Are toddlers truly “terrible?” Have the “Terrible Twos” earned its reputation rightfully? I am asking these questions because my previously sweet and easygoing twins have turned into screaming, demanding toddlers. Is this behavior normal?
I turned to parenting expert and family physician Dr. Deborah Gilboa (popularly known as Dr. G) to answer some of these pressing questions about toddler behavior.
So, why have my toddlers seemingly become different people? Dr. G says, “Some kids have a startling behavior development at age two. For some, it’s not until age three. The really wily ones wait and have you convinced that you got through clean, then start to really test you at four!”
There is also a difference in toddlers who are being raised as an only child as opposed to toddlers who have an older sibling. According to Dr. G, tantrum throwing in two-year-olds is usually an expression of frustration and more common in younger siblings. This is because they see their older sibling communicating complex ideas and getting their wants met on a regular basis. Because toddlers don’t yet have the language skills to express complex thoughts, feelings, or ideas, and they don’t have the motor skills necessary to make it happen themselves, they express frustration. It’s upsetting to them because they possess the cognitive skills to know what they’re missing out on, by they can’t do anything about it. On the flip side, however, Dr. G says, “It is a great motivator for them, and they often hit milestones a little sooner because of it.”
Toddlers are “experts” at whining because it works.
“It is a natural inclination to start whining once a child has learned a few words,” says Dr. G. “This is because the tired and frustrated and but-I-really-want-that-and-you-just-don’t-understand-me seeps into their voices. I’ve even heard cats and dogs whine a meow or a woof! But here is the truth: they’ll keep whining if it works. On anyone. The trick is to start strong. If he whines ‘Miiiiiiilk, Mooooommmmmmyyyyy!’ turn back to him and say calmly to him without whining, ‘Milk please, Mommy.’ Help him get the request in the tone you find acceptable before he gets the milk. This takes repetition, but you (and his preschool teacher) will be so happy you did it!”
The next issue I asked Dr. G about was the concept of sharing. For my twins, when they say, “Share,” they mean, “Give it to me.” What should I be doing or saying instead?
It is no surprise that two-year-olds want what they want and want it right then; they have no sense of fair play or concern about anyone else’s feelings. To correct this behavior, Dr. G suggests, “You need to show them that it does matter … It’s great that they use the word ‘share.’ The rule in my house (four boys!) is that any child can say “Share, please.” The child with the toy must say “Yes” and hand it over or ‘”in two minutes.” If the child without the toys grabs it anyway, they don’t get a turn at all. If the child with the toy says “No!” or doesn’t hand it over in two minutes, then they don’t get the toy again for a long time. This sort of back and forth takes patience to teach, but it will carry on without you for years. It’s a worthwhile investment!”
Last, but not least, are time-outs. Is it too soon to impose time-outs on a toddler?
I love Dr. G’s answer. She says, “Here’s how I’ve always known my child was ready for a time-out. We have a dog water bowl, and we constantly had to pull our crawling babies away from it. Over and over and over again, they would go to play in or try to drink from the water bowl. But one day, around 13 months (or so) old, each of my kids would crawl over, sit next to the water bowl, stick one hand towards it, and look at me instead of the bowl. The look clearly said, “What are you going to do, Mom?” That is the moment that a child is ready for a short time-out. The time when he is looking to you to see what the consequence is rather than towards the object of his intention. After that age, you know they understand the link between their behavior and the consequence.”
In conclusion, yes, the twos are a little terrible–some more so for some others. However, as Dr. Gilboa has assured me, this phase will pass. Thank goodness.
A version of this article originally appeared on Everyday Family and has been syndicated with permission.
Alison Lee is the co-editor of Multiples Illuminated: A Collection of Stories and Advice From Parents of Twins, Triplets and More (Spring 2016), a writer, and publisher. Her writing has been featured in On Parenting at The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Mamalode, Mothers Always Write, Everyday Family, Feminine Collective, Parent.co, Scary Mommy, and The Good Mother Project, and has essays published in two anthologies. Alison lives in Malaysia with her husband and four children (two boys and boy/ girl twins).