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My two year old son has recently started with constant, unrelenting contrary/oppositional behavior and tantrums. I realize that saying "no" and tantrums are basically the traditional hallmarks of two year old behavior, but I am finding conflicting information about if the sudden onset and degree of this behavior is a sign of an issue.

Currently ANY request, suggestion or instruction to my son is met with an immediate no, and if we insist, even if we just state the request slightly more firmly, instigates a tantrum. This includes things that he's been happy to do in the past, things that are pleasant or immediately benefit him, or have been part of his routine for the past year or more. This can amount to dozens of tantrums a day.

He was happily, easily, and non-traumatically potty trained (for pee anyhow) a few months ago before this started, now he refuses to use the potty, and holds his urine until he physically can't anymore. Even asking casually if he needs to go is sometimes enough to start a tantrum. We have ruled out UTI and other obvious physical issues.

He is 2 years, 7 months old, and since he turned two, he's had the occasional tantrum, but nothing like this in terms of number per day or the hair trigger for a meltdown he seems to have now. He hasn't experienced any recent traumas, big changes or upheavals. He's relatively advanced with his speech, and understand and uses 'feelings words' to a normal degree for his age. He goes to daycare, and his teacher has also mentioned a marked increase in tantrums, although it seems to be less of an issue than at home.

The behavior is constant and exhausting. The bedtime routine is now taking up to 3 miserable hours. We've had to start getting him up earlier as well, to leave time for multiple tantrums during the morning and breakfast routine, and the lost sleep isn't helping anyone.

He had a well visit with the pediatrician today and behaved perfectly during it, even cooperated while being examined. I asked about this recent behavior and the doctor said essentially, "Well it's not technically normal to have that many tantrums per day, but he looks ok to me."

Is this actually normal? If so, how can I best navigate this phase with my sanity intact?


Update, 1 week after question was posted: By a combination of playfulness, battle-picking, patience, and just the constant shifting of toddler-hood stages, the tantrum situation has already decreased. We also tried to increase positive attention, decrease screens/tv, and offer more opportunities to use and stretch his new abilities, like making a cake together as a family and offering him more chances to help around the house and do things for himself that we previously did for him. I also switched to offering wider and more meaningful choices and responsibilities (i.e. rather than offer him a choice of 2 shirts, ask him to get a pair of pants and the shirt he wants to wear from the drawer, asked him to help me make the grocery list with the kind of fruit he wants to eat this week.)

We are now at about 6-8 tantrums a day, still seems excessive but significantly better. Everything is still taking longer than normal, and he can only be convinced to relieve himself once or twice a day, but I feel like we're seeing steady improvements.

  • Sounds pretty normal. Children like to feel like they're in control of something. If they're in control of nothing, then you'll start getting tantrums over anything and everything. – Ian MacDonald Nov 18 at 21:04
  • I do the normal "Do you want grapes or apple? Do you want to wear train PJs or Mickey Mouse PJs?" giving toddler choices thing, but he just says "NOOOOOOO" to any option, or demands something entirely different and usually not possible (For example, if offered grapes or apples, screams for gummy bears, if given a choice between pjs asks to wear a highly specific set of pjs that don't actually exist...). Any suggestions of how to give him age-appropriate control without catering to inappropriate or impossible demands? – Meg Nov 18 at 21:17
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    @Meg: That two-options thing have never worked for me either. You'll find what works for you, but I'd caution against over-reliance on such quick fixes anyway. Parenting is an interaction to build a relationship, not a set of tricks to achieve an end, and they'll occasionally backfire. I've had countless interactions like this: "Wash your hands". "No". "Ok, I'll get to wash my hands first then". "No ME FIRST", but I stopped that after realizing this spills over into situations where shouting "me first" isn't really a desirable trait, and it was difficult to address as I had created it. – David Hedlund Nov 19 at 8:01
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I think what you're describing is quite normal. There's a saying (at least in Swedish) that this is the age when children grow independent and parents grow defiant. I think that's a helpful mindset.

A child of that age is picking up new skills at a tremendous pace, and constantly exploring the world and gaining new experiences. As adults, we are sometimes prone to be impatient with this. It's like we don't want our kids to learn how to put their clothes on, because if we do it ourselves, like we always have up until this point, we'll get out much faster.

