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Toddler tantrums and antics: 5 tips for parents managing the ‘terrible twos’

Melissa P.
March 19, 2019

It seems like just yesterday I had a sweet little baby, all smiles and coos. Sure, he cried and pooped a lot — and those round-the-clock feedings nearly did me in — but at least he never threw himself howling onto the ground because I wouldn’t let him dip his pacifier into the dog’s water bowl.

Sudden meltdowns, inexplicable hunger strikes, biting dad — for the parent of a toddler, it’s all par for the course. Still, if you’re a first-time parent like I am, you may not know know what’s normal and when to worry.

I spoke to Dr. Arielle Ornstein, a pediatrician with the Northeast Medical Group Pediatrics in Rye Brook, New York, and a mother of two, on what we should expect. While we’ve probably all heard the phase referred to as the “terrible twos,” Ornstein says this difficult period can start as early as 12 months and sometimes last up to age 4 or 5.

During this time, Ornstein says, it’s typical for your child to push boundaries and exert his will. Toddlers can be impulsive, defiant and even aggressive. If your formerly good-natured baby is suddenly stubborn, angry and irrational, he or she is perfectly normal, Ornstein insists. In fact, she says, “You would be hard pressed to find a child that does not exhibit this behavior at some point during these ages.”

“It all mostly stems from your child's internal struggle of learning and wanting to be independent as they interact with the world but also still needing a parent to set rules and boundaries for them,” Ornstein says.

Below, other caregivers and I reflect on five common ways our toddlers act their age, while Ornstein advises us all on how to best handle these situations.

1. Finicky eating

My little foodie used to eat anything I put in front of him. Now, he turns his nose up at even his most his favorite meals. Last Tuesday, he barely ate anything all day besides clementines. The next day, when I offered him a clementine, it went straight onto the floor.

Stephanie Pitawanakwat, of Sudbury, Ontario, says her 3-year-old nephew has himself on a very special diet: “He won’t eat meat other than bologna and hot dogs. He’ll eat cucumbers, but that is basically the only veggie I've ever seen him eat. And he’ll eat fruit.”

What to do: When it comes to picky eating, Ornstein says as long as your child is growing, there’s nothing to worry about.

“It’s absolutely OK and very typical for your child to limit his diet to one or two favorite foods,” she says. “Just keep in mind that their tastes and preferences can change daily, so keep offering different foods or try a new form (i.e. steamed vs. raw carrots).”  

2. Tantrums

The first time it happened, I thought he was in physical pain. My son’s face turned bright red, he balled up his little fists, screwed up his mouth and started crying comically tiny tears — all because I’d put on his socks? Later that night, it happened again: He threw himself onto the floor in agony when I cut him off after four books.

One New York City nanny reflects on the time she told the 4-year-old she was charged with watching that he couldn’t have a soda: “This child started screaming and crying in an instant, boogers flowing down his face, stomping his feet and pounding the table, barely able to breathe.”

What to do: According to Ornstein, tantrums are caused by a toddlers’ inability to express their frustration and anger over their lack of control: “Basically, these emotions are too big for them to handle and a floodgate opens!”

While every child is different, Ornstein says as long as the child isn’t hurting themselves or others, parents ought to ignore it.

“Any attention is bad and will encourage the behavior,” she says.

3. Aggression

Perhaps the most concerning and embarrassing conduct is when my son is bossy, mean or outright aggressive. Just the other day, we were having a delightful morning at the children’s library when my normally sweet-natured son shoved over another little boy he’d caught playing with “his” toy dinosaur.

Erin Peplar, a mom from Burlington, Ontario, says that when her now-6-year-old was a toddler, he was rarely the aggressor. But if another kid took a toy away or got in his face, she says, he’d immediately respond by hitting.

“He was very defensive and territorial,” Peplar says. “He had no impulse control.”

What to do: Like tantrums, Ornstein says aggression is caused by a toddler’s difficulty with knowing how to express their emotions.

“As opposed to tantrums, you do not want to let this behavior continue,” she says.

The best course of action, Ornstein says, is removing them or whoever the aggression is directed toward from the situation. For example, she says, “If they are throwing toys, then you take them to a different room, or if they are biting while you are holding them, you put them down with a calm and firm ‘no.’”

4. Obsessions

Why must our children’s every adorable enthusiasm turn into an obsession? My son has 100 books, and the only one he wants to read is “Little Blue Truck.” Or he throws a huff when I sing “Little Wheel Turning in My Heart,” because the song he actually wants me to sing to him — nonstop, if he had his way — is “Wheels on the Bus.” When you try and separate him from his beloved “Paw Patrol” sticker, he starts to scream.

What to do: However annoying it may be to parents, Ornstein says this, too, is normal.

“There are no negative consequences of repetition, so go ahead and sing the ABCs for them 100 times,” she says.

5. Ignoring instructions and interrupting

Dinnertime used to be an opportunity for my husband and I to catch one another up on our days. Lately, we spend it shouting over our toddler’s babbling. According to other parents, it’ll only get worse once he becomes verbal.

“My almost 3-year-old repeats the same thing over and over and over and over again without a breath in between,” says Rebecca Alwine, a mom from Augusta, Georgia.

What to do: According to Ornstein, “Toddlers have ‘selective hearing’ and really do not have the attention span to listen and process instructions.”

When it comes to interrupting, Ornstein says most children under 3 will not understand the concept of taking turns in conversation. Instead of reasoning with them, she says, “You can try to distract them and give them a task to do until you are ready to engage.”

The bottom line

If you’re concerned about these or any other behaviors your toddler is exhibiting, Ornstein encourages parents talk to their pediatrician. For example, if your toddler’s aggression continues to escalate and parents are worried it will cause actual physical harm to themselves or others, or if your if it seems like tantrums are occurring frequently throughout the day and significantly impacting their daily activities, seek help.

“Toddler behavior can be extremely frustrating and often makes parents want to pull their hair out,” Ornstein says. “Remember: It's only a phase.”

Read next: The 25 best games for 2-year-olds

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