The terrible twos

You may have expected it to happen sooner or later: the terrible twos – when your sweet and adorable toddler morphs into a defiant, tantrum-prone tornado. Find out what causes the terrible twos and how long this phase could last; and pick up some pointers on coping with the tantrums and defiant behaviour.

What Is the ‘Terrible Twos’?

This period in your toddler’s development may be known as the terrible twos, but in fact it often starts well before your child’s second birthday, at around the age of 18 months. As your baby becomes more and more independent – walking, learning to talk and pushing back on the boundaries of his or her world – your little one may also start to test the limits of what’s permitted. The resulting battles can lead to tantrums and defiant behaviour. The ‘symptoms’ of the terrible twos can seem to pop out of nowhere: One minute your toddler may be clinging to you like a barnacle or playing happily, the next he or she could be disobeying you, stamping, screaming or even hitting and biting. Although this phase can be challenging, it’s a normal and important part of your child’s emotional and social development. And – although sometimes it can be a difficult thought to hold on to – it can help to remember that it’s just a passing phase.

What Causes the Terrible Twos?

Just like you, your child sometimes gets tired, hungry, excited, annoyed or just in need of a little love and attention. Unlike you, however, your toddler is not yet capable of expressing or controlling his or her feelings like an older child or grown-up. This can cause frustration that comes out as a tantrum. The peak time for these tantrums is when your child is a toddler, around the age of 2 years old – hence the name ‘terrible twos’.

How Long Do the Terrible Twos Last?

Every child has a different temperament and their own unique personality, so it’s hard to say for certain when your toddler will start to show signs of the terrible twos or when things will start to settle down again. As a general rule, though, the tantrums may start to subside once your child gets better at talking. This makes it easier for your toddler to express his or her needs and feelings to you using words, not tantrums. The tantrums will usually be few and far between by the time your child is around 4 years old. In the meantime, there’s a lot you can do to help your child through this period.

10 Tips for Coping With the Terrible Twos

Here are some guidelines and techniques for dealing with the terrible twos:

  1. Set boundaries. Although it may not feel like it when they’re being tested, the boundaries you set are very important for helping your child feel safe and secure. Pushing back against these boundaries during the terrible twos period is your toddler’s way of learning to understand the world and him or herself.

  2. Be consistent. It's important to respond to your child's actions by acknowledging and encouraging good behaviour and discouraging misbehaviour in a way that isn't harsh or physical. Make sure that you (and other people who care for your child) are on the same page when it comes to the rules you set and how you respond when they’re broken. Don’t let your toddler do one thing today, then tell him or her off for the same thing tomorrow.

  3. Have realistic expectations. Don’t expect your toddler to understand complicated instructions or know the likely consequences of every action. Leaving a breakable family heirloom within reach of your two-year-old isn’t a good idea, for example, as you can’t really expect him or her to understand that it isn’t a toy to be dropped, thrown or banged on the floor.

  4. Give clear instructions. If you’re asking your child to do something, make sure the instructions are clear and specific. For example, instead of saying ‘tidy your room please’, try asking your toddler to put all the building blocks back in their box.

  5. Show the way. If you toddler breaks a rule, show what he or she could have done instead. If your child prefers drawing on the walls to paper, set up a blackboard or whiteboard and show your little artist that it’s fine to draw on this but not on the walls.

  6. Be affectionate. Love and warmth are very important during this time, and always keep in mind that children learn by copying you. If you’re considerate and affectionate towards your child and other people it not only makes your child feel loved, wanted and secure, it also sets a great example.

  7. Choose your battles. Only make strict rules and demands that are genuinely important. Pulling the cat’s tail or playing with scissors is obviously a big no-no, but for other things it can be good for your little one to practice making his or her own decisions – for example, whether to wear the red or the yellow T-shirt. Some minor acts of naughtiness are also best ignored – overreacting to small mischiefs can reinforce the idea that ‘playing up’ is an easy way of getting attention.

  8. Don’t just say ‘no’. Constantly hearing the word ‘no’ can cause frustration to build up in you toddler. Try answering some questions with ‘yes’ more often, even if it there’s a small catch: ‘Yes, we can go to the playground tomorrow’, or ‘OK, we’ll do that after we’ve tidied your room’. This also helps your little one learn about making compromises.

  9. Don’t resort to harsh or physical punishment. Smacking or shouting is counterproductive. Besides making your child scared of you, it teaches him or her that the way to deal with strong emotions is by lashing out. A better strategy is to focus on solutions and ways of making amends. For example: ‘You’ve thrown your food on the floor. Now you’ll just have to help clean it up.’

  10. Praise good behaviour. Your toddler craves your attention, so praising things he or she does will encourage more of that kind of behaviour. It helps to say what it is that you’re pleased about: ‘Thank you for putting your bath toys back on their shelf’ is better than a simple ‘Well done!’

