5 Tips to Tame the Terrible Twos

little girl pouting

You’re sitting outside at your mother-in-law’s house, enjoying a cup of coffee as your 18-month-old daughter quietly plays in the garden. 

She’s been perfectly content just smelling the flowers…up until now, that is. 

She digs her little hands into the soil and pulls up a beautiful petunia. 

“No, Sweetie!” you call to her. “Please don’t hurt Grandma’s flowers.”

Her brown eyes meet yours. Normally those sweet eyes are the picture of innocence, but today they darken mischievously. 

She reaches down once more and grasps another flower, ripping it from the earth.

Your jaw drops–you’re speechless! 

You turn to your mother-in-law sitting beside you. Is she laughing? 

“You think that’s bad,” she says. “Just wait until she hits the terrible twos!

And there you have it. The terrible twos cliché. What parent hasn’t been on the receiving end of this incredibly unhelpful line at some point in time? 

The twos are a time for change, no doubt–a time when your little one starts ping-ponging between a need to rely on you and the desire to test out her own independence. A time when tantrums, mood swings, and attitude become a little more par for the course.

I’ve had countless parents who’ve either taken my FREE PARENTING CLASS or are members of our 7-Step Parenting Success System® course recount their experience with the terrible twos, and I can tell you one thing is constant across the board:

The twos may be a little less sweet and a little more salty. But they definitely do NOT have to be terrible! 

In fact, I guarantee–some of your greatest memories are about to be made. 

I’ll show you how to survive the not-so-fun part of this stage in child development while still cherishing the wonderfully amazing things 2-year-olds bring to the table. 

Because the only truly terrible thing about the dreaded second year? It will end all too soon!

What Drives The Terrible Twos?

Before we get into how you can tame the terrible twos, let’s talk about the driving forces behind the behavior so often attributed to this particular age.

A Need for Attention and Power

Once their physical needs have been met, children are hard-wired to want to fulfill their emotional needs. Specifically, they need to feel a strong sense of belonging and significance in their family. 

In other words, they subconsciously crave our attention and yearn to feel a sense of age-appropriate power and control over their own lives. Of course, this all becomes very apparent during their second year.

Since no child can say, “Hey, I’m feeling a need for your attention,” or “I need to feel in control for a little while,”  it’s our job to proactively meet each of these needs in positive ways. If we don’t, our children will subconsciously resort to less desirable behaviors to get what they want.

When it’s attention they’re seeking, we start to see whining, clinging, and helplessness. When power is what they’re after, that’s where tantrums and meltdowns step in.

Just think about it. As adults, we want to feel in control of our own worlds. Why would our children be any different?

Addressing these needs for attention and power in positive ways will take a significant amount of sting out of the terrible twos right off the bat.

A Lack of Verbal Skills

Around age two, your child’s speech and language development begin to take off at lightning speed. Still, it’s no surprise that while sometimes very chatty, he can be a little hard to understand. 

Sure, he may know how to ask for milk or tell you he loves you, but when it comes to articulating more complex emotions, he is only at the beginning of his learning journey. 

This is why we so often see our little ones act out in bouts of frustration. They just can’t get their point across.

You may see your son kicking and screaming on the kitchen floor and brush it off as another unpleasant side-effect of the terrible twos, but in reality, he wants a different snack and doesn’t know how else to tell you.

Parental Misunderstanding

The terrible twos aren’t just a kid issue. Parents play an equal role in both the good and the bad experiences.

One mistake I often see is labeling a 2-year-old’s desire for independence as “misbehavior,” when in reality, things are much less black-and-white. What may look like willful defiance is more likely her way of testing boundaries and figuring out where she can have a little more power and control.

When we attempt to control or punish this exploratory behavior, this is when the problems truly begin.

As a parent, having a better understanding of what to expect from this age will be beneficial in the long run. When we understand the why behind the tantrums, mood swings, and sass, it’s easier to navigate them in the future.

