All you need to know about the terrible twos, threenager, and f* you fours

Terrible Twos, Threenager, and…

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We have all heard the phrases “terrible twos,” “threenager,” and my favorite “the f* you fours.”

I always tell my friends with younger kids (or friends thinking about having kids) that you get a baby first because you need to have some time to develop that love before they turn into beasts.

I'm not going to lie, the toddler and pre-school years are rough. 

I have found myself on the verge of tears many evenings just watching the clock slowly tick-tock its way closer to bedtime (but then started to panic a little inside because I knew bedtime was going to be a — show).

Black mother and child. Mother is kissing the forehead of the toddler. Toddler is exhibiting tricky toddler behavior.

Toddler Behavior

So while I've been there (and I'm sure will be there again). My advice is this; We need to reframe our perception of these years.

Hear me out.

Do you know that idea of the power of positive thinking?

Well, it works the opposite way, too. If you think things are going to suck, they probably will.

And here's the thing. THEY WILL SUCK but they will suck a little less if you have the right attitude.

Part of the reason it feels like it's so hard is that our expectations are, in a way, too high.

I often bang my head against the nearest wall after asking my 2.5-year-old to listen to a direction, but then I remember she has been on this earth for 2.5 years.

She isn't SUPPOSED to listen at this age. She is SUPPOSED to be testing me. 

Testing boundaries.

That doesn't mean I let her get away with not listening, it just means I accept that she is still working on it, try to find the humor in her shenanigans, and calmly “help” her do whatever it is I'm asking her to do.

Curly brown-haired toddler throwing a tantrum.

The Importance of Setting Boundaries

Setting boundaries for your kids is probably one of the absolute most important things you can do as a parent.

Not only does setting a healthy boundary help children feel more safe and secure, but having solid boundaries allow you to have a more enjoyable parenting experience #winning

But what exactly IS a boundary? And how do you go about setting one?

Think of a boundary as an invisible line that you draw in the sand. It's a line that you don't allow yourself to cross, and neither should your children. Just like you have personal boundaries, so do your kids.

The terrible twos are actually a perfect time to start setting boundaries with your kids. By setting a boundary, you're teaching your child the difference between right and wrong, and what behaviors are acceptable.

Of course, every parent is different, and there is no “right” way to set a boundary. The most important thing is that you are consistent with your boundaries.

So many struggles with this terrible twos age group happen because parents are not confident in the boundary they set. They feel responsible for making their child upset or they don't even set the boundary because they don't want to have to deal with the inevitably unhappy reaction from their little one.

I get it, it sucks sitting through those big emotions. 

It can be embarrassing and overwhelming AF, especially if we are out of the house or have friends or family over. But if we just accept that little kids have big emotions, confidently set clear and firm boundaries, and remind ourselves that it isn't our job to make our kids happy everyone will be happier in the long run.

Toddler covers his face with his hands because he is upset.

Understanding the “why” behind kids testing boundaries

Bottom line. This is what they are “built” to do. They are literally searching for that boundary.

“What happens if I do this?”
“What happens if I do that?”

Where does that line exist and what happens if I cross it. Is my parent going to consistently enforce that boundary?

Kids thrive when things are predictable. If you are wishy-washy on where that line is, they will continue to look for that line. This will look and feel to you like they are “acting out” or “testing you.”

Think about it like a box. They want to have very clearly defined walls. Those walls keep them from feeling overwhelmed and unsure.

We need to keep in mind that it is completely developmentally normal for them to be testing us. It won't make them stop, but that adjustment in mindset will help us get through it with a lot more grace.

The difference between a “meltdown” and a “tantrum”

When I learned that there was a difference between a tantrum and a meltdown it was an eye-opening concept for me as a parent.

These two experiences can look the same but they are very different.

What is a toddler meltdown?

A meltdown is typically going to happen when kids are overtired, hungry, thirsty, sick, or overstimulated. 

It is an emotional and physical response to being overwhelmed.

The child can no longer control their emotions or body and they may tantrum, cry, scream, hit, kick, bite or become non-verbal.

When this happens it is often it is helpful to remove the child from the situation and find a calm, quiet place.

Help them calm down, and suggest to them that they might be hungry, thirsty, or tired so they can begin to recognize those feelings.

I use phrases like “see, you didn't eat your snack, and you are hungry. When you are hungry it is hard to control your body.”

