Terrible two - how to handle bursts of anger in the autonomy phase

SOS, my child is stubborn - how does it learn how to handle its anger

I still remember how unprepared i was when my daughters first burst of anger hit me out of the dark. My kid was 14 months, we had just finished shopping at the grocery shop and she signed ‚cookie’. I handed her one and … ‚WUUUUÄÄÄÄÄÄÄHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!‘. I stood thunderstruck and incredulous looking at my normally nice toddler. What do you mean ‚Wuäh?‘ didn’t I give you the asked for cookie? But the child got more and more angry, stomped her feet and screamed because i did not understand. After tediously trying some options - which by the way let me break out in sweat and panic - I realized: the child did not want a cookie, she wanted the banana we just bought! she just didn’t know the sign for ‚banana‘ just yet. My god that was a promising sign for the stubborn phase that laid ahead.

very angry girl

Model of development of stress regulation

When children grow up and realize their wishes and preferences don’t always match the ones of the people around them which means they sometimes wont be fulfilled, they are automatically confronted with emotions like anger, frustration, sadness and fear - they enter the stubborn phase. it is important for them to learn how to regulate and tolerate those emotions and the associated stress. They bring a base of skills out of the womb, the rest will be moulded by parents (or other sensitive people) and adopted behavior.

The following model of development by Band, Weisz and Koop describes the process of learning as following (cf. Band, Weisz, 1988; Koop, 1989):

0-3 months: children turn away from unpleasant stimuli and suck their thumb to sooth themselves when stressed. This works only for low stress levels, too strong stimuli cannot be regulated by themselves. This means parents have to regulate through body or better skin contact. 3 - 9 months: Now children are able to remember things that soothed them before. They calm down and relax before the expected stimulus is performed, since they can mentally anticipate the event. For example when our daughters were crying because they were very hungry they stopped as soon as I sat down in our nursing chair with them. I hadn’t even started unclipping my bra - but they already knew they would nurse now. Other mothers can observe their children stop crying and smile as soon as they see them with the carrier. Th rule in this age is: Children are easily overwhelmed by stressors and need support from their parents to regulate themselves, regulation fro the outside is still the main technique.

1 - 4 years: This is the most intense period of learning coping skills. ‚Primary coping‘ requires conscious identification of stress triggering situations and includes a series of actions that gain towards changing the situation. When for example visitors arrive - an occurrence that regularly stress our daughter - said daughter leaves for another room to take up a game that excludes others. If she does not manage to get around the stranger she escapes into our arms as soon as she can, turns her back towards the intruder and freezes in that position until they are gone. In this stage of development children like to use transition objects like soft toys or blankies to reduce the stress. Sadly our daughters never fell in love with a specific soft toy which means this specific strategy wasn’t available to them. Between their second and third year of life bursts of anger peak. They are an expression of primary coping and an attempt to avoid the stress triggering situation by screaming. A lot of parents leave their children to their screaming because they think the child has to learn or knows how to cope on their own. this is not the case. Especially in this period sensitive support through anger and stress (regulation from the parents) very important!

4 - 7 years: In this age secondary coping develops. This describes the change of the inner situation, meaning the skill to adapt to external circumstances. Primary coping does stick around as preferred coping strategy though. Only in situations when children feel little control over the circumstances secondary coping will be used, for example when they receive a vaccination or when they have to adapt to customs at school or kindergarten. It happens that they ‚function‘ well in Kindergarten, get dressed without issues, try any food and sleep for their nap - all the things they would not do for their parents at home. When they are picked up at the end of the day they sometimes slump in their parents arms and cope with the stress of adapting all day though … what? Exactly, a burst of anger. This is a good and correct behavior and children should be encouraged in doing so. The conscious approach of anger and rage is a strategy of secondary coping. One assumes our children don’t really master this skill until six years of age.

