Toddlers get a bit of a bad rap, but it’s not really their fault. Sure, they’re highly emotional and expressive whirling dervishes, prone to throwing themselves on the floor at the slightest hint of the word “no.” I can see how it’s tempting to call that “terrible” — if they were your age, that is, with your emotional maturity and self-regulation skills. They’re only TWO, for crying out loud. Just a few short years ago they were still forming in the womb — but they’re expected to have it all together already?
Misguided expectations for what two-year-olds should already be capable of, mixed with a lack of resources provided by the adult, is what really causes those tantrums and “terrible twos.”
So let’s figure out how to turn them into loving connections and emotional self-regulation instead! Here are 3 key things to consider when faced with typical two-year-old behavior:
1. Enforce Boundaries
First of all, did you know that a toddler’s primary responsibility is to test boundaries? It is, because it’s important for a toddler to know that you mean what you say. Boundaries allow toddlers to feel safe, because it is the same line drawn every single time. It helps a toddler to know what to expect next time. So when your toddler tries to do the same forbidden thing over and over again until you’re about to lose your mind — just know that she’s only doing her job. Now it’s your turn to do yours: Enforce that boundary. Make it clear that the boundary was in place last time, it is in place this time, and it will still be in place next time. Help your toddler feel safe.
You also have a responsibility to occasionally re-evaluate the boundaries you’ve created to make sure they are reasonable boundaries. It’s easy to get caught in the trap of “because I said so!” when there’s no valid reason for saying so in the first place.
2. Allow for Independence
Another primary responsibility a toddler feels is to do things “by myself!” In many cases, tantrums begin when a toddler is told that she can’t do something by herself. Rethink that boundary. How can you prepare the environment so that is safe and easy for your toddler to do it by herself? Giving your toddler control over one tiny part of the process is often enough, allowing her to feel useful and independent.
You can also circumvent the situation a bit by offering her two choices of what she can do instead of what she originally wanted to do. “It’s not safe for you to stand on the counter to reach that. Would you like me to get it down for you, or would you like to use your helper tower to reach it safely?”
3. Model Calming Strategies
Of course, there will be times when your boundaries are perfectly appropriate and you firmly enforce them, leading to your toddler throwing an epic tantrum on the floor. And that’s ok! She is having some big feelings right now, and she doesn’t know what else to do with them. Luckily, you’ve had some practice with big feelings yourself in your many years on this planet, and you’ve collected some tools and strategies for handling them. Now it’s your responsibility to pass along that wisdom.
Rather than sending your screaming toddler to a time-out chair by herself, create a calming corner together where she can go to process her emotions. Since she’s so young, you can go with her, talking about what feelings you are noticing her expressing so she can begin to learn the words for them. Choose a calming strategy to use together, such as breathing in deeply with your nose buried in a lavender calming bag. Talk about how the calming strategy is changing the way you’re feeling as you continue to use it. Model emotional self-regulation yourself, and your toddler will absorb it until she is able to use those skills on her own.
Using these 3 tools together, all while reconsidering the expectations you are placing on your two-year-old, will help to relieve the frequency and intensity of tantrums and lead to a child who knows how it feels to experience connection with others and self-regulate her emotions.