When my son Edwin was 18 months old, we had been enjoying a brief stint of time where life with a child started to feel significantly easier than it was in the first year. Ever since he mastered the art of walking, the innocuous coffee table was no longer a death trap, and we didn’t have to follow his every wobbly move. Similarly, since he started saying his first words, he had begun to communicate some of his needs, and we didn’t have to guess the meaning of every cry. Yes, things were starting to feel easier. That is, until we reached the 18 month mark: All of sudden, we found ourselves in a brave new world filled with temper tantrums, incessant whining, and the occasional (and surprisingly aerodynamic) sippy cup flying at my head. A friend of mine playfully said that Edwin was clearly advanced for his age. What she meant was, the terrible twos had come early.
Why are the twos so terrible, and why are toddlers so difficult in general? It turns out that there are many, many, (many, many, many) reasons that all come together to form the perfect storm that is a terrible toddler. First, let’s talk about what toddlers can do. Toddlers can feel a vast array of emotions, including happiness, anger, sadness, and fear. They can also have very specific goals and desires, and they can understand when you are preventing them from achieving one of those goals, even if it’s for their own safety. What makes the twos so terrible is the combination of what they can do, with what they can’t: Namely, they can’t control their thoughts and feelings very well, and they can’t always communicate what those thoughts and feelings are.
Self-control and emotion regulation are related to the ability (or lack thereof, in a toddler’s case) to control one’s own thoughts and feelings, and ultimately, one’s own behavior. Let’s take the example of emotion regulation. Picture being in a situation at work or perhaps when you’re watching a really sad movie and you feel like crying, but you are able to control the urge and keep yourself composed. At first, infants rely completely on their caregivers (namely, you) to soothe them when they are experiencing a negative emotion. Over the course of the first year of life, they start to soothe themselves when they wake up at night, sometimes by patting themselves or by stroking toys in their cribs, or by using a pacifier. Eventually they will develop control over their emotional responses, but this is a skill that develops very slowly throughout childhood and adolescence, and it is one that many of us continue to struggle with as adults.
There’s no beating around the bush about this: Toddlers stink at both emotion regulation and self-control. When they want to do something, they usually just do it, or at least they try. When they are prevented from doing something (by you), the result is usually anger or frustration, and they have no other recourse than to show you exactly how they feel. Not having a solid means to communicate with language makes the problem even worse since they can’t express verbally the source of their frustration. So they scream, they cry, they throw temper tantrums and they may even throw their sippy cups at your head. That’s the bad news. The good news is that it will get better with time.
At first, toddlers are going to show you poor self-control and emotion regulation skills, and the result of these poor skills are tantrums or even aggressive behaviors. As your toddlers get older, they will develop strategies to help them with self-control and with managing their emotions. Strategies like looking for help from an adult, or distracting themselves from the source of distress can be effective in reducing negative emotional reactions. Helping them develop their own strategies like these can also be helpful once your toddlers are verbal enough to understand how to implement these strategies. In the end, developing self-control and emotion regulation abilities are important for positive social interactions, as self-control has been linked to academic competence, attentiveness, and verbal ability in school. Most importantly, once your toddlers start getting better with these skills, the temper tantrums will taper off, the whining will wane, the sippy cups will stay safely on the kitchen table, and finally the terrible twos won’t feel so terrible anymore.