8 - 12 years: Children fall back on secondary coping more often, at the age of 12 it will be their mane strategy. When coping with anger and rage loud thinking and self-talk will serve behavior control. (cf. Band, Weisz, 1988; Koop, 1989)

Neuronal foundation: Understanding angry children

According to Dr Harvey Karp, Author of ‚The happiest toddler in the world‘, the right side of the brain dominates a toddler - opposing to adults or older children. This side is especially ‚good’ at being creative and empathetic, it helps the child to decide intuitively an spontaneously, helps to recognize faces and is an expert in decoding imagery and signs.
Features like logic thinking, speech and analytical thinking is awarded to the left side of the brain which means this side helps our children to chose the right word when speaking, pick the bigger share of candy and put on his pants before the trousers and not the other way around. In contrast to the structured left side the right side is easily distractible, impulsive and emotional according to Karp - and therefore our children are, too (cf. Karp, 2010: 30). If now a stressful experience occurs during the phase of autonomy, for example when an adult prohibits something, the reasonable left side of the brain will be shut down completely and the right side takes control, making every decision and not condoning any opposition. The child goes rampage. He throws himself on the floor, screams, kicks, spits, slaps and is completely beside himself. Whoever tries to reach a child in this state by words is dealt a bad hand - the left half of the brain is on vacation. The child only hears‚ blah-blah-blah, Oliver, blah-blah‘. No surprise our usual calming strategies fail disastrous - he just doesn’t understand us! He cannot understand us.

Regulation from the outside: How to calm raging children

So now the left side of the brain is as good as shut down and the right side is raging and raging and raging and the parents are lost and undecided. Addressing him does not work. Touching him make sit worse. We’re run-in out of options. Leaving the child to his rage until he’s done? Sure, you could do that, but it takes felt ages and leaves a completely exhausted family. Daddy is exhausted, because he can’t handle seeing hs child suffer like this, mom is exhausted because the screaming triggered negative feelings from her own childhood, the child is sweaty and emotionally running on empty because it was just ran over by the most fierce emotions ever. This can’t be the solution, can it? This is where an absolute spectacular skill of the right side of the brain comes into play. It can literally safe us a lot of suffering in those moments of rage: according to Karp it can decode nonverbal communication very easily. The brain still receives facial expressions, gestures and tone. Eureka! (cf. Karp, 2010: 31)
scan of a brain

So if you address the child by means of voice and body language and mirror his emotions, you can help him calm down more quickly (cf. Karp, 2010:32). At first this sounds weird but worked perfectly fine with all defiant children I have tried it with. In my experience the younger you start (as early as 12 months), the easier it will be in the peak of the autonomy phase. But even if the child is already two or three years old you can still start. This way success wont be as fast but you will see it soon.

Step 1: Establish contact respectfully

According to Dr Karp the key to communicating wit upset toddlers is to establish contact in a respectful manor. He calls it the ‘fast-food-rule’ (cf. Karp, 2010: 69). It is obvious that the more upset person speaks first - in the case of our toddler that most likely sounds like the following: ‘WUUUAAAAAHHHH!!! NO! NO! NO!!! AAAAARGHHHH. GGRRRRRRRAAAHHHH! WUUUUUUÄÄÄÄÄHHH!!’

The other one listens and then at first just repeats what the upset one said. Doing so it’s less important what you say but more how you say it (you want to address the right and not the left side of the brain after all). So the mother mirrors in an upset tone and empathic facial and body language: ‘You are angry! So angry! You say: No! No! No!’. The mos important part of this is hitting just the right emotional spot. You must not mirror the childish emotion too strongly or even stultify - the child might then feel misunderstood and not taken serious. On the other hand you also must not mirror annoyed or half-heartedly like saying ‘Yes... I get it, you’re angry...’. Let’s say the child cries with 100% energy: ‘WUÄH! No!’, the parents then should mirror with about 30-50%: ‘You’re angry! So very angry! You're saying No!’ and - especially important - also reflect the child through facial expressions and body language and childish excited pitch. (cf. Karp, 2010: 70ff)

What I like about this ‚fast-food-rule‘ is not just the love but also the respect I meet my child with. I respect his emotions because they always have a good reason for my child and I show him through mirroring that I understood how he feels and tell him it's ok to feel that way. This does not mean I don’t set limits. It only means I tell him all his emotions are valid and important and that I am open to listen to them (cf. Karp, 2010; 88f). Besides this is not a radical new idea but just a variation of active listening and non-violent communication on a newborn level.

