Just when you thought you’d crossed the finish line—your toddler is finally sleeping through the night, and those exhausting newborn days are a distant memory. Now, onto the terrible twos.
You exhale, ready to enjoy this newfound sense of normalcy.
But wait, what’s this? Your once-placid child is now a whirlwind of big emotions, throwing toddler tantrums at the drop of a hat.
Welcome to the terrible twos, a stage that can catch even the most prepared parents off guard.
What are terrible twos
This stage is called terrible twos because such behaviors often emerge when a child turns two and starts walking.
The term “terrible” is a bit of a misnomer; it’s not that children are terrible, but that their behavior can be perplexing and difficult for parents to manage.
Terrible twos behavior includes emotional meltdowns, defiance and opposition, and separation anxiety. It is a normal part of a child’s development as young toddlers become more independent and assertive but lack the ability to communicate their needs or regulate their big feelings.
What causes terrible twos
The terrible twos stage is influenced by a combination of factors that intertwine as toddlers grow.
At this age, the child’s brain and body are rapidly growing. They begin to grasp their individuality, realizing they are distinct from their caregivers.
This newfound understanding sparks a strong desire for independence. It’s an exciting time for them. Their insatiable curiosity also drives them to explore their surroundings constantly.
However, their increased mobility can sometimes lead them into situations they’re not prepared for, resulting in frustration for both the child and the caregiver.
While their comprehension of the world expands, their communication ability lags.
This often leads to moments of exasperation when they can’t communicate their needs, desires, or emotions.
Their emotional world is also becoming more vibrant and filled with intense feelings.
Physical factors, like the discomfort of teething, can also heighten their irritability.
Yet, they lack the maturity and tools to regulate these emotions, leading to outbursts, tantrums, and inevitable power struggles.
A significant aspect of child development is boundary testing. As toddlers understand their environment, they challenge limits to gauge reactions and consequences.
Disruptions in routine, whether they’re shifts in sleep patterns or transitions to new environments, can also easily tip the balance, resulting in heightened crankiness or more frequent tantrums.
How long do terrible twos last
Terrible twos tantrums are most common in children between the ages of 18 months and 4 years.1
About 20% of two-year-olds, 18% of three-year-olds, and 10% of four-year-olds have daily tantrums.2
A study found that roughly half of the families notice a drop in tantrums by the time children turn five. But for the other half, the challenge continues.3
Now, why does this happen?
As children grow, simply meeting their basic physical needs is no longer enough. Their psychological needs change, and they start experiencing strong emotions, especially when they are unmet.
While many parents brush off the terrible 2 as just a developmental phase that’ll pass, it’s a crucial time when children start to learn about emotional regulation.
Children aren’t born knowing how to regulate their emotions. They need to learn it.
Early childhood is a golden window, sometimes called the sensitive or critical period, where they’re best equipped to learn these new skills. But if they don’t get the right guidance or chances to practice, some might not move past this so-called “phase.”
So, the good news is “how long it lasts” is all about teaching and guiding them through these toddler years.
How to deal with terrible twos
Calm yourself and reframe your perspective
Instead of viewing terrible twos tantrums as truly “terrible,” see them as essential learning opportunities for your child.
Just as toddlers need to fall occasionally when learning to walk to understand how to get back up, they also need to express their emotions to learn emotional regulation.
When your toddler has a meltdown, shift your mindset from “Oh no, not again” to “This is a chance for me to guide them in understanding and managing their feelings.”
So, take a deep breath.
Embrace these moments as teachable ones, helping your child navigate their emotions and grow stronger from them.
This positive perspective can also help you regulate your own emotions.
Redirect before the outburst
Redirecting their attention before a tantrum fully escalates can be highly effective for toddlers. At this age, children are naturally curious and can be easily distracted.
If you notice signs of a tantrum, such as increased fussiness or frustration, quickly introduce a new activity, toy, or environment.
This could be as simple as pointing out a bird outside, offering a different toy, or moving to a new room.
By diverting their focus, you can often prevent the onset of a full-blown tantrum and help your child transition to a more positive state of mind.
Act swiftly and offer an engaging alternative before emotions escalate too far.
If a child displays dangerous behavior, intervene immediately to halt such actions.
Children with aggressive behavior may need to be moved to a safe place to prevent them from hurting themselves or others.
Acknowledge and Attune
One effective way to soothe a distressed child is to let them know you understand their feelings. When children feel heard and validated, they are more likely to calm down.
Begin by acknowledging their emotions and attuning to them with genuine empathy.4
For instance, if they’re upset about not being allowed to touch something potentially dangerous, you might say, “I see you’re really upset because I didn’t let you touch the hot pot. It might have felt like I was yelling at you, didn’t it?”
Accompany your words with empathetic body language.
Displaying a concerned facial expression, maintaining soft eye contact, and using a calm voice to reflect that you understand their emotions, even though you may disagree with them.
Create a safe space for your child to process their feelings rather than invalidating them with phrases like “Don’t cry.”
