Making the Terrible Twos a Little Less Terrible

Dear Mr. Dad: I love spending quality time with my two-year-old, but occasionally he throws a tantrum that seems to come right out of the blue. It embarrasses me in public and frustrates me at home. How should I respond to his unreasonable anger?

A: Welcome to the wonderful world of toddlers (sometimes known as the “terrible twos”), a place where emotions run hot, and logic and reason are in short supply. The good news is that occasional tantrums are fairly normal at this age. The not-so-good news is that self-control is a skill that’s learned gradually, over a pretty long time, so you’ll need all the patience you can muster.

Generally speaking, toddlers have two interests: exploring their surroundings and having their needs met. If you get between your toddler and either of these goals, watch out.

Your first assignment is to keep track of the tantrums. Do they tend to happen at the same time or in the same places? If, for example, you’re trying to get your toddler to do something at a time that he’s usually napping, you’re setting up yourself, your child, and everyone within hearing range, for a real problem.

There are two effective ways to deal with a young child’s tantrum: redirect his behavior or ignore it. There are all sorts of ways to redirect behavior: Point to something interesting (real or imaginary) that’s happening out the window, turn a favorite CD, start reading a story, or get down on your hands and knees and imitate his behavior (that’s a technique that works better at home than in the frozen foods aisle at the grocery store). I’ve also found that whispering to your child in a voice low that he can’t hear you, is pretty effective. His natural curiosity to find out what you’re saying can stop the tantrum. Another type of redirection—which is exactly what you’ll have to do during a public meltdown—is to pick the child up and remove him from wherever he is.

Ignoring is pretty much what it sounds like. If your little one is in a safe environment, like the playroom or family room, just walk away and leave him alone for a few minutes. Ideally, you’ll be far enough away that your child won’t be able to see or hear you. Without an audience, he’ll calm himself pretty quickly. I think that’s in toddlers’ union contract.

If you can’t get completely out of sight, you’ll have to resort to a more in-your-face kind of ignoring: absolutely refusing to look at or respond to your child. The tantrum will get worse for a few minutes as he tries harder and harder to get your attention. But if you stick to your guns, the no-audience-no-performance rule will kick in. Of course, if he crosses a behavioral boundary and does anything to harm you, himself, or any other person or thing, you’ll have to get physically involved.

In cases like these, time out can be effective as long as you keep it to one minute per year of age. Tell him firmly but without raising your voice that he can get up to play after two minutes. Set a timer so he can wait for the dinger to release him rather than you. If he hasn’t calmed down before the bell rings, tell him that if he doesn’t, you’ll have to start the timer and start again.

Regardless of the approach you take, once your child has returned to normal, give him a big hug and remind him that you’ll always love him.