Both parents and pediatricians often speak of the “terrible twos.” It’s a normal developmental phase experienced by young children that’s often marked by tantrums, defiant behavior, and lots of frustration.
The terrible twos don’t necessarily occur right when your child turns 2. The terrible twos generally begin anywhere from 18 to 30 months of age, and, despite what the name implies, can last well into the third year of life.
While tantrums can certainly still happen after your child turns 3, they often become less frequent by then.
Read on to learn more about what to expect and how to manage the terrible twos.
Toddlerhood is a stage that spans from about the ages of 1 to 3. It’s full of intellectual and physical growth. Your child is starting to:
- have opinions
- learn about emotions
- understand (if not master) how to share and take turns
During this stage, your child will naturally want to explore their environment and have and do what they want on their own terms. That’s all normal and expected behavior.
But because their verbal, physical, and emotional skills aren’t well-developed, your child can easily become frustrated when they fail to adequately communicate or perform a task.
The following are examples of situations that may cause frustration for a 2-year-old:
- Your child likely won’t have the language skills to clearly indicate what they want.
- They may not have the patience to wait their turn.
- They may overestimate their hand-eye coordination and not be able to pour their own milk or catch a ball, even though they desperately want to.
You’ll know your child has entered the terrible twos not so much by their birth certificate but by their behavior. Since frustration levels are high in the average young child, you’re apt to notice the following:
Tantrums can range from mild whining to all-out hysterical meltdowns. In addition to crying during a tantrum, your child might get physical, which may include:
- throwing things
While the tantrums may seem never-ending while in the midst of one, according to results from a 2003 study, an estimated 75 percent of tantrums in kids 18 to 60 months last five minutes or less.
Tantrums are equally common in boys and girls.
Every day, your child is gaining new skills and abilities. It’s natural for your child to want to test those skills and abilities. This can lead to your child objecting to things they used to be OK with, like holding their hand to cross the street or helping them put on their clothes or climb the playground slide.
As your child develops more independence, they may begin to insist on doing more for themselves, whether they’re developmentally capable of completing the task or not. They may also suddenly decide that they want you to help do things they’ve already mastered.
One minute your child may be happy and loving, the next screaming, crying, and miserable. It’s all a byproduct of the frustration that comes from wanting to do things themselves without the skills necessary to understand or negotiate them.
Is it the terrible twos, or a behavioral issue?
How do you know when your child is experiencing the terrible twos or behavior that points to something more serious, like a mental health condition?
One looked at temper tantrums in preschool aged-children (3 to 6 years old) and noted when the tantrums might suggest a mood or conduct disorder. Signs to look for include:
- tantrums that consistently (more than half the time) include hitting, kicking, biting, or other forms of physical violence toward the parent or caretaker
- tantrums in which the child tries to injure themselves
- frequent tantrums, defined as tantrums that occur 10 to 20 times a day
- tantrums that last longer than 25 minutes, on average
- an inability of the child to ultimately calm themselves
Keep in mind the study looked at children older than 2. These types of tantrums may be concerning if they persist as your child gets older, but they’re not necessarily concerning as part of the terrible twos.
The tantrums and defiance that come with the terrible twos are normal, but if you feel like the behavior is getting out of hand or you simply are overwhelmed, talk to your child’s pediatrician.
You can also seek professional help if teachers or caretakers suggest something is wrong or you notice your child is:
- withdrawn or not seeking attention from others
- not making eye contact
- particularly aggressive or argumentative
- violent or tries to injure themselves or others
- creating a lot of household stress
Your child’s doctor can give you tips for correcting the behavior and advise you if it’s necessary to get a mental health evaluation.
Some that might predispose a child to more aggressive behavior are:
- being exposed to alcohol in the womb
- being exposed to violence at a young age
- naturally having a difficult temperament
Whether it comes at 18 months or 3 years of age, most young kids — at least in the Western world, where there are certain societal expectations for children’s behavior — will display some signs of the terrible twos.
Kids at this age are developing independence and a sense of self. It’s reasonable to assume their views and expectations won’t always match up with yours.
Still, some children will breeze through the terrible twos with less tantrums than others. This is especially the case if they have advanced language skills, which help them express themselves more clearly and cut down on frustration.
Parents and caregivers can also help by avoiding some common meltdown triggers. For example, keeping a child up past their normal bedtime or trying to run errands with a hungry child can trigger mood swings or tantrums.
The terrible twos can sometimes roll into the terrible threes. But by the time a child is 4, they usually have enough language and motor development to express themselves, understand instructions, and follow rules set by teachers and caregivers.
Research has found 20 percent of 2-year-olds have one tantrum a day, yet only 10 percent of 4-year-olds do.
To help your child (and yourself) through the terrible twos, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following:
- Keep regular meal and sleep schedules. Less desirable behavior is more likely to happen when your child is tired or hungry.
- Praise behaviors you approve of and ignore ones you want to discourage.
- Don’t spank or hit, and try to avoid yelling. You want to model nonviolent behavior for your child.
- Redirect or distract when you can. Point out something funny or interesting when your child starts to whine or misbehave.
- Keep rules simple and offer brief explanations. For example, tell your child they have to hold your hand when they cross the street because you don’t want a car to hurt them.
- Let your child have some control by offering a choice between two things. For example, you might say “Would you like to wear your blue sweater or yellow jacket today?”
- Keep your toddler’s home environment safe. If you don’t want them getting into something, put it out of sight if you can.
- Don’t give in. Set your limits and be consistent. If that means your child has a full-blown tantrum in the grocery store because you won’t buy a candy bar, simply remove your child from the situation and wait until things calm down. You won’t be the first parent to leave a full cart in a random aisle.
- Stay calm. Your child will feed off your stress. Count to 10 or take a deep breath, whatever helps you to keep your cool.
The terrible twos, which can actually extend into the threes and even fours, are a normal developmental phase. The tantrums and unruly behavior can be trying, but there are steps you can take to manage your child’s behavior.
Don’t hesitate to consult with your child’s doctor if you feel you need help or you’re worried something might be wrong.