My Toddler Is A Nightmare! What Do I Do?!

Rachel Carey

Written by Rachel Carey

8 min read

The terrible twos. They are called this for a reason. And anyone who has had a toddler knows this full well!

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What if you could change the way you think about your toddler?

What if you could see your toddler as a little being, learning about his or her place in the world, and beginning to understand that in order to achieve anything, he or she is going to need one mighty will!

Admittedly, managing these little beings is a nightmare, but if you can understand what is going on in their brains and connect with them at this turbulent time, you can help them to develop that will without them becoming a complete tyrant in the family.

This is the age of the defiant no! The hitting, the kicking, the screaming, the tantrums in shopping malls.

But, it’s also the age of your little ones wanting to learn to do things on their own. Wanting to put their shoes on. Wanting to feed themselves, and learnto use the toilet independently.

And this is precisely where the problem comes in for us parents!

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The theorist Erikson termed this psychosocial stage of development, the stage of “autonomy versus shame.” Your child  wants to be able to do things themsleves. They feel ashamed when they are unable to do things themselves. And when mum or dad doesn’t let them do it, they get really frustrated.


We all know what it is like to be late for an appointment because your toddler insisted on putting his coat on, on his own!Upset child sitting in bed

It coincides with the development of the ego and the start of your child’s independent purpose and will. This means that it is a stage that is vitally important for the development of your child’s intrinsic motivation; for shaping your child’s desire to go out and do things themselves - and get things done!

So how do you navigate this difficult stage while letting your child develop will and autonomy, but at the same time maintaining some sense of reason and sanity at home?

We've got four ideas for supporting your toddler and keeping your own sanity!


1. Avoid Less Than Optimal Circumstances

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We all know what these are.

The tired child. The hungry child. The child that has had too much screen time in the morning. These things all add up and make your child less able to tolerate frustration and a child that is less able to tolerate frustration is going to reach melting point far more quickly.

I know with my eldest boy, that by the time late afternoon comes, his sensory cup is full up and scheduling a play date is inevitably going to end up with him crying, thumping another child, or becoming completely over-excitable.

He just doesn’t have the capacity to tolerate it. By taking him out and about at this point, I’m setting him up with less than optimal circumstances.

So, as much as is possible, try to create an environment where you can manage the circumstances. Make sure you have packed a snack and a drink when you go out. Try to do your shopping with your toddler at a time of day when he’s not exhausted.

Have age-appropriate expectations. Otherwise, you are setting your child up for failure and a meltdown is inevitable. Don’t ask too much of your toddler.

2. Find And Keep Your Calm

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It is not possible to control all circumstances and trying to do so will leave you a nervous wreck. So, the best thing you can do, is to find and practice keeping your calm.

When you toddler flies off the handle it can feel pretty personal. It feels like it is a head-to-head you cannot afford to lose and that the rest of your child’s life and parenting rests in that one moment. But the truth is, it is nothing like that.

Your child is just having a melt down and it has very little to do with you. It is just what they do.

I’ve become locked in head-to-head battles over such stupid things because I’ve taken my toddlers’ actions personally and entered their chaos.

There are plenty of times I’ve stood at the side of the bath tub shouting (and even sometimes crying at the end of a long day) as my toddler has poured water out of the bath and all over the bathroom floor.

These are the times when, had I been able to keep my calm, I could probably have diverted the situation and we’d all have ended up in a very different place altogether.

Yelling begets yelling. And chaos begets chaos. So, you need to find a way to keep your cool, remain calm, and meet your toddler where they are without being sucked into their turmoil. The only way that you are going to be able to help to regulate and calm them is to be calm yourself.

Learning to do this is difficult. And the truth is, you have to practice it before the point of crisis in order to have any chance of managing it when things fall apart.

So whether it is practising deep belly breathing, or doing regular yoga, or simply learning your own triggers and asking for help before you need it so that you don’t lose your calm, you need to figure out what works for you and practise it.


3. Connect And Redirect

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Remember that your toddler is primarily an emotional being at this point. The parts of the brain that make up reasoning and problem-solving and logic are not yet developed - and won’t be for a long time.

So, meet your child at an emotional level. What is the feeling behind what is frustrating your child?Once your child feels heard and understood, he or she is far more likely to be open to you helping him or her to move forward.This may look something like this: You are at the shop and your child wants to put something into the shopping trolley which you do not intend to buy.

You say no and a tantrum ensues. Reasoning with your child at this point is not going to solve the problem. First, you need to connect. Tell your child you understand that they want the item. Tell them how nice it would be to have the item. Ask them what makes the item so special.

Tell them that you understand they feel sad because they can’t have it. Comfort them. We all sometimes feel sad when we can’t have something, even when we understand why we can’t. You don’t have to agree with them about having it, but you can connect with why they are sad that they cannot have it.


4. Give Them The Locus Of Control

Toddler wearing a pink and navy top throwing a tantrum in the dining room while her parent is holding her under her arms

This stage is all about the development of will and purpose. It’s all about your child wanting to follow out and act out his or her desires; about forging a place in the world where his or her will is directly influencing what is happening in his or her life.

So, where possible, give your child some element of control. Your child can’t choose to wear any item of clothing from the wardrobe, but your child can choose between two items of clothing. So, offer that. Your child may not be able to choose anything to have for dinner but, choosing between two toppings on his or her sandwich is completely appropriate. So, offer that.

My children aren’t allowed to choose the time they go to bed, but they certainly can decide what they want to wear to bed. And sometimes my little one chooses a fluffy monster onsie on a hot night. That’s ok. Then he learns that he is going to be too hot and will need to change.

He feels like he has control. He learns about what his body needs. And all it takes is for me to have to do another change with him later in the evening. I’d say that giving him that bit of control is definitely worth it.Toddler holding onto the edge of his cot, while throwing a tantrum
You need to give your toddler opportunities to practice autonomy and will and the more often you do this, the less likely they are going to be to fight you for that control. This will allow them to make age-appropriate choices whenever possible and give them the opportunity to practice this autonomy without making you a permissive parent or the two of you entering into a repeated battle of wills.

Every tantrum handled in this way will remind your child that to you, connection is more important than control, that meeting their need and helping them is more important to you than being right. These can be difficult and challenging years for parenting. But they also offer a golden opportunity to forge the pathway for a lifetime of connection with your child. And what a gift that is indeed!

Baby leaning back over his mothers legs while she snuggles up to his belly

About Rachel Carey

Rachel Carey is an occcupational therapist and inspiring mum of two little boys, Joey and Benji. 

She empowers parents to handle everyday challenges with their children in plain English, turning OT technical terms into accessible words.

Rachel is passionate about early child development and what is happening in the brain in those early years of life. She's also loads of fun and makes parenting look easy, while telling us all it isn't (phew!). Follow Rachel on Instagram @rachie_ot_mom for daily developmental play ideas to boost your little one's imagination, play skills, learning and development.

Photo of Occupational Therapist Rachel Carey and her two children playing together

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