The “Terrible Two’s” — and what it really means.

Emi Sano
7 min readJul 7

We’ve all heard the terms “Terrible Two’s” or “Threenager” when talked about stages of toddlerhood. This is all to give an excuse to why our toddlers are acting certain ways but what’s never discussed is the real reason behind these behaviors.

Note: I am going into this post with honest experience to this stage of toddlerhood. I am in it, so I empathize, but I do want to shake up the stigma that it is all on the toddler’s shoulders to correct or change the way they are behaving.

What is going on?

Around 2.5 years old and going onto 3 years old, toddlers who have been learning and gaining knowledge about how the world works around them, have found their need for more independence. Around this time they start to view themselves as separate from their caregiver and with this newfound “freedom” they are testing OUR limits and boundaries we have created.

Even though around this stage of life their language development has evolved there is still room for error and miscommunication which can lead to strong tantrums, aggression, and/or lack of cooperation. As caregivers this can cause great frustration in ourselves as we try to find ways to help our toddlers and in turn we may have our own tantrum.

What can we do?

If you know the cure-all, please let me know.

But in the meantime, I will be reading all the books and articles I can get my hands on. I have entered this phase with the knowledge that this will happen and it will pass, but I was ill-equipped with how to help and cope with stage.

It was not uncommon to go through a day where both my toddler and I had at least three tantrums. My husband would hesitate to ask how things were going and tried to offer some band-aid solutions so I could have a cool down period of my own. But, I knew that it would be just a temporary fix and I needed to do a deep dive and find the right tools to help us through this.

I’m going to list a few tips I’ve pulled from some resources and have started implementing on myself and also some tips from resources that I haven’t tried yet.

1. Give yourself some time and grace.

“But what if we’re running late?” I often feel that question, too. And before, if I ever find myself in a situation where we are running late I would stress out to the max. It would cause epic meltdowns as we’re getting into the car and you guessed it, we were still late.

Unless it’s a life threatening situation, giving your toddler all the time they need to get ready and out the door is the best way to avoid a tantrum. Let them be a part of the “getting ready” process. Have them pack their bags with the snacks they want to bring, let them pick the shoes for the outing, allow them time to try to put them on themselves, and whatever you do, do not “hurry” them. That only creates anxiety and a feeling of uncertainty.

If you know it will take you a long time to get out the door, start the getting ready to leave process early. If you end up getting out super early — take that as win and keep it in mind for the next time you have to go somewhere. What I like to do is set the schedule.

45 minutes before we have to leave: “Hey, we have to go meet our friends soon. So in five minutes we’re going to get ready to go.”

40 minutes before we have to leave: “Hey five minutes are up, do you want to help me get your bag ready?”

30 minutes before we have to leave: “Great, we’ve finished and we got our snack for the road. Let’s get your shoes on. Which one do you want to wear today?” GREEN SHOES “Oh we need socks for those! Let’s go get your socks!”

20 minutes before we have to leave: “Awesome, do you want to put them on or mommy?”

10 minutes before we have to leave: “Okay let’s go to the car!”

I always give extra time for each task because I know how easy it is to get distracted. Maybe I need to run to pee while we’re doing a task, or maybe my toddler needs to use the potty! I never wait until five minutes before we have to leave to get my toddler out the door. I know that will just create pure chaos and epic meltdowns for the both of us.

2. Give them opportunities to do it themselves.

Provide them with the opportunity to do something that we normally have to do for them.

I have a snack shelf for my toddler in the pantry. He’s able to go in and grab what he wants for and then comes to me to open it. Sometimes if it’s the same snack he reaches for I ask him to look for another option and he will go back and get something else. Other times he will ask me first before going in.

I also showed him where his spoons and forks are and he’s able to go and get one for himself to bring to the table.

If we’re baking or doing a simple task meal prep, I bring him to the counter and have him help me dump ingredients together or mix it up. This alleviates any and all tantrums for attention or “asking to play” while you’re trying to get dinner started.

Let them brush their teeth first and then you finish up. Let them flush the toilet. Let them try to wash their hands/bodies/hair etc. I used to not do this and my husband had to take over these tasks with my toddler because he didn’t care who did what first. After a few books I realized my husband was right and I needed to just let it happen.

Someone said to me, “If not, why?” and I always ask myself that question. If I’m saying no, what is the reasoning behind it? Is it my need to control the situation? If so, then push that feeling aside, take a deep breath, and let them try it.

3. Options

This or that.

Sometimes giving options can be overwhelming to a toddler so I wouldn’t do it all the time. But if you are in a bind and don’t want to spend 30 minutes agonizing while they decide what pants to put on, I would bring out two that you know they’ll like and have them choose. This or that. I find that the whole process goes by quicker and you can ask them to help you put it on or open something to make it a fun game!

4. Validate their feelings.

Were you waiting for this one? If so, then you already know it. Validate their feelings. If they’re feeling overwhelmed, overtired, over hungry, over thirsty, etc. you should validate that. No one likes to be told to “get over it and wait” as an adult and toddlers don’t like it either!

Sometimes life is hard and it is very frustrating! Don’t show the how easy it is for you to do something, show them that yes it can be hard! Afterwards, model how you can handle the frustration and then show them how to do it.

I learned from my mistakes. I used to just do it for my toddler and then he learned he could just hand it to me and expected me to do what he couldn’t do. I’ve started showing him my frustration and having a shared experience with him over it and he seems to be taking that a lot better than crying and throwing his toys.

5. Breathe. Meditate. Take your time.

You can’t be present as a parent if you are not present for yourself. If you’re constantly feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, upset over dealing with toddler meltdowns and tantrums, it’s time to take a step back and breathe.

Easier said than done. The only time I get to meditate is right before I close my eyes to fall asleep. But I do take deep breaths multiple times during the day.

I have to ask myself, “What is the need here?” or “Why am I triggered?”

Just remember they’re not acting out towards YOU they’re just outwardly expressing what they feel inside.

And don’t hide your emotions from your toddlers. Validate yourself. “I’m feeling frustrated and I need to take a break.” It’s best that they see you work on regulating your emotions so they can do the same for themselves.

It’s hard… being a parent of 2 or 3 year old is challenging. I hope these tips have helped you! Best of luck.

Resources I’ve been using:

As a parent:

How to Talk So Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2–7
By Joanna Faber, Julie King

Raising Good Humans: A Mindful Guide to Breaking the Cycle of Reactive Parenting and Raising Kind, Confident Kids
By Hunter Clarke-Fields

“Good Inside” podcast by Dr. Becky Kennedy

To create a toddler friendly independent zone I recommend reading:

The Montessori Toddler
by Simone Davies

For my toddler:

Calm-Down Time
by Elizabeth Verdick

Mad, Mad, MAD
by Leslie Patricelli

Hands Are Not for Hitting
by Martine Agassi

“Emotions” episode of Songs for Littles (Ms. Rachel)

Emi Sano

Emi Sano is a self-published author of “Voices: a short story collection” and YA novella “We Don’t Talk About That.” She freelances as a writer/blogger.