Now that we know what drives the terrible twos, here are my five tips to help you tame them.

5 Tips to Tame the Terrible Twos

Tip #1: Fill Their Attention Bucket

As I mentioned earlier, children want and need attention and will seek that attention–positive or negative–by any means possible.

Let’s say you’ve had a busy morning of working remotely and finishing up chores around the house. In an effort to get some peace and quiet, you’ve plopped your little guy in front of the TV so you could finish up your tasks.

Then, as soon as you get on your final work call, he comes right on into your office and starts begging for snacks and a new show. 

You try to calm him down through whispers and a promise of going to the park later. 

But nothing works. And there in your office, in the middle of the call, he throws an epic tantrum. 

Once you’re off the call, it may be tempting to scream back at him or threaten punishment, but try not to go down that road.

Why? Because you’d be responding to the behavior with attention. And that tells him next time you’re trying to get work done to do it again.

Attention–even if it’s negative–is what he wants.

Instead, fill his attention bucket proactively in positive ways! You can try…


Spend a designated amount of time each day with your child one-on-one. This doesn’t have to be long–just 10 minutes will do the trick–but it should be special and he should pick the activity. 

Then, label it!

“I just LOVE our Mommy and Son time each day.”

Let him pick out his favorite book for you to read him. Grab some coloring pages and make art together. Go on a nature walk. The possibilities are endless.

Not only will you relish the extra bit of quality time you get with him, you’ll also start to notice his behavior change for the better.

And in the example above, it would be even better to have your special time BEFORE you sit down to get your work done to prevent any future interruptions.

When you fill his need for attention in positive ways, you’re sure to see more positive behavior as a result. Yes, even from a 2-year-old!

Use Encouraging Phrases

There’s a difference between praise and words of encouragement. Unfortunately, a lot of well-meaning parents often get them confused.

When your daughter picks up all of her toys without arguing, it may feel natural to tell her, “I’m so proud of you for cleaning up!” 

But you know what would be even better? Encouragement!

Try saying, “Look at how clean you made the floor! You must feel so proud of your hard work.”

By using encouraging phrases instead of praise, you focus on the deed, not the doer. This allows her to learn self-motivation and to seek less validation from others.

encouraging words

This supportive language will also give your daughter a huge boost of positive attention. She’ll be encouraged to continue the good behavior. 

Pro Tip: Positive Parenting Solutions® Members, review step 2 of the 7-Step Parenting Success System® online training program for more encouraging phrases to use with your child.

Engage in Conversation

There’s nothing quite as stimulating as good conversation. The feeling of getting something off your chest and being heard can mean the difference between a good day and a bad one.

Believe it or not, 2-year-olds feel the same way. Perhaps even more so!

So, show some interest and engage them in conversation

You may ask, “What was your favorite thing you did at daycare today?” or “What book do you want to read for story time today?”

This is not only a fast and efficient way to fill their attention bucket, but you’ll be sure to learn a few new things about your child that you wouldn’t have known without taking the time to ask…and listen.

Tip #2: Fill Their Power Bucket

When it comes to toddler behavior, providing positive attention is important but goes hand-in-hand with providing positive power. Your child is not a baby anymore and wants to do more for himself, but he still has trouble letting you know that.

Just as you need to fill his attention bucket, you’ll need to meet his need for positive power.

One of the best ways you can do that is to create what we call a Decision-Rich Environment.

This useful tool is so easy to use and makes a powerful impact. Simply take a moment and think about the everyday routine the two of you share. Then, ask yourself how you can relinquish a little power and control.

At age two, this may be allowing him to choose between his blue sneakers or his red sandals. Does he want oatmeal or cereal for breakfast? Should you take a trip to the park before nap or after?

Believe it or not, allowing your child to make these little (but significant!) decisions throughout the day is going to give him a big hit of positive power, which will then reduce the amount of negative behavior you see through various power struggles.