It’s not even hard to get in touch respectfully if you keep in mind how the left side if the brain shuts down during a burst of anger. These three points are important to remember:

1. Reflect emotions: We should speak quieter than the child while still aiming for the same emotional level in your voice. Since the child is angry we should assume some frustration, anger and fear in our voice, facial expression and body language (this is how the term ‚mirroring‘ came about). It is important to be very expressive so the message is being delivered. To lift eyebrows, open your eyes wide, wrinkle your forehead, shake your head shrug your shoulders, stomp your feet, flail your arms - all this is important (cf. Karp, 2010: 108f)! Though by no means this should b used to make fun of the child or ape him. Mirroring is a sincere, loving method and does not serve to stultify the tantrum. Again: the mirroring is always a lower intensity than the original emotion from the child.

2. Short sentences: Instead of saying: „Yes, Oliver, I know you were scared of that dog but now he’s gone.“ we should rather try to advance with concise catchwords like: „Fear! Fear! Big dog! Go away, you say, go away!“

3. Repetitions: In order for the angry brain to even receive any of your message you have to repeat it over and over again. In early or light acts of defiance one or two repetitions are enough. As soon as the child is really in rage it might be necessary to mirror six to eight times before the child may turn to you and ask: „Wait, you’re asking for me?“ (cf. Karp, 2010: 107)

It is hard to imagine, but this little measure of respectfully talking and getting in contact with your child through mirroring often leads to calming him to a point where you can address him normally again. This doesn’t mean the tantrum is over but at least now theres a base on which normal verbal contact is possible. At lest the child is not laying on the floor screaming and kicking any more but looks at his parents full of anticipation as if he was to say: „okay, you got my problem, what now?“

Step 2: Parental message "...., but...."

Now that our children have expressed their problem and calmed halfway down by feeling understood, it’s our turn with our message. The storm of emotions has calmed down a little, the left side of the brain resumes working and we can start explaining in normal language why what the child demands is just not possible right now. „You really want to keep playing but we need to leave for KiTa right now. Otherwise I’ll be late for work.“

Naturally the infamous parental „but“ (cf. Karp, 2010: 86) won’t be met with joy by our children. Their emotional equilibrium is still fragile and it is possible their tantrum might flare up at this point again. It will generally be lighter though. We should meet this with another round of respectfully mirroring his emotions (fast-food-rule) as we did before. As soon as the child now calms down we offer a compromise.

Step 3: Offering a solution for the problem

I personally experience this step as the most difficult, since I don’t always come up with a win-win solution for the conflict. I am looking for a compromise that lets both of us win or offer options to chose from.

  • „You really want to keep playing but we have to leave. You can take your doll in your backpack and she’s gonna wait in the cloakroom at KiTa for you.“
  • „You really want to keep playing on the slide but Papa is waiting with dinner for us. Do you want to slide another one or two times before we leave?“
  • „You really want to wear the wellies but it’s so hot outside. What about you wear the wellies now but we take the sandals so you can switch later?“

Sometimes if nothing else helps or is possible I fulfill the wish in imagination (cf. Kerp, 2010: 85): „You want to eat some ice-cream so badly, but it’s winter and the shop is closed. I wish I could blow all the snow away, that would be so great! I would fetch the sun from behind the clouds and make it warm. Then we could go and have some ice-cream. I’m really looking froward to summer when the shop is open again. Do you want to go eat chocolate or strawberry ice-cream then?“ Surprisingly this works really well and distracts my daughters attention even in finical situations (pester power items at the grocery store) very well. Satisfying a need in imagination also offers the advantage of teaching patience and deferred need satisfaction.

When easing doesn´t work 

Of course this method is not impeccable. You cannot use it anytime with any child in any situation. It doesn’t have the same effect every time and sometimes it doesn’t help at all. But it never harms to try during a tantrum. There is nothing to lose. Either it works and the child calms down, or it doesn’t and you’re right where you started. Of course it is, let’s say 'an acquired taste’, to address your revolting and screaming child in toddler lingo in the middle of the mall. Do I sometimes feel awkward doing so? Definitely! But I also feel awkward if my child draws all the attention like this. Those gazes of strangers, the disapproval, the murmured „This wouldn’t have
happened in our time…“ - it all is very uncomfortable. This means if I have a way to shorten the scenario without having to grab the screaming toddler and flee the mall I will try it!

