May 22, 2023

Introduction: Dealing with Terrible Twos

Raising kids is hard. Why do we need to have an entire year that’s known for being especially difficult? If you’re expecting your first child, or if they are flying through the first year of life, then you might be hearing about the “terrible twos.” You just got over the first few humps, and now you need to learn how to deal with the terrible twos?

Those with older kids love to tell younger parents about how easy the first year is (once babies start sleeping through the night). In reality, every stage has ups and downs - there’s no perfect age. 

Even so, kids do hit a period of significant developmental milestones somewhere around 24 months. The combination of new skills, social awareness, and parental rules all play a part in a higher rate of tantrums or increased emotional sensitivity. 

In this article, we’ll help you understand what this stage is, when it’s likely to strike, and how to deal with the terrible twos. 

What are the Terrible Twos?

Here’s a short answer for “what are the terrible twos”: the terrible twos are a period of time when your child becomes uncharacteristically fussy, picky, combative, sensitive, or otherwise ill-tempered.

To many parents, the terrible twos might seem like a sudden change of character for their child. Normally sweet, passive, and curious, your child might be more stubborn, irritable, and easily frustrated. 

So, what’s the deal? What happens overnight to cause such a dramatic change?

Well, the changes often don’t happen overnight. Instead, they arrive over a series of several weeks and months as your child takes on new developmental challenges and discovers new abilities. 

In reality, the terrible twos are a unique combination of an overwhelming amount of “new.” These are just a few of the new things your child is probably starting to do between the ages of 2-3:

  1. Walking.
  2. Talking.
  3. Social awareness.
  4. Eat independently.
  5. Sleep independently. 
  6. Eating new foods. 
  7. Discipline and boundaries at home and daycare.
  8. Potty training.
  9. Much more. 

Imagine if, as an adult, you had to do any of the following:

  1. Learn a new language. 
  2. Develop advanced social skills.
  3. Understand how to do an entirely new job every several weeks. 
  4. Try new foods every few days, some of which might not make you feel great.

Now imagine that you had to do all of these at one time. And, add to all of these challenges the fact that you don’t know how to speak much or at all - which makes expressing yourself exhausting and really hard!

Depending on your family’s situation, your child might start attending daycare more regularly of different versions of pre-school. This is another huge contributor to changes in behavior. New influences, observations, and an increasing amount of time spent away from mom and/or dad can all throw kids off big time. 

Dealing with Terrible Twos: When do They Strike?

Now you’re probably wondering “how to deal with the terrible twos?” You won’t be able to perfectly predict exactly when behavior challenges will start. So, don’t try. And don’t feel nervous if your child seems to be on a different developmental schedule.

In most cases, what parents call the terrible twos appear somewhere between 18-30 months of age. Speaking from experience, I can tell you that younger children who are close in age to a toddler may exhibit terrible two behavior earlier. Why? Because they are observing their older sibling(s) go through the terrible twos and, of course, they want to test the limits too. Fun! There is one advantage here, though. Rules can apply to all, not just the toddler. This will help your younger child get used to non-negotiable boundaries.  

If the terrible twos showed up with no warning, don’t worry. Most parents don’t see them coming. For one thing, the first year or two is usually a fairly easy period of parenting. For parents, the challenges during the first 12-16 months are often more physical and less emotional. 

For example, a 1-year-old can scooch around the floor or crawl from one area to another, but they won’t run straight away from you toward the stairs or a busy road. Once kids start walking, they’re able to make decisions more independently. This means that discipline and rules become much more important. To some parents, rule enforcement feels more tiring than the “simpler” challenges that come with sleep training, breastfeeding, etc.

Regardless of if and when your child starts showing signs of terrible two behavior, it will help to be prepared and to know some of the signs that developmental stages could be right around the corner.

How do You Know the Terrible Twos Have Arrived?

So, things have started to change and you think the terrible twos have finally arrived. How can you be sure?

Any of these signs are good indicators that the terrible twos are coming on quickly:

  • Activities that were once easy (bathtime, teeth brushing, etc.) are now very unpredictable.
  • Your child is acting very attached to one or both parents and doesn’t want to be alone.
  • Unforeseen meltdowns or tantrums when plans change or your child is asked to do something else (i.e., listen to instructions).
  • Mealtime has become a game of “what else is there to eat?” 

Knowing the signs of terrible two behavior is one thing, addressing it well is another.

How to Deal With the Terrible Twos

There’s no cureall for bad behavior. But, the right approach and mitigation techniques can go a long way toward helping you and your child avoid breakdowns and unnecessary frustration. 

Here are five ways that you can compassionately and effectively fight terrible two behavior:

  1. Remain calm and exercise an abundance of patience. Your child going to push boundaries, and that’s just a fact. This doesn’t mean that they’re trying to hurt your feelings. Waiting a few moments before you respond is not the same as letting bad behavior slide.
  2. Be consistent with discipline for tantrums. Changing the rules, switching how you discipline, and selectively enforcing certain standards can be incredibly confusing to young children. Over time, your child will learn what’s acceptable and what’s not.
  3. Stick to known and proven routines. If something worked before, stick with it - from mealtime to bedtime. 
  4. Limit the presence of toys or other engaging distractions that might overstimulate. Try cleaning up the toy area(s), reducing the number of available options, and focusing on Montessori-style toys that promote independent, imaginative play.
  5. Eliminate physical variables like hunger or boredom when possible, so you know what’s purely behavioral. Keep snacks and toys or books handy to help entertain and even distract your child in healthy ways. Even for young kids, options like audio books can be a great option for parents who want to limit screen time. 

What Do You Do When Dealing with Terrible Twos?

So what are the terrible twos? Well, what we call the terrible twos is a combination of so many things, and it’s not just your child’s desire to frustrate you or test the limits. Taking time to understand what triggers your child will help you control your own response. Staying patient when things escalate is critical for helping your child feel calm and safe. Most importantly, remember that with a good strategy and consistent routines, this stage will pass!

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