The Biggest Reason They’re Called The Terrible Twos (and Threes and Fours)

Closeup portrait angry child

The Biggest Reason They’re Called The Terrible Twos (and Threes and Fours)

It can happen in just seconds. Your happy, sunny toddler seems to hit a wall and suddenly melts down; crying, screaming, kicking, hitting and perhaps holding his breath. What happened and why? How do you help your child regain control? How can you prevent future temper tantrums?

We here at Alzein Pediatrics have seen hundreds of tantrums – in our own children and in our patients! Take a big breath yourself, relax and read here for help in handling, soothing and preventing temper tantrums. 

Temper tantrums are a normal part of development (yes, really).
Both boys and girls, usually between the ages of 1 and 3 years, get tantrums. Tantrums are a typical way of dealing with frustration before your child has more mature skills to work through that feeling. 

Why do temper tantrums happen?
When you pay attention to the “before” of your child’s tantrum, you’ll see that they mostly occur when your toddler is tired, uncomfortable or hungry. A tantrum can also happen because your child wants to assert their independence or have control. Because toddlers lack clear communication skills, they are often unable to convey what they want or need – and they get very frustrated about it, resulting in the whining, “falling out”, screaming and other upsetting behaviors. 

How can a tantrum be stopped or shortened?
First, stay calm yourself and remind yourself that your behavior is the most important model for your child. Take a big deep breath and analyze why the tantrum is happening. Is your child hungry? Give him a healthy snack. Is it past nap time? Stop what you’re doing and focus on getting your child to sleep. Is there just too much stimulation in the present environment? Remove your child from the store, play group or activity to give her time to reset. If you’re at home, take your child outside for a moment. 

If your child is in a public place, or a space where he can hurt himself, remove him to a private and safe space. 

Hug your child closely, rub his back and encourage him to take deep breaths to help calm himself. NOTE: Never attempt to hug your child if you are afraid you may do physical harm out of your own frustration. 

What about when my child is demanding something she is not supposed to have?
If your child is having a tantrum because they are trying to manipulate you into saying “yes” to unreasonable demands, such as a new toy, a treat at an inappropriate time or because it’s time to pick up her toys, ignore the tantrum and do not – under any circumstances – give in. Giving in when your toddler is throwing a hissy fit to manipulate you confirms that tantrums work. Don’t hesitate to explain to your child that this behavior is unacceptable and there is no way they are getting what they demanded now. Move on to a new activity quickly, engaging your child in a favorite book or game. 

How can tantrums be prevented?
Pay attention to triggers and look for ways to avoid them:

  • If you have a long day of errands, bring plenty of healthy snacks and carve out time to get home for regular naptime
  • Tell your toddler how wonderfully they are behaving when in a stressful situation
  • Store tempting off-limit items up high and out of sight
  • Avoid sections of stores with off-limit items, like the toy and junk food aisles
  • Have your child help whenever possible. When they’re involved and learning, they are happier
  • Watch your child carefully for pre-tantrum behaviors and change the environment immediately. 

When should I be concerned?
While tantrums are a normal part of childhood, there may be underlying issues, such as learning disabilities or hearing or vision challenges. It’s time to call our office when:

  • Your child tantrums include harmful behavior, to themselves or those around them
  • Tantrums are becoming more frequent, more intense or are unable to be soothed
  • Even when your toddler is not in a tantrum, she rarely cooperates and seems to be unhappy, disagreeable or manipulative
  • If you feel out of control or give in when tantrums happen

Fortunately, most children outgrow tantrums by the time they turn 4, as their verbal skills improve and they are able to communicate their needs clearly and your careful handling has shown them tantrums are ineffective.

Questions about temper tantrums or other behavioral challenges? Call our office at 708-424-7600 or click here to make an appointment. At Alzein Pediatrics, we are here to help all our families through the journey from cradle to career!

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