The real reason behind the terrible twos

toddler girl looking grumpy and moody terrible twos

Toddlers are adorable. They’re super cute, they’re hilarious and they give the best ever squeezy hugs. But they are also prone to throwing the most almighty tantrums that can test your patience to the limits.

They can be playing happily and quietly with a toy one second and flailing on the floor screaming at the top of their lungs the next. Welcome to the terrible twos!

But what makes a toddler go from sweetness and light to little monsters having a major meltdown in a matter of seconds?

Will ALL toddlers have tantrums?

Some toddlers are naturally more chilled out and willing to go with the flow than others but no matter how well behaved a child is, every toddler is going to have tantrums now and again. The term ‘terrible twos’ is a bit of a misnomer though as tantrums can begin as early as 18 months or as late as 3 years.

toddler boy having a tantrum on the floorWHY do toddlers have tantrums?

Temper tantrums are a completely normal part of a toddler’s development. Between the years of 1 and 3 toddlers grow and change at a rapid rate.

Suddenly they can move around and explore their world and are gaining a new found independence. Their whole world is changing but it’s also turning upside down and they don’t yet have the skills to handle it.

While toddlers are developing physical skills at a fast rate their social and emotional development is lagging behind.

Tantrums are one of the ways that toddlers express and manage all the new big feelings they are experiencing as they try to understand or change what’s going on around them.

‘Want it, don’t want it’!

Toddlers are not only gaining more control over their world but they are also becoming aware of their likes and dislikes, what they want and don’t want.

If they want to climb up and grab the biscuit on the coffee table and then are told ‘No’ it can be really frustrating.

Even though toddlers have the desire to get what they want they lack the strategies to deal with the disappointment and frustration when they don’t get it.

“I can do it all by my myself”

It’s an exciting time for toddlers when they discover that they don’t have to always wait for mum or dad to do things for them but they can do some of them themselves.

The discovery of being able to master new skills and be in control of the world around them is thrilling. But, of course, some tasks are easier than others and when a toddler finds that they can’t put on their shoes or open a snack packet or reach to press the green man button it can be very frustrating for them.

If parents hurry a toddler along when he is trying to master something or swoop in and do it themselves then it can make a toddler crosser still. In the toddler years parents have to find a balance between letting children try and try again and finding ways to gently help if they are struggling.

toddler boy rubbing his eyes tired - tantrumWhen you just can’t express yourself

At this age toddlers are just starting to learn the language skills that they need to communicate their thoughts and feelings. If your toddler can’t tell you how he feels with words it can cause a lot of frustration and result in a tantrum.

Toddlers also don’t have the words to express the new big emotions they are feeling and so they communicate them with their bodies instead.

If your child can’t tell you that he is bored and hungry in the middle of the supermarket, then throwing himself to the ground and bashing his fists on the floor sends you the message loud and clear!


Thinking things through

One of the biggest reasons why toddlers have tantrums is because the part of their brain that allows them to think logically isn’t fully developed yet. The part of the brain that regulates emotion and controls social behaviour is the frontal lobe.

It is, in fact, the last part of the brain to fully develop – not doing so until our early twenties. It only begins to mature at age 4.

Toddler behaviour is driven much more by the limbic system. This is the part of the brain that controls emotions and impulses. When something upsets a toddler (even if it is something very small) the limbic system is activated. If they start to have a tantrum this system is fully activated meaning that emotions take over completely.

As the frontal lobe is not developed enough to help them think clearly about what is upsetting them toddlers literally act in the moment. There’s no voice in their head to make them stop in their tracks and ask themselves ‘is this REALLY a good idea?’

A semi-functional frontal lobe also means that toddlers have hardly any sense of time and patience. When they are overcome by a desire to have something or do something they want, they really really need to do it NOW. And if they are told that they have to wait then – you’ve guessed it – their most common response is back to a tantrum.

toddler boy pointing and discovering things outdoorsA whole new world

Toddler life sounds amazing. You get to sleep for 12 hours a night, grab naps when you need them, have all your meals prepared and served for you and find that even the simplest new experience, like jumping in muddy puddles, will blow your mind and make you giggle for hours.

It might be fun in many respects but it’s also quite scary for toddlers. It’s a world of conflicts: one that is as full of fears and big feelings just as much as it is full of fun and discovery.

Toddlers have just learned to walk and talk and they really want to go and explore the world but, at the same time, they worry about going too far away from the safety net of mum and dad.

They’ve learnt how to grab all the exciting-looking things they couldn’t reach before but suddenly mum and dad keep screaming ‘No’. And every time mum and dad disappear they are overcome by a huge fear that they have abandoned them forever and might never return.

Being exposed to so many new emotions leaves toddlers feeling quite unsettled. Without the words to explain what they are feeling or the rational thought to make sense of it toddlers turn to tantrums as a way of coping and an attempt to try and control and make sense of their feelings.

At this stage giving toddlers as much consistency as you can in terms of reliable routines and structure will help them feel safe and sure of themselves.

Actions speak louder than words

Toddlers are also beginning to learn about cause and effect. They throw a toy on the floor and if you pick it up your toddler is delighted and will do it did it again and again (and again!) to test out their new discovery.

Unfortunately they can easily learn that their tantrums cause a reaction too. Toddlers love to get attention, even negative attention. That’s why it’s a good idea to take a deep breath whenever they have a temper tantrum and do your best react as calmly as possible.

Surviving the terrible twos

There’s no denying that the terrible twos are testing times for parents. There are plenty of things you can do to make both your toddler’s and your own life easier and get through this stage with a happy and healthy child and with your own sanity intact.

We’ve put together some top tips to guide you through. Most toddlers begin to grow out of tantrums at around age 4 and so, be reassured that they won’t last forever.

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