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Tuning into 'terrible twos': what do their behaviours really mean?

Article By: Melissa McAlees

The toddler years have a reputation for being difficult. Often referred to as the ‘terrible twos’, it can be a trying time for both parents and nursery practitioners.

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Tamsin Grimmer, an early years consultant and author of ‘Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children’, suggests that although it is a ‘trying period’, there is a lot to appreciate about this time.

She said: “Being two-years-old is hard. Young children are caught between having new self-help skills, leading to increased independence, and the reality that most tasks still cannot be done completely on their own.

“Unwanted tantrums can be a result of the child feeling misunderstood, frustrated in some way or not being in control of a situation.”

Reliance on adults

According to US researchers at the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER), the ‘terrible twos’ are a normal stage in a toddler's development, characterised by mood changes, temper tantrums and use of the word ‘no’.

The ‘terrible twos’ typically occur when toddlers begin to struggle between their reliance on adults and their desire for independence.

However, most two-year-olds are not able to clearly communicate their needs, control their feelings or move as swiftly as they would like and this can lead to defiance, frustration and meltdowns.

Anticipating outbursts

Experts suggest temper tantrums often take place when a child is hungry, tired, bored, or feeling overwhelmed. They advise adults to anticipate these outbursts by paying attention to the child's nonverbal cues and reactions to various situations.

They also suggest two-year-olds are given opportunities to have a say in what happens to them on a day-to-day basis, and are taught sign language so they can communicate more effectively in order to reduce mischievous behaviour and any feelings of frustration.

Ms Grimmer said: “Two-year-olds have just learned to walk and talk - they are at the developmental stage where they are exploring their identity and working out a sense of self.

“They are often ‘done unto’, that is, they are taken from A to B and not given much choice about what happens to them on a day-to-day basis. So, it should come as no surprise that phrases such as ‘mine’ or ‘I do it’ are commonplace as they are becoming more independent.

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“Therefore, the more areas of their lives they have some ownership and control of, the less frustration they will feel.”

Top tips to limit unwanted behaviour

1. Keep calm and ignore the behaviour

2. Stay engaged with the child by talking and playing with them

3. Redirect the child’s behaviour to another activity

4. Offer the child choices

5. Do not be afraid of saying ‘no’

Identifying schematic behaviour

Toddlers can often be found climbing tables, throwing objects in enclosed spaces and hiding in small places. It is these urges that allow children to construct meaning in what they are doing and discover the underlying structure of the world around them.

But whilst these patterns of behaviour can sometimes be seen as ‘inappropriate,’ adults are encouraged to divert children’s attention away from the unwanted behaviour to activities linked to their schematic interest.

Ms Grimmer said: “As a parent and practitioner, one of the best things about having an understanding of these urges is that we are able to recognise and support them in our children as soon as we see them.

“But to tune into two-year-olds, we need to become detectives. Adults should look for clues in every interaction with the child. This can be achieved through attunement; close observation, listening to the children, watching what they do and how they do it, talking to them about their interests and fascinations, playing alongside them and picking up clues along the way.

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“Knowing about these urges can help us to understand why our children are so determined to do certain things that we might not understand, and by identifying schematic behaviour, adults can support and extend children’s thinking in the same way that they tap into their interests to plan future learning opportunities and avoid unwanted behaviour.”

’Their curiosity is infectious’

She added: “The exploration of independence and control is going to be a rocky road for some. However, I think all who work with or live with a two-year-old will agree, there is never a dull moment and we wouldn’t want it any other way.

“Their curiosity about the world is infectious, and while young children certainly get into trouble, their mishaps feel accidental, making them easier to forgive.”

Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children: A Professional’s Guide for Supporting Children’s Learning, Play and Development can be found at:


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01 Jun 2017 4:55 AM

As author of That's Not My Kid: One Simple Step to Stop Temper Tantrums, I agree that temper tantrums are the result of frustration. The more specific answer answer is that Two year olds do not yet have the skills to communicate. The most portant step to take, is to valid the child's feelings. I explain it my book.