Surviving the Terrible Twos

My 2-year old always says “No!” to whatever I suggest. And all of the tantrums! What’s the best approach to use?

DR. RUTHERFORD: We’ve written some on tantrums before and that might be helpful to read. Two-year olds are often particularly trying for parents. To every parent, it feels like a lot of energy goes into dealing with a two-year old!

It’s important to remember that this is a developmental stage that all children go through, some more intensely than others. Here are some thoughts that may help you make it through this stage.

When your kid is having a tantrum –of course, you want to be sure that child is safe and not in an unsafe environment during a tantrum– you need to basically ignore the tantrum and let it run its course. And it will run its course! It might feel like a lifetime when you’re going through it, but it will run its course. When your child is calm, and only when the child is calm, is the time to talk to him about what happened. You’ll have to recognize that the child is a two-year old and his ability to be rational will be nothing like that of an older child. And you should be prepared to go through this a number of times without losing your cool.

MOLLY: This question was asked by a parent from Boston. I can relate because I went through the same thing when my son was two. But, as a frustrated parent, how do you stay calm while this is happening?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Granted, sometimes it’s hard to stay calm. But one thing that can help you is to keep in mind that this is just a stage that every child goes through. The other is to talk to friends or other Moms (or Dads) that also have two-year olds and are having the same struggles. There is a certain sense of camaraderie between parents when they can talk together about what’s going on with their kids.  Being a Mom can be really isolating. And if the parent is isolated, it can be very difficult for a Mom or a Dad to get through this trying period of development. You want to handle it as well as you can because you don’t want your kid to continue to have tantrums at three- and four- and five-years old.

So, some time afterward, when your child is calm, you talk to him calmly and nicely about what happened.

I don’t want to be remiss, so I want to bring up possible biological issues here: sometimes children will have tantrums if they are having a reaction to some kind of food. For instance, a sensitivity to a food dye (FD&C). Often the parents don’t know that the child is sensitive to food dyes and the child eats it and then goes through a very disturbing time at some point within the next 24 hours. So if you’re puzzled why your child is having tantrums, you want to look closely at what your child is eating to see if it might be a reaction to a food or food dyes. You’ll want to investigate the psychological and  biological issues and you’ll want to remind yourself that having tantrums at age two is a normal, developmental stage.

MOLLY: I think, for me, I’ve found that I do better when I try to do some activities with other Moms or parents together with our kids so that I remember that that I’m not the only Mom going through this. I know that with my 16-month year old, when I went to a gym class with him last month and saw the other kids his age climbing over everything and always in motion, it became clear that my kid wasn’t outside the norm in his activity level. And I talked to the other parents – we rolled our eyes together at the things our kids do!– and they had some some helpful suggestions for me, too.

DR. RUTHERFORD: Also, you can get a lot of sympathy from other Moms in your same situation, and that helps your psyche.

MOLLY: That really does help.

DR. RUTHERFORD: The old adage: misery loves company.

The most important thing to remember is not to set up a situation where the child benefits from the tantrum.  If you get a few of those times in a row where the kid wins because of throwing the tantrum, the child is going to recognize right away that this is the way to get what he wants. That can follow you into adulthood –you sometimes see adults having a mini-tantrum if they don’t get their way. It’s important to establish that this is not the best method of getting your way.


Why Does My Kid Seem to Have Regularly Scheduled Tantrums?

I noticed that my seven-year old son seems to have tantrums when he comes home from school. What can I do and is there a pattern here? What might it mean?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): It’s very important to notice when your kid is having tantrums so that you can look to see if there is a pattern. Sometimes there is a definite pattern: sometimes breakdowns can regularly happen when kids come home from school, or they may occur frequently at dinnertime or even at or before bedtime. What you need to look for are patterns because patterns of behavior can tell you so much. If it turns out that her son is coming home from school and having tantrums and being mad at his mom, she really should have to talk with her child about what’s going on. That child probably can not see a pattern in his own behavior.

MOLLY: What do you mean talk with them about what’s going on? As a parent, you’re already probably  saying, “Hey, why are you having tantrums?”

MOM: Well, first you have to notice the pattern. Most people don’t tend to reflect about the pattern in the middle of a tantrum, so it’s very important to be conscious of the pattern.

Then you say to your child, “ I notice that every Tuesday when you come home, you have a tantrum and I was wondering what’s going on at school? Is there something particular on Tuesdays?” And then the child will begin to talk about things. They won’t necessarily see the connection until you make the connection for them. So you, the parent, could say, “I notice that it’s every Tuesday when you come home that things erupt, and I know that you have that special class at school on Tuesdays. Do you think you might be upset about something going on at school?  And then you come home and have a tantrum?”

Most kids will look blankly at you and say they don’t understand that connection, but you should just give them time to think about it. Days, even. And then the kid might be ready to talk about it, or they might not want to talk about it. You, the parent, have to respect where the kid is in their process, and if they don’t want to talk about it at that time you’ll have to bring it up again at another time.

MOLLY: How do you bring it up later?

MOM: Well, first of all, you don’t bring this kind of discussion up while the kid is in the middle of having a tantrum. You bring it up when the child is thinking rationally and not in the throes of emotion because you want to engage the rational part of his brain at that moment, not the emotional part.