It helps immensely if you can match your pace to that of your child, instead of expectim him to meet adult standards. If walking one block takes fifteen minutes because he wants to stop and turn every stone, perhaps you have fifteen minutes to spare? In which case you can share in his sense of wonder, rather than forcing him to adapt to the adult status quo of constantly hurrying along. If he puts his left shoe on his right foot, there's no real harm in that either. I get that these may not be the subjects of your typical tantrums, but I guess the tantrums may be a last resort when the child feels (probably unfairly) that he never gets his way.

So pick your battles. If you can, always default to cooperating. Go with the child's whims as often as possible, out of free will, so that tantrums won't be the only working tool in your kid's toolkit.

Also, understand that independence typically means different things to children and adults. This is also an age where we typically expect a bit more autonomy from our children, and consequently a bit more time for ourselves. Either time away, or just to actually get something done for once. Independence to the child is not about being disconnected from you. Your attention is still the gold standard. Your child may crave less help, but just as much closeness. He wants to explore the world with you by his side. If you used to be there always because you had to do everything for him, his new skills doesn't, to him, mean that you should be around any less. So all the attention he doesn't get freely, he will fight for.

If you need something to happen, make play out of it. (You refer to insisting or stating the request more firmly after an initial refusal to comply; this is taking the opposite route.) If he is not putting on his clothes when you're going out, hand him his jacket and say, "here, put on your shoes". I'm not surprised if a stubborn child quickly comes around and jokingly puts his feet in his jacket, before exclaiming that it's wrong, and puts on the jacket to prove to you that really, he does know it's not a pair of shoes.

  • This is a good idea to emphasize the playful route. The most cooperative bath we've had lately was when I made the tub a 'little ocean' by adding just the boats and sea animal bath toys, he was happy enough to get in with less of a fight. – Meg Nov 18 at 22:10
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    @Meg: that's a lovely example! There is so much more to this than just providing a distraction from the tantrum. This is a great way to connect with a child at that age. This is how you are loving while still not compromising with what you think needs to be done. I see so many parents who seem to view any inclination to accept the child's solution over what you had in mind as parental failure, while I think it's an absolutely key part of building relationships. – David Hedlund Nov 19 at 6:43
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It does sound concerning that there's been a sudden acceleration of the tantrums, but the doctor's observation that everything seems normal otherwise is reassuring (though not a guarantee.) You've handled it well until this recent phase, in which you're perplexed and exhausted.

This is an age where kids start asserting their wish for autonomy. Needless to say, some kids assert this more than others, and your child sounds like he desires complete autonomy right! now! He makes choices. They can be helpful or unhelpful, but they are what he wants: choices.

I think David's answer is quite good. It takes effort and creativity to make the correct choice attractive, but it's worth it to both of you.

Picking your battles is also important.

But a three hour bedtime is not healthy for either of you. Some of these battles must stop. So is a handy timer.

My go-to resource for tantrums is 1,2,3 Magic by Dr. Phalen. My major concern over this method is that I've seen it poorly applied, which is not good. Please read it cover to cover before you decide to go this route (which I think would be very helpful.) The point of the method is, having picked a battle and having explained reasonably why it's important, there is no further discussion. No pleading, no negotiation, nothing. Just counting then a time out. After which come comfort, hugs, some discussion. A sticker chart for good choices with rewards (relatively immediate at this age) is equally important.

Emotional literacy is vital. It sounds like you're already doing this, but expand on naming emotions - beyond normal for age - so he will better understand and express his own feelings, and so that he can understand yours as well.

Good luck with this. I found tantrums to be the most difficult aspect of parenting children (worse things happen - or don't - later.) But keep this in mind as you navigate this obstacle course: your gut feelings about your child are important. If you continue to feel that something is not right about this, make an appointment with the pediatrician especially for this, and make sure you are taken seriously.

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    I think he is about average on emotional literacy, he can use "happy, sad, angry, scared" well but also understands "worried, surprised, frustrated, excited, grumpy, unhappy, loving, brave" with good comprehension, although he doesn't usually say them without being prompted. I have used adult/non-simplified language with him for the most part all his life, more because that's just how I express myself than by design, and he regularly surprises me with the words he can understand and use! – Meg Nov 25 at 17:27

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