What Are the Terrible Twos?

Little boy having a temper tantrum

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What Are the Terrible Twos?

The "terrible twos" refers to a normal stage in a child's development in which a toddler can regularly bounce between reliance on adults and a newly burgeoning desire for independence. The symptoms vary between children but can include frequent mood changes and temper tantrums.

Although parents often expect the terrible twos to occur around a child's second birthday, the behavior that's typical of this stage often begins around 18 months and can last until age 4.

Why It Happens

Children are undergoing big developmental changes around age 2. They are learning new gross motor skills, like jumping and climbing, and developing fine motor skills, like stacking blocks and scribbling with a crayon or marker. However, their verbal skills may lag behind other abilities. Not being able to express their wants and needs can be frustrating to children, often leading to the outbursts that characterize the terrible twos.

Without an emotional vocabulary to rely on, a child can quickly become frustrated and feel they have no means to express their feelings other than anger or aggression.

Signs

Terrible twos symptoms are different from kid to kid, but there are some behavioral patterns that can signal to parents that their child might be in this tricky developmental stage. These might include:

  • Fighting with siblings or playmates more than usual
  • Kicking or biting when angry
  • Mood swings (such as laughing one moment and sobbing the next)
  • Screaming or yelling
  • Temper tantrums

However, not all extreme toddler behavior can be chalked up to a passing phase of the terrible twos. When outbursts are so prolonged, frequent, or disruptive that they affect your child's ability to eat, sleep, or attend daycare or preschool, it may be time to talk to an expert. Pediatricians and child psychologists can help identify whether a child's behavioral problems might be caused by treatable developmental delays, neurological differences, or other issues.

Tips for Parents

There are some things that you can do to help a child (and yourself) through a garden-variety case of the terrible twos. The first step is to try to prevent common triggers, like fatigue, hunger, and frustration, which can trigger outbursts:

  • Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Parents instinctively understand that if a child is overtired, they can get cranky. While you can't always be home when a child gets sleepy, keeping nap times and bedtimes as consistent as possible will help keep your child's moods steady.
  • Keep snacks handy. Likewise, try to avoid outings when children are hungry or will soon need to eat. If you must be out with your child during a typical mealtime or snack time, pack food or plan ahead to find a place to order a bite that's not far from your destination.
  • Provide your toddler with a safe, childproofed environment. You won't need to take a treat or fragile object away from a 2-year-old—or deal with an ensuing meltdown—if these items are out of reach.
  • Offer limited choices to your toddler. For example, rather than asking what they want for a snack, ask them to choose between an apple or an orange. This gives the child a sense of control without overwhelming them with too many choices.
  • Try calm breathing techniques to avoid your own meltdown. When your child is bringing you to the edge of anger, take a moment for some belly breathing: Sit down and breathe deeply at least three times with your hand on your stomach, focusing on the rise and fall of your belly. See if it helps you approach your child's troublesome behavior with more calm and empathy.
  • Be forgiving with yourself. If you lose your cool, focus on how you might better meet a terrible twos moment next time. This stage is hard for parents, too! Navigating it requires practice and patience with your child and yourself.

Toddlers are often happiest when you stick with daily routines, including regular naps and mealtimes. If there's a chance you might not be home when it's usually time for lunch or snack, pack something healthy for your child to munch on. It's a good distraction and will keep them from getting "hangry" in public.

Strategies for Dealing With a Tantrum

Temper tantrums are the hallmark of the terrible twos. If your child pitches one, the most important first step is remaining calm. Unlike older children, who may cause a scene to challenge authority, a 2-year-old is simply enacting behaviors that they think could get a response. Responding to yelling or hitting in kind only communicates to your child that aggression is an acceptable means of communication and can make a temper tantrum worse.

Instead, if confronted with a tantrum, try some of these strategies:

  • Try to redirect your child's attention elsewhere, such as an object out the window, a storybook, or a task they can help with.
  • If you can't distract them, ignore the behavior. Children of this age won't recognize this as a parental strategy. Instead, it will communicate that this form of behavior will not get the response that they want.
  • Don't reward the behavior by giving your child a treat or something that they are demanding.
  • If you are in public, take them aside without discussion or fuss and wait until they have calmed down. If you behave differently in public than you do in private, your child will sense this and it can become a battle of wills.
  • While time outs are an appropriate way to discipline toddlers, always put your child in one without anger. If the behavior persists, you can take away privileges or use other discipline techniques.
  • If your child calms down and the behavior improves, don't make a point of recounting the bad behavior or discussing the problem in detail. (They're only 2, after all.) Instead, praise the good behavior—not with gifts but with words and affection.

A Word From Verywell

When faced with the terrible twos, you should always remind yourself that the child isn't "being bad" just to defy you. (That can come later.) Rather, your toddler is trying to express independence without fully developed communication skills.

Understanding the terrible twos can help you not only cope with this developmental phase but find ways to better deal with it without anger or aggression. By accepting the changes your child is going through, and showing respect for their needs while also holding firm about your limits, you can help your child through this often difficult stage and help build their confidence.

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Article Sources
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  1. Cleveland Clinic. 7 Tips To Help You Survive Your Toddler's 'Terrible Twos'. Published January 6, 2017.

  2. Manning BL, Roberts MY, Estabrook R, et al. Relations between toddler expressive language and temper tantrums in a community sampleJournal of Applied Developmental Psychology. 2019;65:101070. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2019.101070.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Too Much of the Terrible Twos?. Published January 6, 2015.

  4. University of Michigan Medicine. Stress Management: Belly Breathing. Published August 31, 2020.