the storm. Keep reminding yourself that your toddler will grow and develop and learn how better to handle her emotions and one day toddler tantrums will be a distant memory. When it feels like tantrums will never end make ‘This too will pass’ your mantra.