How to Survive the Terrible Twos

Sink Bath

The twos are terrible for parents, not kids, and they always come, if not this year then the next. So, if a mom tells you the twos haven't changed her little one, then call her back in a year. The screaming, crying, toy-snatching and kid-pushing melees are what this notorious time is all about. To survive it, equip yourself with a vat of wine and a solid game plan like the one below.

1. Know Your (Tiny) Opponent

Two-year-olds are not five-year-olds; they can't be scolded, timed out, or reasoned with because it's like talking gibberish to them. In The Whole Brain Child, authors Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, stress that, "The behaviors and skills we want and expect our kids to demonstrate…are dependent on a part of their brain that hasn't fully developed yet."

Research shows that two-year-olds are only beginning to fire up the top part of their brains (where self-regulation, empathy and self-control happen) and integrate it with the more developed bottom part (where impulses, emotions and basic body functions spark).

This is important to keep in mind so you don't waste your energy trying to make your child into the non-existent, perfect obedient two-year-old. Your job for this terrible year is simply to connect the two halves of your child's brain and contribute to the building of the top part by being loving, emotionally steady, present and willing to repeat behavioral lessons with zero expectations of anything in return.

In other words, drop your expectations and just keep parenting.

2. Treat Toddlers Like Angry Customers

Child Tantrum

Tantrums are the pinnacle of the terrible twos! Don't expect your average yell/cry combo; these are super-human displays of hysteric rage that leave children flailing on floors while parents and strangers stare down in shock and awe. Yes, these fits are embarrassing, and you'll want to quickly shut them down and run away, but stay strong and shrug off the rolling eyes around you. Tantrums are perfect opportunities to teach empathy and, as mentioned above, connect the top and bottom part of your child's brain.

Tantrums happen when your child is experiencing an unmanageable onslaught of intense desires and feelings (something very normal at two). Their lower brain goes into overdrive, making it seemingly impossible to connect with the upper brain where they could find self-control.

Because they are in a manic state, you will want to calm them by practicing empathy and connecting with your child. If they're so upset they can't speak, verbalize the emotions you see in your child and ask if it's what they're feeling: "Are you upset mom took that toy away from you? It's horrible isn't it, when someone takes a toy?" It's like handling a complaint like a great customer service rep. Don't you stop feeling angry that someone messed up your order once the representative acknowledges your feelings? It's the same for a kid, and it works wonders at quickly diffusing the situation.

Once your child is calm and connected, you can then parent and teach the why of the moment: "I know it upset you, but I was afraid you were going to hurt yourself with that toy."

Taking these steps will not only stop the tantrum, but they also help you connect with your child, learn about their thoughts and feelings, and help them build an emotional vocabulary. All that from not ignoring a psycho tantrum.

3. Make Nice With Biters

Believe it or not, the kid who hit (or even bit) your kid is not evil. Once your child does the same, you'll find that kids are just acting out of curiosity or don't have the language skills to tell other children to back off. So calm your desire for vengeance and use these aggressive moments to show your child how to connect with others.

If your child is in the act of pushing, hitting or biting, take hold of him without judgment or drama, to stop anyone from getting hurt. Apologize to the hurt child to demonstrate an appropriate response. Next, ask your child to look at the other kid and describe how he might be feeling. Does he look happy or sad? Is he smiling or crying? If your child is still in the moment, ask him how it makes him feel that he hurt the other child. Finally, ask your son to apologize. He might not understand the concept of forgiveness just yet, but he'll start making the connections, and it will give him the language needed when he finally does feel sorry.

4. Strap That Runner Down

Mother and toddler

Kids at the age of two can now walk well and, therefore, run. Some kids stay close to their parents, but if you have a runner, you never know when the sprint will happen. You could be walking down the street, doing groceries, or waiting in line on a crowded day at Disneyland when your child will suddenly start to run, as if he's on a quest to become the next Usain Bolt.

