Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Tantrums

Can the terrible twos begin early? My 16mth old son has begun to have tantrums already.

Can the “terrible twos” begin early? My 16-month-old son was very easy as a baby, but he seems to have changed overnight. There are times when I have to say “no” to him, as he wants to get into everything or climb on things that will fall over. He reacts by throwing a tantrum and seems completely out of control. What is the best way to deal with this behaviour? I feel as though I have to watch him constantly, whereas a few months ago he was content to sit and play on his own with his toys.

A few months are a long time in the life of a toddler. Before he could walk, your little boy had no option but to sit and play with toys, but now that he is mobile, the whole world has opened up and he wants to explore it.

If you have not done so already, remove any fragile or dangerous pieces of furniture, such as glass-topped coffee tables, to areas of the house where he is unable to access them. Some items, such as table lamps, have to remain and your son will need to learn that “no” does mean that some things are off-limits. Removing everything that is potentially harmful is not practical, nor does it prepare children for the wider world, where they must learn to respect the property of others. Decide what behaviour will and will not be allowed in the house, but try to keep the list short so that daily life does not become one long “no”.

Boys of your son’s age have endless physical energy. They can jump, climb and be on the go all the time. Provide for this at home by making a mini-adventure playground that can be tidied up at the end of the day. Use large boxes with open ends to make tunnels, or a blanket over a low table to encourage crawling. Give him old cushions or pillows to jump into. Find a large box at the supermarket and let him climb in and out of it. When he is playing well with these things, give him some praise. If he does begin to clamber on furniture or play with something unsuitable, calmly but firmly say, “No, you may not play with that” and remove him from it. Try to divert him with an alternative. If a tantrum ensues try to ignore it, making sure he cannot hurt himself on anything in his way. His frustration will subside and that is when you might give him a cuddle to help him calm down. Some toddlers respond well to being held during a tantrum, while others find it infuriating, so be guided by your child.

Most early tantrums are caused by frustration and the inability of a child to make their needs known. Hunger, tiredness, over-stimulation and boredom also play a part. Despite the “terrible twos” label, these tantrums can appear well before a second birthday. This period in your toddler’s life can seem like a constant battle, but look at the daily leaps he is making in his development. Build on what he is able to do, give him plenty of active time outside and keep his meals and naps to the usual routine. In this way, you should avoid too many meltdowns during the day. Once a toddler is able to use language and express himself better, this early tantrum stage tends to fade away.