How To Deal With The Terrible Twos

terrible twos toddler crying over spilled milk

It’s a normal phase, but dealing with the terrible twos isn’t easy. Here’s why your toddler is acting out—and what you can do about it.

Refusing to wear a jacket in below-freezing temperatures. Saying “no” to everything. Throwing themselves face down on the ground. Sound familiar? Regardless of how old your little one is, these signs could be a clue that the so-called “terrible twos” have hit. And even though this phase may not be fun, it’s actually a great thing, experts say. “What a child is doing is testing boundaries, which is his way of figuring out right from wrong,” says Robin Jacobson, clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone in New York City. “This behavior is a developmental step that helps mold him into the person he’ll become when he grows up,” In other words, it’s a learning experience, and even in the midst of his biggest, loudest, most spectator-attracting temper tantrums, your toddler is looking to you for guidance and support. So while the terrible twos may be every bit as terrible as you imagined, learning what actually sparks this phase and why it’s such a crucial part of growing up will ultimately help you and your child get through these tough moments.

In this article:
What are the terrible twos?
What causes the terrible twos?
Signs of terrible twos
How long do the terrible twos last?
How to deal with terrible twos

What Are the Terrible Twos?

First of all, the name itself may be a misnomer. The terrible twos—characterized by defiant behavior, including saying “no,” hitting, kicking, biting or ignoring rules—can start as early as just after a first birthday or may not set in until a child is 3 years old. But there’s a reason the terrible twos moniker has stuck: Around age 2 is when toddlers usually hit key developmental milestones, including communicating in two- or three-word sentences, walking, climbing and understanding concrete concepts like “mine,” “no” and “bad,” which they didn’t necessarily understand as infants, says Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me. At its root, classic terrible twos behavior is all about testing boundaries, asserting independence and learning how to communicate needs and desires, as well as learning to recognize that those desires may sometimes be different than those of the child’s caregivers.

Ari Brown, MD, a pediatrician based in Austin, Texas, and the co-author of Toddler 411, uses the theory laid out by renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson to explain what kids are going through at this age: After 0 to 12 months, which is the trust versus mistrust phase, the toddler phase begins, which is all about exploring autonomy versus self-doubt. “This phase lasts from age one to about 4, which is why parents may see terrible twos behavior at different points in toddlerhood,” she says. “When a child successfully navigates this phase, she gains autonomy and self-worth. That’s good news!”

What Causes the Terrible Twos?

Although annoying and exhausting (likely for both of you), the terrible twos is a normal stage of development and a sign that your toddler has achieved some pretty major developmental milestones. “They’re really smart at this stage,” Jacobson says. “Around age 2 is when they’re getting better at walking, jumping, talking and being understood, and also when they begin to emulate what others are doing. They want to help clean, talk on the phone, wash their hands and follow adult routines. But they still don’t know what’s unsafe, which is why they may test boundaries.” They’re also gauging their independence: Toddlers want to do things on their own, but they also want someone to be close by watching them and may not have the language to communicate their desires. For example, they may want to put on their socks by themselves, but they want you to watch, or they want you to help but only by pulling the fabric over their toes. And if you don’t meet their exact expectations? Hello, tantrums.

Signs of Terrible Twos

While there’s no definitive list of signs that the terrible twos are hitting and every kid is different, these common clues can tip you off to the fact that your child has reached the terrible twos stage—even if she isn’t exactly 2 years old.

Getting frustrated when their wishes aren’t fully understood. A common cause of those terrible twos temper tantrums is when a toddler gets frustrated that his caregiver can’t read his mind. For example, he may ask for water, only to break down in tears because you gave it to him in a red cup instead of a blue one. Once toddlers can communicate their needs better, the tantrums will start to ebb, Braun says.

Kicking, biting or hitting. Because toddlers may not have the words to express themselves and are still developing impulse control, they may lash out physically. As annoying as it is, terrible twos and hitting go hand in hand—but while it’s common, it’s a behavior that needs to be handled consistently in order to put a stop to it, Braun says. (See How to Deal With Terrible Twos).

Tantrums. Crying, wailing or throwing themselves on the floor are common elements of a terrible twos temper tantrum, a hallmark of this developmental phase.

Saying “no.” Even if the “no” doesn’t make sense in the situation (like when you’re offering a favorite dessert or toy), toddlers tend to overuse this phrase while they’re testing boundaries and learning the power of the word.

Territorial fighting. At this stage, toddlers are learning the concept of “mine,” experts say. Because of that, they may become very territorial and pick fights with people (and even pets!) who take what’s “theirs,” even when it’s a communal thing like a couch, chair or specific spot on the floor.

How Long Do the Terrible Twos Last?

While it may seem like the stage will last forever, experts say the terrible twos behavior will ease up once your child is better able to understand rules, communicate what she wants and realize that the wrong color cup doesn’t mean the end of the world.

That said, how long the terrible twos lasts depends in part on how you handle the behavior. “Children need to learn consistency, which means that everyone, including caregivers, are on the same page,” Jacobson says. Developing a strategy to deal with meltdowns, hitting or temper tantrums can ensure that the behavior will pass quickly. And the right strategy may be different for different kids. How to deal with the terrible twos depends on your child’s unique personality, as well as your approach to discipline. But there are tips experts agree tend to work best to put a stop to those terrible twos temper tantrums and help your child learn what’s acceptable behavior.

How to Deal With Terrible Twos

First off, take a deep breath. While dealing with the terrible twos isn’t easy, coming up with a strategy and sticking to it can stave off meltdowns and other trying behaviors. Read on to figure out how to plan your approach to terrible twos discipline.

How to handle temper tantrums

Witnessing a terrible twos temper tantrum in fullswing isn’t pleasant, but here’s a tip: The less invested and upset you get, the quicker the storm will pass. “The more attention a child gets for his behavior, even if it’s negative, the more he’ll do it because he thinks it’s a game,” Jacobson says. While it may not be easy…

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