Foster emotion regulation
Young children may struggle with self-soothing and regulating intense emotions. Even if they want to calm down, they might not yet have the tools or mechanisms to achieve it.
We can step in to provide that support. One of the best ways is through physical contact.
A simple gesture, like a gentle hug or holding their hand, can offer comfort and security.5
This tactile connection can help ground them, reduce their distress, and guide them toward a more peaceful state. We can be the anchor during these emotional storms, helping them learn and practice emotion regulation.
Teach, not just quiet
Keep in mind that the goal is to help our little ones learn how to handle their emotions, not just to stop the immediate tantrum. If we only focus on getting them to stop crying or punishing bad behavior, we’re bound to feel frustrated when it doesn’t happen right away.
Just like how they took their time learning to walk, understanding and managing emotions is a journey that requires patience and practice.
By keeping a teaching mindset, we can guide them in developing these essential skills rather than feeling at our wit’s end when they don’t instantly calm down.
It’s all about the bigger picture and setting them up for emotional success in the long run.
Once they’ve fully settled, teach them how to use words to express their feelings and needs. Language development is associated with fewer tantrums, healthier development, and better academic performance later in life.6
Discuss acceptable ways or alternative perspectives on the situation they faced.
These are crucial life skills, and it’s our role to impart them. Leaving them to figure things out on their own could lead them down the wrong path and risk developing maladaptive behaviors.
During everyday life, you can also teach appropriate behavior by setting boundaries and using positive reinforcement on good behavior.
A consistent routine and structure can also teach toddlers what to expect and reduce triggers and confusion.
Language delays can be a source of ongoing frustration for children. Consult a child development specialist as soon as possible if you suspect your child is having difficulty developing communication skills. See When do babies start to talk.
Also See: 3 Year Old Tantrums
What comes after terrible twos
When terrible twos end and what comes after them depends on both the parenting approach during this challenging stage and the child’s temperament.
Children with an easy temperament may seamlessly move into the next developmental stage, while others with a more reactive temperament may require continued guidance and support.
But the parenting approach also plays a pivotal role.
Relying on harsh disciplinary measures, like spanking, can leave lasting scars on a toddler’s development.
Children exposed to such severe methods may struggle to move past the “terrible twos,” potentially leading to behavioral challenges and even severe disorders like oppositional defiant disorder (ODD).
Families that consistently resort to harsh parenting techniques can be trapped in a coercive cycle.
This cycle often involves escalating power struggles between the parent and child, leading to a dysfunctional family dynamic. Over time, this strained parent-child relationship can further exacerbate behavioral problems in children.
On the brighter side, parents prioritizing teaching their children self-regulation skills lay the foundation for positive emotional development and overall well-being.
Instead of anxiously anticipating another challenging phase, parents can find solace by focusing on nurturing a robust, positive relationship with their child and fostering healthy emotional regulation.
Terrible twos tantrum is a normal part of your child as they grow. Research shows positive perception toward children is associated with better parent-child interactions, language skills, and mental health.7
Improved parent-child relationships can also reduce defiant behavior in children.8
The bottom line is this proactive approach paves the way for a more harmonious family life and a well-adjusted child.
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- 2.Daniels E, Mandleco B, Luthy KE. Assessment, management, and prevention of childhood temper tantrums. Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. Published online July 2, 2012:569-573. doi:10.1111/j.1745-7599.2012.00755.x
- 3.Österman K, Björkqvist K. A Cross-Sectional Study of Onset, Cessation, Frequency, and Duration of Children’s Temper Tantrums in a Nonclinical Sample. Psychol Rep. Published online April 2010:448-454. doi:10.2466/pr0.106.2.448-454
- 4.Dombrowski SC, Timmer SG, Blacker DM, Urquiza AJ. A positive behavioural intervention for toddlers: parent-child attunement therapy. Child Abuse Review. Published online 2005:132-151. doi:10.1002/car.888
- 5.Hertenstein MJ, Holmes R, McCullough M, Keltner D. The communication of emotion via touch. Emotion. Published online 2009:566-573. doi:10.1037/a0016108
- 6.Girard LC, Pingault JB, Doyle O, Falissard B, Tremblay RE. Developmental Associations Between Conduct Problems and Expressive Language in Early Childhood: A Population-Based Study. J Abnorm Child Psychol. Published online October 26, 2015:1033-1043. doi:10.1007/s10802-015-0094-8
- 7.Glascoe FP, Leew S. Parenting Behaviors, Perceptions, and Psychosocial Risk: Impacts on Young Children’s Development. Pediatrics. Published online February 1, 2010:313-319. doi:10.1542/peds.2008-3129
- 8.Homem TC, Gaspar MF, Santos MJS, Azevedo AF, Canavarro MC. Incredible Years Parent Training: Does it Improve Positive Relationships in Portuguese Families of Preschoolers with Oppositional/Defiant Symptoms? J Child Fam Stud. Published online May 31, 2014:1861-1875. doi:10.1007/s10826-014-9988-2