The Terrible Twos and Threes, and the One Phrase You Need to Survive It!

“The terrible twos and threes” is something you’ve probably been warned about over and over.. but how do you deal with the terrible three symptoms, and how do you discipline the terrible twos without spanking or timeouts?

I had PLENTY of warning, and even more questions – then I saw it for myself!

The insistance to do everything on their own, to freak out over seemingly meaningless things, to fight almost every decision and save the most EPIC meltdowns for when you’re out and about..

But what if I were to tell you that it’s not terrible… but testing?

The testing twos and threes.

Testing boundaries, testing emotions, testing what is acceptable where they feel safe to do so.

Where do they feel safe?

With you!

tips to deal with the terrible twos and threes tantrums

Mindset is everything, and if you go into these ages with a negative mindset, all of your childs actions will seem “terrible” and you’ll feel like every thing that your child does is to spite you in some way.

“Why do you have to FREAK OUT about the color of your socks when we’re already running late?? You just save this for the worst times!!”

“Why are you screaming in the middle of the store? You’re being ridiculous!””

I know, I’ve been there… I have most definitely blamed my toddler for making me angry, and been so embarrased about what people thought that I have literally dragged him out of the store by his arm because he refused to stop crying and stand up.

I thought this was the “terrible” everyone was talking about, but really he was testing and exploring the world around him.

Anyways, I wanted to give you some real world advice on how to change the mindset – becacuse I swear, once I just THOUGHT about it differently, it was like my guy could catch on to my positive vibes

And he is like a new kid!

How do you survive the “testing twos and threes”?

I previously wrote an article on gentle parenting using the RIE method (You can check that out here) and it has been life changing!

When you first read it, the tips seem simple and you don’t think they’ll make much of a difference.

But give it a week, and it’s likely your kiddo will have som big changes?

Here’s a couple of main points we’ll cover to survive the “terrible twos and threes” and switch over to a “testing” twos and threes mindset!

  • Letting your child know the plan for the day ahead of time, and reminding them of the next event with plenty of notice
  • Avoiding phrases like “calm down” and “stop crying”
  • Not attempting to stop tantrums, but instead allowing your child to go through the tantrum without belittling them for the reason
  • Completely avoiding physical punishments or “time out” for emotional outbursts
  • Maintaining your own calm (this is a hard one mamas!) when tantrums happen to be the rock your child needs
  • Wait till AFTER the tantrum to discuss what happened
  • Own up to anything you did, such as screaming so that your child can learn appropriate emotional responses

If you notice on the last point, I wrote “when tantrums happen” – meaning, they will still happen, but the hope is they’ll be shorter, less often, and you will feel more calm while it’s happening!

Try to reduce the amount of tantrums by being very clear about the plan for the day

This has been such a help! Kids like to feel like they are a part of the plan too, especially toddlers who are just learning their indpendence!

For example, at the start of each weekday, even though it’s the same exact thing that happens, I tell my son this

“Today we are going to eat breakfast, watch two shows, then when that last show is over I am going to start the car. When I come back in the house, we will get dressed and ready for school. I’ll drop you off, then you’ll get to make a fun (whatever he’s making that day!). I will pick you up, we will have a snack, then get ready for your nap”

I usually only do half a day at once, unless there is some big event going on that is out of the norm.

I find this really helps him feel in control because he knows what is going to happen next. I also make sure to give him plenty of warning before the next event happens so that he’s prepared!

Leave time before major events so that there’s minimal rushing (and frustration!)

This is sort of a smaller point to the one above, but it really is important too!

I can’t count the amount of times (before I started parenting this way) that we were running late and I had to almost restrain my toddler because he didn’t want his shoes on, or we couldn’t find his current favorite toy, or the hundred other reasons toddlers can potentially delay things if not palnned for!

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19 Newborn Tips and Hacks that You'll Wish You Knew Sooner!

Even with all the prep in the world, food made, clothes laid out, it’s nice to have that extra 10 minutes for any additional requests.

For one, I’m WAY more calm – I ended up yelling a ton of times because I felt like it was the only way he could hear me above the chaos. That, of course, stressed him up which stressed me out!

Second, when your child sees you being calm, I think that vibe sort of rubs off onto them. I can definitely tell when I’m running late that my tone of voice sublety changes, and he instantly catches onto that!

Do NOT say “calm down” during the tantrum… has that ever helped you?

Even if the reason the tantrum is happening seems small and insignificant to you, for your toddler, it’s likely a big deal!

And by saying “calm down” you’re in a way invalidating their feelings – without even asking what’s’ wrong, you’re asking your toddler to flip some magical switch to become calm and somehow dismiss what they were upset about!

It’s sort of the go to response – I’ve said it hundreds of times!

But when I stopped saying it, I found that my three year olds tantrums ended sooner than yelling it to him like I did before!

how to deal with two three year old tantrums
Screaming to “calm down” will NEVER help! Has it ever helped you?

Before we move into the “disciplining” two and three year olds, I wanted to tell you the two books that have changed the way the world looks at toddler tantrums!

I found these books while researching ways to deal with my toddler when NOTHING was working, and the author’s name repeatedly popped up.

Her techniques help you understand why it’s all happening, and with that knowledge, you are able to parent way more gently because you are prepared!

I absolutely love everything she’s written – and this is coming from someone that scoffed at the whole “gentle parenting thing.” To be fair though, I thought gentle parenting was counting down 10 times in a row and letting your kid walk all over you!

Instead, this method of gentle parenting is based on the RIE method, and it focuses on firm boundaries and respectful exchanges between the parent and the child!

If you’re hesitant to buy her books, there is plenty of free and amazing advice on her blog, and she also has a podcast!

janet lansbury respectful parenting and how to use it to help with tantrums
This book is a great overview of Janet’s philosophy (with real examples) of how to start respectful parenting from the get go. While the first half is geared more towards infants, the last half has alot of toddler information!
If you believe in being gentle without being a pushover, and talking to your toddler instead of punishing them, this book is for you! There are exact conversation templates of common occurrences so you know how to react! I LOVE IT!

Don’t try to hide the tantrum by doing “time out” in a separate room, but instead let it happen freely!

Two and three year olds are notorious for having tantrums at the worst time, and I know you might have eye rolled at this… but hear me out!

“Certified parenting instructor Linda Hatfield, who runs a Southern California program called Parenting from the Heart, explained that decades of neuroscience and social research have shown that timeouts and other methods of punishment are not only ineffective in steering the behavior of children but outright damaging.” (See Source)

The idea here is that time out is for bad behavior, but really toddlers are just behaving and testing the world around them.

Most of the time, they are not intentionally acting bad, and to deprive them of communication and instead isolate them is pretty much the opposite of what they need.

If you’re in a public place, feel free to remove them from the situation so that they can feel more comfortable away from the prying eyes of people. It’s also useful to be able to really get on their level to talk to them should they want to without having everyone staring possibly making you anxious as well (we all know the judgy people out there can influence us!)

If you’re at home, let them know you’re there when they’re ready and leave them be!

Look at this like a train going through a tunnel – you have to get through to the other side, and there is no intervening.

A note about acceptable “time outs” and time outs being used as punishment

You might see this and say I’m crazy, timeouts work! They do, if they are used right.

However, if you have ever had to THREATEN with time out, physically restrain your child to stay in time out, set a timer etc… that is punishment.

See also
5 Tips to Becoming a Happy and Successful Stay at Home Mom (It's HARD!)

Time outs can be a great way to get away from the stressful situation, and allow your child the opportunity to unwind and talk to you calmly.

Main points for my fellow skimmers about letting the tantrum happen!

  • Think of tantrums like a train going through a tunnel – there is no stopping it, the train (child) has to come through to the other side!
  • Tantrums are healthy and normal, and should not be threatened with timeout! This is dismissing their emotions, and shunning them when they need the most support
  • Timeout is OK as long as it is NOT used as a punishment – If you use it as a threat, have to physically restrain your child, set a timer etc then that is not the appropriate way! Instead, if you choose time out, it should be offered as a way to move into a calmer spot to be able to talk with your child, and let them experience the emotions

Do not spank your child for the tantrum – this undermines their trust with you!

Alot of parents spank because thre are petty immediate results – once a child is spanked, they will try to avoid being hit again.

However, this isn’t teaching them anything useful that will help change the behavior in the future or even learn how to deal with unwanted behavior.

“It undermines trust. Children trust their parents just a little less. They are more likely to step back from the relationship and build a self-protective shield around themselves in terms of relationships generally. Children can learn to mistrust the motives of others and become more threat-reactive in social situations. It can lead to aggressive expectations — they are ready to aggress first before they are aggressed against.” –Psychology Today

I didn’t spank for much, but I did used to spank for safety related things like running out in the street, or running away in the store…

I won’t judge any parent for that (after all, it’s hard to show a logical consequence of running away that represents being stolen or run over!!) however when you can, try emphasizing the emotional effects of what might happen if they do activities that would, to you, warrant a spanking.

For example, when my toddler runs out in the road now, I do immediately grab his arm, but instead of spanking I turn on the emotion and say something like “I would have been so sad if you got hurt. Your legs might not work anymore if car hit you, and you wouldn’t be able to climb!” (Insert whateer activity they love that would be impacted!)