But sometimes it will just not work. What could that be about?

Mirroring too much or too little

When mirroring it is primarily important to find the right tone and intensity to express the anger. Bright kids are more touchy-feely and therefore might need 50% mirroring. Shy kids on the other hand can feel uncomfortable by such a strong mirroring and therefore might understand better by aiming a little lower - maybe at 30%. Also with older children mirroring should be less theatric so they don’t feel like we’re making fun of them (cf. Kerp, 2010: 110f). If mirroring does not work we as parents should therefore first adjust the intensity of it, maybe it will work then.

Mirroring in the wrong direction

When you’re mirroring: „You are angry! Angry! You say: cookie, Mama, cookie! Cookie!“ and the child does not calm down but instead just cries even harder and more angry, you probably haven’t understood the reason for his upset properly and the child tries to communicate that through louder screaming. In this case you have to quickly regroup and think about what else could be the reason. This is not always easy because often it is just not comprehensible for an adult why a toddler is upset. It seems as if he was yelling without reason. I have asserted though that you can very much determine ‚no-reason-screaming‘ if you know your child very well. Reasons for a tantrum could be:
  • The child wants to do something on his own and is mad that Mama or Papa want to do it for him
  • The child wants something specific and Mama or Papa doesn’t understand what exactly it is because he can’t express himself well enough yet
  • The child does not want to do something specific but Mama or Papa tell him to anyway
  • The child tries to do something himself but it doesn’t work as expected
  • The child is carrying something in his hand and it accidentally breaks
  • The child expects not to receive something he wants and already starts crying in anticipation before even talking about it (those are especially tricky)
  • The child thinks Mama or Papa does something wrong or different than he wants on purpose
I think every parent knows such situations but I still want to point out two more examples. The first example refers to the last point when the child thinks their parents is purposefully doing something different that they ask them to. When my daughter was about 16 months old we had a lot of snow and we took the sled out. One of my daughters wanted to sit on the sled in a very specific way but I could not figure out how exactly. I tried a lot of different positions but she just got more and more angry at me. The problem was since she wasn’t able to do a shift in perspective yet, she didn’t even consider the possibility that I might not know how she wanted to sit. After all in her mind she knew exactly how she wanted to be positioned! That I was not able to look into her head or rather have exactly the same thoughts was not possible to comprehend for her at that age. Of course she got upset with me over this - in her eyes I acted deliberately uncooperative, in her eyes I withheld the proper sitting position from her.

Mädchen, Kind, Niedlich, Caucasian, Porträt, Kinder

The second example refers to the second and the second to last point: the child cannot express himself well enough and the child thinks the parent doesn’t want to give him something specific and starts crying in anticipation. My daughters have special glasses to drink from at dinner. One of my daughters had dropped her glas to the ground the day before and it had shattered, so to be just I had found two other similar glasses. Those however were slightly smaller than their usual glasses. When I placed the glasses in front of them, the daughter who had not broke her glass, started shouting angrily: „More, more!“ I replied: „Honey, isn’t the glass brimfull? I can’t pour any more juice into it!“ She got more and more upset, started fidgeting and kept yelling: „No! No! More!“ (It’s to be considered that she was 24 months at that point and normally was able to form full sentences. But per her ravagement she was only able to express crumbs of words and also couldn’t replace the word ‚more‘ with one that might have explained better what she wanted. Her left brain was already blocked.) I answered: „You can have more juice, just finish what is in your glass first.“ In that instance she started screaming dreadfully and I foresaw this could end in a tantrum. So I started mirroring into the blue because I really did not know what she wanted: „You want more! More! You say …“ (and here i had an epiphany) „ … a different glass! Bigger glass! You
want your other glass!“ Immediately there was relief in my daughters face and she answered: „Yes, other glass!“ She just wanted to have her original glass - understandably, right? Just because I think its fair for both children to have a similar glass does not mean they see it the same way.

The child is too tired

Actually a classic: if a child is too tired he’s not available for nothing and no-one. In that situation you can understand as much as you want and mirror until hell freezes over, the child will keep raging. In this case there’s just one solution: sleepy cuddles with Mama or Papa in bed!