Now is the time to embrace his growing need for independence and work with it–not against it! I know for parents this can be hard. After all, don’t you want to help your kids as much as possible?

But really, by stepping back and handing over the reins a little bit, you actually are helping them. It may take some practice, but over time you’ll notice many positive improvements.

embrace their need for independence

Tip #3: Take Time for Training

Maybe you dread taking your 2-year-old to the grocery store because you know how she acts out in the checkout line. Or perhaps you worry about going to playdates because she always throws a fit when you say it’s time to go.

Whatever the case may be, I completely understand your frustration–and your fear! That’s why I urge you to Take Time for Training.

Not only do little ones thrive on routine, but they also benefit from having a clear understanding of what to expect before doing it. 

Wherever you may be going–the grocery store, doctor, church–make sure to spend a little time beforehand talking about what they can expect AND what you expect of them.

“Today we are going to the store just for milk. We will not be getting any sugary treats during this visit. I know you can stay calm even though we won’t get a treat.”

When you take time for training, you’re setting out to instruct your child on how she should behave in a particular setting. After all, she’ll never understand the right way to act if you don’t teach her first!

One great way to do this is to role-play. Act out what a good trip to the store would look like and make it fun and engaging. Then swap roles, letting her be the parent and you the child (kids LOVE this).

Keep in mind, this takes time and consistency. Stick to the course and soon enough you’ll see great results each time you go out.

amy mccready free class

Tip #4: Know Their Triggers

Just like adults, kids have triggers for their less-than-ideal behaviors. 

It’s amazing how many times we brush off behavior as simply another unpleasant side effect of the terrible twos, when there is actually a very rational–and easily avoidable–reason behind it.

Does your son get cranky when he misses his afternoon nap? Does he throw a fit when he’s hungry? Bored? 

Fortunately, we know our children better than anyone else. And with just a bit of foresight and planning, we have the ability to control the outcome by avoiding these triggers all together.

If hunger is an issue–or should I say hanger–be sure to have a couple of healthy snacks on hand whenever you go out. 

Schedule playdates, appointments, and outings around nap time. 

And if you know boredom is going to be an issue, try and bring along a small book, some coloring pages, or a small toy to help your little one pass the time.

Tip #5: Shift Your Thinking

Although they have a few years under their belts, the truth is, 2-year-olds are just getting started on a long journey toward understanding how to behave properly in different situations. Up until now, you’ve done everything for them, but things are starting to change!

With a growing need for independence, they’re already learning what it’s like to make their own way in the world.

Of course, so often parents end up losing their cool when their toddler goes off the rails. Do they not understand that screaming, crying, and hitting are only going to get them in trouble?

Actually, no. They really don’t understand. Not yet anyway.

It’s your job to teach them.

This is where a shift in your own thinking is going to make a world of difference in how you view your 2-year-old’s behavior. That and a tremendous amount of grace.

Because your daughter isn’t a bad kid for throwing a tantrum when you told her it was time to leave the park. She’s not bratty or ungrateful whenever she forgets to say please or thank you.

She’s simply a little person trying her best who hasn’t acquired the tools to handle the situation properly.

So shift your thinking when it comes to your child’s terrible twos behavior and show her a little compassion. You’ll be amazed at how changing your own reaction will lead to better behavior.

Final Thoughts

Tantrums, power struggles, attitude, and sass are terrible! But the twos definitely do not have to fall into that category.

I want to encourage you to shift your thinking on this particular point in your child’s life and not give in to the doom-and-gloom warnings that seem to come from every well-meaning relative, friend, or stranger.

And please, don’t hesitate to try out my FREE WEBINAR to see if the 7-Step Parenting Success System® online training program is right for you. Along with these 5 Tips for Taming the Terrible Twos, you’ll be sure to find that the twos are not terrible at all, actually.


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About the Author

Amy McCready
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions® and the best-selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic - A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on The Doctors, CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.