Dealing With Terrible Twos Tantrums

Temper tantrums are common in young children from the age of around 18 months. They can be hard to deal with sometimes – especially when they happen in the middle of the supermarket – but they’re also a normal part of your little one’s emotional development. You may be able to see one coming: Your child might be upset or more irritable than usual, or feeling tired, lonely or hungry. To help prevent some of these outbursts, pay extra attention to your child's moods and try to avoid situations that may lead to a tantrum. For example, taking your toddler on several errands without stops for play and snacks could be fertile ground for a tantrum. Shopping can be a tiring experience for a small child – it’s no coincidence that toddlers often have tantrums in shops – precisely when there are lots of people around to watch. And having an audience can also make it harder for you to stay calm yourself. To lower the chances of this happening, keep shopping trips with your child as short as possible. It can also help to get your toddler involved by helping you choose items or put them in the basket. Despite your best efforts, though, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to prevent tantrums altogether. Here are some tips for dealing with these outbursts when they do occur:

  • Find out what’s behind the tantrum. Talk to your child, try to find out the source of his or her frustration. If your toddler’s tired or hungry, a healthy snack or a rest and a hug might be enough to restore harmony to his or her world.

  • Try distracting your child. If you think a tantrum is brewing, try and pre-empt it by finding something to take his or her mind off it. Pointing something out like a cat or aeroplane can do the trick, or you could suggest playing a fun game like I-spy.

  • Ignore the tantrum. It takes a bit of willpower, especially if passers-by are giving you disapproving looks, but keeping a cool head and waiting for the tantrum to fizzle out by itself is often the best policy. Shouting or losing your temper could make the tantrum last longer.

  • Hold your child firmly. This doesn’t work for everyone in every situation, but it may help when your child is upset rather than angry. Keep in mind, though, that a struggling child can be difficult to hold on to.

How to Deal With Hitting, Biting or Kicking

It’s not unusual for toddlers to bite, shove, kick or hit you or another child during the terrible twos. It could be out of frustration or even just curiosity – your child might not understand yet that hair-pulling or scratching causes pain. Try these tips to help your toddler understand that physical aggression isn’t acceptable:

  • Don’t retaliate. Hitting, biting or kicking back is always a bad idea, as it teaches your child that this is an acceptable response.

  • Talk to your toddler. Your little one may be feeling upset or insecure but can’t find another way to express these feelings. Knowing what’s bothering your child will make it easier to help him or her learn how to deal with strong emotions. A good way to get started is to give your toddler a name for what he or she is feeling. For example: ‘I think you’re sad’ or ‘Are you cross because the playground’s closing?’

  • Show you disapprove of the behaviour, not your child. It’s important to show that you still love your child, it’s just the kicking and scratching (or other aggressive behaviour) you don’t approve of. So, instead of just saying ‘You’re naughty’, focus on the actions and their consequences: ‘It hurts your little brother when you pull his hair’.

  • Help your child find another outlet for strong feelings. Make it clear that you understand how your little one feels – ‘I know you’re angry...’ – and encourage him or her to let off steam in a harmless way. For example, running around and shouting in a big open space like a park.

When to Seek Help

The terrible twos can be difficult at times, but usually it’s just a passing phase that’s essential for your toddler’s emotional growth and development. However, if frequent tantrums continue beyond the age of 4 years old, or if you have any other concerns about your child’s behaviour, don’t be shy about asking your health visitor or doctor for help or advice. It’s also important to look after yourself and your own emotional wellbeing. You may be able to rely on your family and friends for support and help. Still, if you feel anxious, depressed or unable to cope with the terrible twos, your health visitor or doctor will be able to help you find the support you need.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

  • Here are some ways of coping with the terrible twos:

    • Remind yourself that your child isn’t being terrible on purpose or to spite you – this is just a normal (and temporary) stage in your toddler’s development
    • Set clear boundaries and be consistent about keeping to them
    • Have realistic expectations; don’t expect your toddler to understand and follow complicated or unrealistic instructions
    • Try and find out what’s behind any tantrums – often your little one might just be tired or hungry
    • Stay calm. If your child hits, kicks or bites, don’t hit back
    • Praise good behaviour regularly.
  • Your toddler may

    • act more independently and defiantly
    • have emotional outbursts and throw tantrums
    • go from being clingy one minute to having a tantrum the next
    • hit, kick or bite you or other children.
  • Your child may be temperamental, defiant and prone to outbursts during the ‘terrible twos’.

  • The tantrums that characterise the phase known as the ‘terrible twos’ are usually far less frequent by the time your child is around 4 years old.

The Bottom Line

You probably weren’t expecting parenthood to be plain sailing all the time; but coping with the terrible twos can be especially challenging, exhausting and frustrating at times. Still, however bad (or terrible) things get, know that it’s not your fault. Just because your toddler can be hard to control at times, that doesn’t make you a bad parent. And it’s not all bad, so try to keep sight of the pluses of toddlerhood: This is also a time of learning and exploration for your toddler and you, with plenty of high points, new development milestones and discoveries. Once this this phase is over, you'll finally have some time to relax – that is, until you get to the next challenging phase . . . such as the teenage years. By then you may be reminiscing fondly about what an angel he or she was as a toddler, and this period won’t seem so terrible after all!

How we wrote this article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the National Health Service (NHS). You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.