One of these days 

I am of the firm belief that our children have developmental leaps even beyond the age that is described in ‚The Wonder Weeks‘. You can easily observe difficult phases around their second, third and fourth birthday just as at two and a half, three and a half and four and a half. Sadly no scientist has done the effort of writing a book about these yet.

I also observed days when my daughters would just be ‚caught‘ in a ‚chain of tantrums’ from getting up until bedtime. Such days are easily recognized when your child does not wake up happily babbling as usual but reacts with wailing and grumbling to being woken up. When brushing their teeth he’ll have his first fit because the toothpaste did not come out of to the tube as expected, later the favorite tights are scratchy today and just horrible and he most definitely does not want to wear them today, at breakfast there’s a nervous breakdown because the milk is too white and it keeps going like this. Just when you saved him from one crisis and he’s just calming down a little the next one is already announcing itself. Those days are really hard to manage fro parents - surely the children also don’t feel great. I documented the last half year when ‚those days‘ arose and surprisingly enough they occur quite regularly about every four weeks. I am assuming the brain rewires during those days or just cleans its hard drive like a computer and thats why our children feel like babies in those leaps: just weird. On ‚one of those days‘ you can’t really do anything but chaperone them lovingly through the hardships, even if it might be difficult. The good thing: it will be over tomorrow!

Self regulating: Teach children techniques to regulate stress

As I remarked before children will be confronted with different stressful situations throughout their life. It is therefore indispensable for them to learn techniques to manage those emotions in unpleasant situations since it is not helpful to formally explode with every gewgaw in KiTa, school or later in their professional setting.

Learning such techniques does however not mean to suppress the emotions!
The emotion of anger has, according to Cierpka, an absolutely constructive side to it. It is an important sign to others that you feel humiliated, hurt or inappropriately ‚mastered‘ by others. Automatically one keeps the counterpart with a fit at bay - one eradiates ‚danger‘ (cf. Cierpka, 2005: 88f).

Therefore it is especially important to allow our children to express their anger about our rules and constraints during the time of breaking away (formerly knows as ‚phase of defiance‘). They shall and have to break away from us but at the same time they should also learn that all involved people have to address the different needs in a conflict to find a solution that is acceptable to everyone. They also have to learn that sometimes a situation can’t be changed and accepting a ‚no‘ is necessary. I probably don’t have to mention that this is a difficult balancing act.

1 - 2 years: The child can learn to stomp his feet, shake his head and loudly say „No!“. Even though that might be exhausting to us parents they are all valuable relaxation techniques for anger that help him to calm himself. Also screaming loudly can be such a technique. Since to me personally it is very irritating when my daughters scream i told them to do it into the crook of their arm or a pillow. The material of jumper or pillow reliably dampen the sound. The Book ‚When little animals are angry‘ was very useful in this time - it points out different ways to release ones anger in a safe way.

2 - 4 years: Now our children can in addition to the techniques above learn identifying emotions in themselves and others. I explained that closer in my article about empathy. When the child is in
a good mood you can practice facial expressions in front of a mirror. How do you look when you’re angry? Show me your scared face! Do you see how your eyes get big when you’re happy?

If the child enjoy this you can take pictures of the different facial expressions and craft an emotion book or memory. It is really important to talk about what was going on inside the child and how it felt after a rage attack. My daughters were on the seesaw the other day on the playground when one of them suddenly yelled laughingly „My belly hurts so much!“. I was a little confused because she didn’t look like she was in pain, she was obviously happy playing. So I asked her: „Do you have butterflies in your belly?“ - „Yes!“ - „Yes, thats a nice feeling, isn’t it? This feeling comes from the seesaw and it feels good.“ - „Yes, it feels nice!“ She just hadn’t yet known a way to express that feeling in her belly. But the more words we offer our children the easier emotions will be classified and - yes - mastered.

According to Karp you can start with breathing exercises to calm yourself as soon as two years of age, he calls it ‚magic breathing‘ (cf. Karp, 2010: 172ff). I did try it but have to admit I failed grand. That might be because I myself am not a good role model for this. Probably parents who do Yoga or Pilates themselves might be more successful with this than I. Nevertheless I wont give up - I will, now that my daughters are almost three, start over with the ‚magic breathing‘.