Although leashes sound like the best idea ever, they're generally a waste of money. The best thing to do is catch your child, remind them that they need to stay close and if they go off again, strap them to the stroller. Child restraints are there for a reason.

5. Make Food, but Don't Feed

Cooking is not fun to do for kids at the age of two. Sure, your kid may have been up for eating cod en papillote last year, but at two, the dreaded kid palate revs up and Goldfish crackers change the game.

Sweet, salty, carbolicious, highly processed, prepackaged foods give way to the typical kids menu: spaghetti, mac 'n' cheese, chicken fingers, pizza, and hot dogs. Yes, your husband may think this is brilliant, but after a year and a half of spending tons of money on organic foods and snacks worthy of showing off to other moms in the park, you think to yourself, "There is no way in hell I'm going to fall to the dark side!"

But you do. And to deal with it, you fall into the individual dinner trap: special dishes for every person in the house. And still, your hard work and hard-earned cash ends up most nights in the trash. It's maddening and unsustainable.

Finally, you'll realize that there's at least one old-school parenting tip that still works: make one meal for everyone and if someone doesn't like it, then too bad. If you're worried your child will die of starvation without their favorite cereal bar, talk to your doctor. Unless your child is malnourished, she can handle it. Just refresh yourself on crying-it-out, because your kid will scream, fuss and refuse to eat until her will to live takes over her will to eat pretzels.

As one dad said, "Your job as a parent is to provide food for your child, not to make them eat it."

6. Potty Train in Only 365 Days

Little girl on potty

It's potty training time! Whether you're doing it because a preschool requires it or you're tired of being limited to family-friendly restaurants with changing stations, potty training always seems to happen during the twos when a kid doesn't want to be told what to do.

Many books and websites will make the promise of potty training in three days, but it's a lie. Unless your child is 4 or that perfect little girl you're sick of hearing about, then expect a urine-scented home for a year. Chances are that it will take less time but, once again, having low expectations will save you from giving up when three days later, stickers, treats, or clothes on or off don't work.

So go ahead, try every method out there, but be prepared to keep going even if your kid doesn't want to. Change strategies, keep a steady tone in your voice and don't quit. I promise, by 18, your kid will finally stop peeing in his pants.

7. Talk With Your Small Hoarder

Two kids fighting

It's natural to feel bad when your kid won't share their toys, but, again, a bad moment may not be a completely bad thing. Kids who don't want to share are discovering ownership; an attribute they'll need later to take responsibility for actions and possessions. And besides, as one mom told us, "If someone demanded you, an adult, to hand over your iPhone, would you be okay with it?"

If your child won't share, talk to her about it. Ask her if she might want to share later. Try sharing something yourself with the other child to show your kid how it's done. And if the other child hasn't asked for the toy, suggest she does. Many times kids are so stunned when they've been asked for a toy that they find themselves handing it over…before snatching it back.

8. Give Grabbers Tools to Grow

On the other end of the spectrum is the grabber. They don't ask, they take. Why? Because two-year-olds are narcissists. According to the book Why Is It All About You by Sandy Hotchkiss, two-year-olds are going through one phase of healthy narcissism necessary to conquer the human developments they face. Basically, they have to think it's all about them so they can grow.

But parents have to help them get through this phase so they don't grow into unhealthy adult narcissists that nobody likes. So when your child takes a toy, give the toy back to the other kid. A tantrum could happen so address that first (see above). Next, ask your child to use his words to ask for the toy. If he doesn't know what to say, give him the words. If the child doesn't hand over the toy, explain that the toy is very special to the other child and perhaps later he can ask for it again. Immediately after, grab another toy and pray the other kid stays far, far away.

Children need guidance and their brains need to be built and furnished. No matter how crummy they are at such a tiny height, stick to mindful parenting to lessen the pressure coming your way. And if you still feel like a failure when the even worse threenage year shows up, remember, according to science, your child's brain doesn't fully form until their mid-twenties. As in out of college. As in, time for that vat of wine.

Was this page useful?
How to Survive the Terrible Twos