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Navigating the Terrible Twos

Toddler Creed

If I want it, it’s mine.

If I give it to you and change my mind later, it’s mine.

If I can take it away from you, it’s mine.

If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.

If it’s mine it will never belong to anyone else no matter what.

If we are building something together, all the pieces are mine.

If it looks like mine, it’s mine.

Author: Unknown

I am certain you have witnessed a toddler having a rollicking, roiling tantrum. Toddlerhood is often called the terrible twos. When a child is out of control in this way, it’s difficult to deal with them. Your actions might add fuel to the fire rather than solve the problem.

There are many reasons why two- and three-year-old children experience tantrums. But, the most important is that they aren’t choosing to. They are not being manipulative. They are simply overwhelmed by uncontrollable feelings.

The ‘unselfish’, selfish child

According to Jean Piaget, the renowned child psychologist who researched children’s developmental stages, these small children experience the world in an egocentric way. Toddlers are focused on themselves, their immediate sensations and their experiences. They are ‘egocentric’ but not in the way that it is usually interpreted as self-obsessed or selfish. They are so busy learning who they are, what they feel and what happens in their world, that they can’t focus on and understand others. But that doesn’t mean you can’t lay down the foundations for empathy. Part of doing this is to understand toddlers’ egocentricity and work from where they are to develop their cooperation.

I have stood in a three-year-old kinder room, where a child spilt his drink, and his friend said, ‘Never mind’, took his hand and walked to where the water jug and cups were situated for children to help themselves. That individual act counteracts the idea that children are entirely self-focused. The action indicates the child has absorbed a patient, supportive behaviour pattern from people around him. He might not be consciously deciding to do it, but he is mimicking what he’s experienced from others.

The egocentrism in toddlers is not ‘selfish’ in the way we use it for adults or older children. When children are learning a language, they cannot immediately understand it fully. They use words like goodnaughty, promise, love, share and doing favours but don’t yet have a genuine understanding of them. A child might promise to be kind to the dog, but not understand that means not pulling its tail tomorrow as well as today! A ‘promise’ is a future contract, and like the other concepts mentioned, it is a very abstract idea.

Toddlers are still learning to project consequences

Toddlers don’t reason like adults and can’t always project consequences. They might not even remember fully what happened in the same situation when they pulled the tablecloth or slid on a mat a few days ago. So, it’s important to be patient. You can’t expect rational or even consistent behaviour. Mr ‘Never mind’ from two paragraphs above, might demonstrate different behaviour when you try and tear him away from Bluey, his favourite cartoon dog, on the TV to have his bath.

More and more, as they grow up, toddlers see themselves as someone and something separate from others. And if they learn to do something for themselves, they will fiercely demand their right to do it! They start to know what they want, and they want to have it – now! Their behaviour varies from being very clingy and dependent to wanting to do EVERYTHING for themselves. You might have been subject to that great saying, ’You’re not the boss of me!’

Yes, these are the ‘terrible twos’. And toddlers can be very difficult. But their behaviours often relate to expectations, or beliefs, about them demonstrating purposeful misbehaviour, when in fact they are pretty much acting out their feelings and still consolidating how the world works.

Avoiding tantrums is not solved during the tirade, but in the way, your child is learning about emotions and how to manage them each day as they interact with you. Children can be told what to do, but the most powerful way to teach them is to model what you want from them.

Like the three-year-old described earlier, children mirror what they see. If you explain in simple terms how you feel and how you are managing your feelings, they will learn from you. Before you go beyond the classroom, reason with your children. ‘We are going to the music room and we’ll see instruments on the floor. I know you'll want to start playing with them straight away, but I'd like you to wait so I can show you how each one is used. Do you think you can sit quietly for a few minutes while I do that? What do you think?’

This creates a mental map of the future for your children, so they are prepared for what is coming up.


I wish you luck with your toddlers. Enjoy every moment. Even when your toddlers want to ‘be the boss of you!’


Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is a Melbourne-based education consultant and author of Edu-Chameleon. Lili-Ann’s specialisations are in early childhood education (birth to nine years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. She is a child, parent and family advocate who believes that education is a transformative force for humanity.  She runs her consultancy, Kriegler-Education.

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