Spanking to end a tantrum is punishing a child for experiencing emotions. It has been proven that it increases acts of aggression in the future (if your child sees hitting as a solution to unwanted behavior, they will it too!)

Main points for skimmers about why you shouldn’t spank in response to a tantrum

  • Spanking does work in the short term, but for very unhealthy reasons that end up damaging your toddler in the long run – instead of not repeating the behavior because they understand why it’s wrong, they avoid it just to not get hit!
  • Spanking teaches physical reactions to undesirable behaviors, and can increase aggression (see above for studies)
  • Spanking breaks the trust that your toddler has in you to care for them – they need to know they are safe to explore their emotions with you, and spanking when they melt down shows they cannot!

Try to maintain your own calm while the tantrum is happening

This is the hardest one to do – alot of times, we as parents are exhausted, overwhelmed, and have way too much on our plate… and we are barely staing above water some days!

So any additional occurances like tantrums might push us over and make us lose it!

But this is one of the best times to challenge yourself and model the behavior you want to see – calm and understanding even in adverse situations!

“The best style of parenting features “a high degree of nurturing, firm but kind,” says clinical psychologist Melanie Fernandez. As much as children and teens may act like they want control, what really makes them feel safe are calm, consistent, fair authority figures.” – Child Mind INsitutue

Instead of reacting, respond with kindness!

I know I definitely have that one second knee jerk reaction when my kid purposely spils his drink – so I wait a couple of seconds before responding instead of just yelling “WHY DID YOU DO THAT??!? NO!”

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Instead, I say “Well I can see you’re done with you’re drink, so lets clean that up and be all done with drinking that today.” This way, they will be able to learn the consequence for their action – if they purposly spill something, then they will not be able to have it anymore since they have signified they are done!

I ALWAYS notice that the tone of my voice has a very big effect on the mood of my child, and if I lose my cool, it just seems to be gas on the tantrum fire!

Related: Part of being able to maintain that calm is to have a full cup, mama! Check out how to become a happier stay at home mom, as well as how to get over the mom guilt to really take care of you!

let two and three year old tantrums happen and talk after
Though freaking out about whatever is for breakfast might seem trivial, it’s not good to try to talk about it while it’s happening!

Discuss the reason for the tantrum and a better way to solve the problem AFTER the tantrum is over

Trying to scream over your child’s crying will only escalate the situation!

Most of the time, your toddler will be too busy with the tantrum to think logically, and may react even worse to your yelling!

So instead of just wailing, your toddler might start hitting or kicking if you try to scream at them what they should be doing while they are already emotionally overwhelmed!

After the tantrum has passed is when I discuss what happened and how to fix it.

For example “I know you became upset that I was busy reading sister’s book and not yours, even though you were really excited to read your book (acknowledge his feelings). It can be hard to wait, so next time just look at your book while you wait, and I’ll read your book as soon as I’m done with sisters so that each of you get a turn (set the expecations so they know what to expect – even if it’s not what they want)”

Own up to anything you did that wasn’t OK!

Just because you’re the parent doesn’t mean you can do no wrong!

If I ever lose it – and it still happens, even with all this knowledge because I’m not perfect, and OH SO TIRED – I always apoologize!

I say something like “I’m sorry for yelling at you, I was getting frustrated that we were running late, and that wasn’t OK to yell at you because of it.”

I want to model healthy emotions, and sometimes that does include boiling over! I also want to show him that it’s important to think about how that impacts others, and to always be thoughtful.

I make sure to emphasize that “even when I’m grumpy” I still love him lots, so that he knows he can always count on me, even if I’m not in the best of moods!

apologize for yelling to gently deal with tantrums
It’s always important to own up to anything you did that was wrong while you were angry or frustrated! It’s important to model to your toddler how to deal with emotions!

Are you prepared for the “Testing” twos and threes now?

It’s so much easier to handle the tantrums when you know they’re coming, as well as knowing they are not spiteful or made to be taken personally!

Toddlers are learning so much, and the only way to know what to do is to repeatedly test it! This DOES NOT make them terrible!

That means it’s up to you to give them that safe testing space, as well as remain calm and allow them to experience the emotions that come with it without judgment!

I’m sorry if this all sounded “crunchy” but give this mindset a chance – it might just make parenting that much easier for you!

Almost everything I have said is backed up by studies – however I am not writing about it to be preachy or tell you what you’re doing is wrong. I am writing this so that other parents at their wits end with tantrums can see why this method might work, beause I want others to see the same crazy change I have in my own toddler!

what to say when three year old is having a tantrum
Me and my three year old have had a MUCH more peaceful relationship – free of yelling, and with more understanding! I can’t believe how much easier tantrums have gotten!

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