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Written by Caroline Meyer

This development stage is a period of adjustment for both parents and toddlers. There is a rapid shift from the complacent baby to the rebellious little one with a mind of their own. There are rapid mood swings and plenty of inappropriate behaviour. Your little one can go from a loving little angel one minute to a screaming, kicking banshee the next. Little ones are driven to assert themselves as individuals during this phase. They want to let you know what they like and dislike and they want to do things for themselves which may not be practical. They are also not able to articulate everything very well which leads to frustration and the inevitable screaming. They are still developing all the skills needed to express their wants and needs. They have limited self-control and battle with the concept of patience and having to wait for something. Parents can become very frustrated and find themselves arguing a point with a two-year-old. This is not a position you would want to be in. 

While this is challenging, it is quite normal. Between the ages of 2 and 4 little ones undergo major emotional, social, intellectual and motor skills development. They are able to understand a lot but may not be able to express themselves in words as well. This can lead to emotional behaviour and frustration. This can be quite difficult for parents to interpret. 


Little ones start experiencing strong emotions that are beyond the scope they previously understood. There are more than just happy, sad, angry emotions but also lot more complex feelings such as embarrassment, guilt, shame, pride and so forth which are being experienced for the first time. They may also have mood swings that flip from one extreme to the next. You will have to remain calm and help your child recognize and cope with the emotions they are dealing with. They can display the inability to deal with their emotions by: 

  • getting angry and acting out such as throwing things 
  • saying no when they actually mean yes 
  • having a tantrum when you don’t understand what they are saying 
  • refusing to accept a substitute for what they want 
  • simply give up when they get frustrated 

When they are able to manage their emotions, they will demonstrate this by using actions or words to get attention or ask for help. They may also talk to themselves in a way that reassures when they are frightened or frustrated.  They will use words to state how they feel without resorting to violence or acting out. You might also find them re-enacting an event that was stressful for them in order to make sense of everything. They may also parrot back rules and regulations they have been taught. Guilt at breaking rules may also be demonstrated by children learning to cope with complex emotions. 

Toddlers are still reliant on you as a parent, while wanting to be independent. They want to be independent and being constricted by rules can be difficult to deal with. Expect some acting out and even tantrums as they learn some self-control. 


Out of control behaviour usually means that your little one has not been able to figure out how to express the way they are feeling in an acceptable manner. They know what they want and how they feel but don’t know how to let you know in an appropriate way. As a parent, you need to be constructive in how you deal with these emotional outbursts. This will improve as your child learns language skills and can tell you in words and as they learn a little more self-control. Life experience such as learning to follow rules and dealing with disappointment helps them develop and grow during this phase. Help them redirect their emotions and above all, stay calm. Take them out of the situation, allow them to calm down, discuss the feelings as best you can before allowing the child back into the previously volatile situation. Try and avoid changing environment when your child is tired or hungry as this can lead to them displaying inappropriate behaviour as well. Praise them when they behave or overcome the intense emotions.  This is a tough time for your toddler, as well as for you. Give them plenty of love and guidance and know that this phase will eventually pass. 

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