You as the parent sit comfortably on the floor or a chair for this, your hands in your lap, shoulders relaxed, straight back. Then you breathe in slowly through your nose, count to five in your head and breathe out through your mouth with a whiz (again counting to five). When breathing in you lift your hands off you lap slowly to then bring them back down when breathing out. If the child gets intrigued and wants to join, invite him to breathe with you. Now the hand movement becomes more important as a signal for the child when to breathe in (if necessary through his mouth) and when to breathe out. In the beginning the parent will therefore provide the rhythm but in time the child will learn to use this technique himself. (cf. Kerf, 2010: 173f)

I personally love a technique thats called ‚pushing‘ which I learned about in the book ‚Interaktionsspiele für Kinder Teil 2‘. One of my daughters once was so angry at me she wanted to hit me, tore my jumper and tried to push me away. She was beside herself in range about me. I left her to show me her anger and that she disliked my decision. When she started pushing me I said calmly: „You want to brush me aside? That is a good idea! Take my hands and push me as hard as you can!“ She accepted my offer slightly confused and since she was still angry at me she pushed with all her power. I commented with: „Oh, you're really angry! You’re pushing real hard!“ She pushed on for about a minute and got more and more calm. Not only did her strength dwindle but also my words finally made it through to her, she was able to hear that I understood she was really angry with me. When she was finished pushing I was able to directly hug her and cuddle.

So for pushing two counterparts face each other and touch hands. A referee normally gives a  start signal which marks the start of both children (or the adult and the child) to push as hard as they can. They are supposed to express the extend of their anger through the pushing. This means though nothing else but pushing can be allowed. No hitting, no shoving, no kicking. It should also be avoided for one of them to be pushed away. It just happens on the spot without moving. Pushing is a safe game and should always just be practiced regarding the rules. After one to two minutes the referee stops the pushing. By now the worst anger should be gone. And now the wranglers can talk to each other. How did I feel during pushing? Am I feeling better now? Do I feel relieved? Why was I angry? What can I do different next time? etc. (cf. Vopel, 2008, 53ff)

By the way, mothers who I suggest pushing to, often look at me saying: „That’s nothing for us…“ I know t seems weird at first but I use this technique at school for many years now and I can promise it always helps to calm the two parties down to a point where they can start talking. This being said: just try it!

from 5 years: As I explained above from this age on secondary coping strategies to cope with stress and anger develop (cf. Band&Weisz, 1988, Koop, 1989). The following concept of anger management tries to break the spiraling circle of escalating anger. Escalating anger means: when a child experiences a stress situation and is being physically stimulated (hot, tense, higher heart frequency) and internally focuses more and more on it („This really irritates me so much! He is so stupid! I will show him the ropes!“) he will spiral into even deeper excitement and the anger will get worse (cf. Novaco, 1979). The fact that not just children work this way is nicely described in Paul Watzlawicks book ‚Anleitung zum Unglücklichsein‘ (‚Manual to be unhappy‘) in his story with
the hammer. In four steps this pattern is supposed to be broken through loud thinking and positive monologising:

      1. observe: how does your body fell?
      2. calm yourself: take three deep breaths/slowly count backwards/think about something nice/ say: „Calm down!“ to yourself
      3. Think loudly about the solution of your problem
      4. think about it again at a later point in time: Why did you get upset? What did you do to change it?

What worked? What did not work? What would you do different next time?
Especially if the child has reoccurring issues it can be helpful to answer these questions in a roleplay and lead him through the questions (What worked, what didn’t? What could you do different?) towards new behavioral patterns. If children can practice this in a safe environment they have an easier time to escape those destructive spirals and solve their conflicts differently or rather deal with stressful situations. This obviously always has to happen according to age (don’t overextend your child!)


Trigger of any bout of temper - may it be in a child or an adult - is a need that isn’t met. This means anger can be very valuable for us to show us where we overstepped the other persons limits. In this regard we should fro every one of our children’s tantrums - as long as we’re able to - take a step back and think about what just went wrong and if its possible to fix it easily. This does definitely not mean not to have limits for our children. It also doesn’t mean we should start a discussion about whether or not the child is allowed to walk on the road himself if there’s a life threatening situation. It only means one should accept the other’s justified (angry) emotions, endure them and at the right point of time offer a hand to find out of it again.

© Katja Seide