Helping them make that connection between a physical need and their emotional state is going to help them in the long run (even though it may not help them in the immediate situation).

What is a toddler tantrum?

A tantrum is a response to not getting one's way. 

You tell them they can't have another cookie and they throw themselves on the floor. They don't want to leave the playground so they start screaming, kicking, and sobbing like the world is going to end.

The best way to deal with a tantrum is to be consistent and not give in to whatever it is that is causing that tantrum. If you give in and give them that extra cookie, they realize “oh hey, I can act this way and get what I want.”

Acknowledge their feelings, tell them you understand that they want whatever it is, and then just let them have their feelings (and it might be ALL THE FEELS). 

When they are calm enough, help them understand what they need to do to get whatever it is they want. You want that extra cookie, but we are all done with cookies today. We can talk about you having another cookie tomorrow!

And move on. Don't dwell. Don't engage in discussion.

My kid's favorite strategy is to tell me they have a plan! I calmly listen to their plan, thank them for it, and reiterate what I have already decided.

Often they agree to go along with it fairly easily and they say something like “oh ok! maybe we can do my plan tomorrow” and I'm all like yeahhhhhh maybe…

But for real. I do try to take their ideas into consideration and come up with compromises about things that aren't safe or health-related. It does help them feel like they have some control and it strengthens your bond.

Tricky toddler behavior is a given.

Young kids are going to behave poorly at some point or another. That's just the nature of the beast. But there are definitely some ways we can respond that will help them (and us!) through.

Here are 9 simple strategies for dealing with tricky toddler behavior.

  1. Get down on their level. Standing over little kids is intimidating AF. You are big. They are small. They are going to automatically feel things more and act out more if they feel a need to compensate, or like they are being challenged (which they might more easily feel if they have a big adult standing over them).
  2. Help them identify their feelings. Acknowledge that they feel sad, tired, angry, frustrated, mad, or insert whatever crazy emotion is coming out. Tell them it's ok to feel whatever they are feeling.
  3. Let them feel those big feelings. So many times I see advice to distract kids from what they are feeling. I'm wholeheartedly against that. On a fundamental level, we want kids to PAY ATTENTION to their feelings not be distracted from them. How can they learn to manage their emotions if they are constantly being “distracted” from what they are feeling?
  4. If they need to release something like anger let them. If they are trying to hit you say something like “I can't let you hit me but you can hit this pillow”–we are not encouraging violence, we are encouraging healthy ways of letting our frustration. The more control they get over their emotions, the less they will need to physically release those emotions.
  5. Stop letting their feelings be your feelings. Don't let them get under your skin. The more they see you being pulled into their emotions, the more they will feel those emotions. You have to be confident in your role as a parent–every little emotion your child feels does not have to invade your own emotions.
  6. Get quiet. This works for my high school students, and it works for my kids. If you yell, kids tune out. If you whisper they want to quiet down to hear what you're saying. It's a natural reaction that can help be better listeners. The louder they get, the quieter you should get.
  7. Stay in control. The more out of control your child is, the more in control you have to be. This goes back to not letting them suck you into their nonsense.
  8. Teach them skills to calm their body. We teach breathing–and ask the kids to take a couple of deep breaths. My two older ones have VERY big feelings. They have learned to calm their bodies (and can do this fairly consistently), and they have also learned to ask for help calming down. They will be  hyperventilating and yelling “help me calm down!!” It's both stressful and adorable at the same time.
  9. Use a TIME IN not time out. Putting kids in time out doesn't work. Even if it works in the short term, it doesn't in the long term. Time outs teach kids that they are alone in their feelings, they bring on feelings of shame (not good for little ones who are just beginning to develop their sense of self), and invite power struggles. The better approach is a “time in”–you can still bring them to a safe space but you should help teach them to calm themselves, remind them that you love them, and then come up with some strategies or compromises that work for dealing with the underlying issue.

Although the toddler years can be challenging, they are also a time of great exploration and learning. By understanding your child’s behavior and providing positive reinforcement, you can help them grow into happy and healthy adults. What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a parent during the toddler years?

For further reading

See below for some of my favorite discipline resources:

No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame  by Janet Lansbury

No-Drama Discipline- The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind by Daniel J. Siegel

How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen: A Survival Guide to Life with Children Ages 2-7 by Joanna Faber and Julie King

Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish