This is the age when your cuddly, angelic little one can morph into a volatile creature. Many parents question whether their child is displaying typical “terrible twos” behaviour, or veering off into more alarming territory.
Ali Lee’s daughter, Maya, was a happy, even-tempered baby. “I could take her anywhere and she was just always easy to look after,” Lee says. She vividly remembers the day she noticed a shift in Maya’s behaviour, when Maya was two. “We were walking happily down the street holding hands. As we passed a neighbour who was kneeling in his garden, out of nowhere, my daughter kicked him in the foot! I was mortified,” says the Ottawa mom. “My first thought was, ‘Is something wrong with her?’ We walked away as fast as possible, and I still feel embarrassed when I see my neighbour.”
“Toddler impulsivity can get a little nutty,” says Michele Kambolis, a child and family therapist in Vancouver. “But while these changes may seem crazy to you, the biting, kicking, hitting, and sudden shifts of feelings are all normal at this age.” The explosion of brain development that comes around 18 months brings a new self awareness and desire for independence, Kambolis explains, but toddlers have limited language and little grasp of why parents want them to behave a certain way.
When a child acts aggressively without any apparent remorse, parents may fear that their child lacks a conscience. “Your little one isn’t being malevolent,” says Kambolis. “Even kicking a stranger is likely just a normal lack of impulse control. While a toddler may not have the cognitive maturity to understand the impact of her actions, you can teach her that kicking hurts. You may have to tell her a few times; be patient and that unbridled aggression should subside. Yelling and time outs don’t usually work at this age, but what Kambolis calls “natural consequences”—like cutting short dress-up time to tidy up messes she’s made or leaving the playground because she’s biting—will teach her responsibility for her behaviour.
Helen Ford describes her 28-month-old son, Finn, as a really sweet, always busy kid who’s going through a destructive phase. “He can’t be left alone for more than a minute,” says the Toronto mom. “No matter where we are, he’ll find something to destroy within minutes: ripping up books, tearing door stoppers from the wall. He’s even taken a handful of food from the bulk-food store, licked it, and put it back in. Last week, he peed in the garbage can.”
Finn’s wrecking-ball behaviour is about testing his physical limits, explains Jillian Roberts, a Victoria psychologist specializing in kids and teens. As your toddler becomes mobile and has a taste of independence, he’ll naturally want to test those boundaries. “Gentle, immediate redirection is most effective. Be calm and firm, say ‘no,’ and tell your child that what he was doing is not OK, then move him to another activity,” says Roberts.
Defiant, tyrant-like behaviour is also common. “Maya puts up a fight about everything, from getting dressed to eating,” says Lee, adding that Maya’s favourite word these days is “no.” Avoiding power struggles whenever you can will make for calmer days, says Roberts, because toddlers want to feel some control over their environments. “Give choices as much as possible—two options you can live with. Maybe it’s carrots or peaches with lunch, or offering the training pants with either Grover or Big Bird,” she says. “This makes toddlers feel as if they have some say. The less that you have to use force, the more co-operation you’ll get.”
Kids usually develop better impulse control between the ages of three and four, says Kambolis. “Every child develops at her own pace. With your patience, she’ll get there.”
Most tantrums are caused by overstimulation, says psychologist Jillian Roberts. Sticking to a predictable routine and having reasonable expectations (two stops, max, per outing) are the key to managing toddler moods. If distraction mid-meltdown isn’t helping, sometimes all you can do is wait. “Comfort her with a hug that will help change what her body is doing,” says Roberts.