Even if you pick a quiet time to discuss a link between Tuesday’s tantrums and and Tuesday’s classes, the kid probably won’t get the connection. However, you just say, “It seems to me that there’s a connection here, so you might want to think about it some more and let’s talk about this again another time.” And then you do talk about it again.

On Monday, before the pattern starts again, you say, “You know, I’m still thinking about whether you’re having trouble at school on Tuesday’s at that class and coming home to have a tantrum. Have you thought any more about it?” The kid might have or might not have, but you’re reminding him of the connection before it has a chance to play out. Now there’s a better chance that the kid will come home on Tuesday and not have a tantrum.

When this happens, you might ask, “What happened today in class? What was it like for you?” Never do this kind of questioning when the kid is already upset because it would likely be a waste of everyone’s time. So you ask these kinds of questions when the child is calm. Generally, depending on the age of the kid, he will be able to give you something to go on. The very interesting part of all of this is that, after you’ve had these conversations, the child feels so grateful (unconsciously) that someone is listening to them and helping them figure out what’s going on in their lives that they’ll often become quite affectionate with that parent. If that happens, then you can have an idea that you’re on the right track.

MOLLY: What if her son says, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or “There’s nothing going on.” You know how kids can be.

MOM: Yes, there isn’t a lot you can do about that except to say “Well, I hear you but I’m still wondering if something’s going on, so let’s just keep our eyes open.” And then move on. Don’t force your interpretation on your child; your interpretation might not even be right. It might be something else altogether! But, as a parent, you often have to go with what your intuition is telling you when you recognize a pattern.

If you don’t recognize a pattern, you’re likely to get very angry with your kid over these tantrums. You want to head that anger off because if you end up punishing the child because you don’t know what else to do it’s not helpful and it doesn’t get to the core of the matter. The idea with raising balanced children is to try to address core issues in a way that will help the child become self-aware and able to control their behavior and emotions in order to live peacefully with others.


Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has her undergraduate degree from Duke University, a Masters from New York University (NYU), and a Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how our parenting decisions now have long term effects.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with tantrums using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

How to Deal with Tantrums In Children

I have a verbal 4-year old who has begun throwing tantrums constantly. What should I do?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): So I can assume that all that basic stuff has been done.

MOLLY: The reader added that she’s tried time-outs, talking to her, and putting her in the corner…all the common stuff.

MOM: I think everyone tries that kind of stuff, the punishment kind of focus. But meanwhile, you don’t know what to do and the kid is driving you crazy. With a child that is verbal, you still wouldn’t expect them to say everything about their feelings. I would never underestimate what can be done by talking with a child, even if you think that she might not understand what’s going on.

MOLLY: How would you approach it?

MOM: I would start by listening to what the kid is saying during the tantrum. If she is saying, “But I haven’t finished!” while you’re yelling at her to get in her room, it might mean that she is telling you something but you aren’t listening. So the important thing here is to have a conversation with your child and only have the conversation when you are not really, really mad.

MOLLY: When you’re not in the middle of the tantrum?

MOM: Right, when the child isn’t in the tantrum and you’re not ready to tear your hair out over it. Employ the rational parts of your brain rather than the emotional parts of your brain. You can have a conversation and you may not know what the tantrum is about, but you can say to her, “You know, you’ve had a hard time with this lately. I’ve noticed you’ve had a number of tantrums. What do you think is happening? Do you want to talk about it?”

MOLLY: What if they say “No”?

MOM: Well, let’s remember that your own daughter responded when you asked her this question with, “Not right now.” Then you say, okay, and wait to see if anything will happen. It might mean that she really won’t talk about it right now and you’ll have to bring it up again later, or that she will think about it and say something that’s not like, “this is the reason I’m feeling so upset.” Of course she is not expected to say that, but she might say what she’s upset about. Like the example of when your daughter was having tantrums when your job changed and you were home with her more. It turned out that she was afraid of losing her favorite babysitter. And that because mommy was home full-time, no more fun time with her favorite sitter. What was it that she said exactly?

MOLLY: When I asked her about the tantrums, she said she didn’t want to talk about it. But then about 30 seconds later she asked when her babysitter was coming back from vacation.

MOM: Right, and there you have it. She’s telling you why she’s so upset but she hasn’t been able to put it in to words before. So you help her. If you have an idea you might say, “You know, I’m not really totally sure about this, but I’ve noticed that there’s a pattern going on here,” and you can tell her the pattern and she will think about it.

MOLLY: The tough part as a parent is that you really don’t see it when you’re in it. I would have had no idea about that was what would come out when I asked my daughter that question.

MOM: Yes, but you picked up on it. You knew that was a crucial piece of info. The message was: Is her favorite sitter ever going to come back even though you’re home more now.

MOLLY: I’ll tell you that was hard for me to hear. I thought she would be happy I was home more.

MOM: She gave you what the problem was and you addressed it by saying something like, “Wow, you must really miss your sitter being around. Let’s set up a time for her to come over and play.”  And the relief that she felt was palpable.


MOM: Dr. Susan Rutherford is a Clinical Psychologist who has been in practice for over 30 years. She has degrees from Duke University, New York University (NYU), the University of Denver.
MOLLY: Molly is Dr. Rutherford’s younger daughter and the mother of two children under six.

This blog is about raising kids and how your parenting decisions today may effect your child as an adult.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with tantrums using other strategies. Or Contact US if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.