What to Expect, Plus 9 Tips to Get You Through It

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 can begin anywhere between 18 and 30 months of your child’s age and can continue well into the third year of your child’s life, despite the name.

Tantrums are still possible after your child turns 3.

Continue reading to learn more about the worst twos and what to do.

Toddlerhood spans the ages of about 1 to 3. It’s full of intellectual and physical growth. Your child is beginning to:

  • Walk
  • Talk
  • Have your say
  • Learn about emotions
  • Learn how to share and take turns, if not masterfully

This stage is when your child will be naturally curious about their surroundings and want to do and see what they want. 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.

Here are some examples of situations that could frustrate a 2-year-old.

  • Your child likely won’t have the language skills to clearly indicate what they want.
  • They might not be able to wait their turn.
  • They may underestimate their hand-eye coordination and be unable to pour their own milk, or catch a ball.

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 in intensity from mild whining and full-blown meltdowns. A tantrum can also cause your child to cry.

  • hitting
  • kicking
  • Biting
  • Throwing things

Although tantrums seem endless when they are in full swing, a 2003 study found that 75 percent of tantrums in children between 18 and 60 months last for five minutes or less.

Tantrums are common in both boys and women.


Every day, your child learns new skills and abilities. It’s natural for your child to want to test those skills and abilities. This can cause your child to object to things they were used to, such as holding their hand when crossing the street or helping them to 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.

Mood swings

One moment your child may be happy, loving, and content, but the next, they might be 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 twenties or a behavioral issue

How do you know if your child is suffering from the terrible twos or exhibiting behavior that could indicate a more serious condition, such as a mental health problem?

One 2008 study examined temper tantrums in preschool-aged children (3 to 6 years) and identified when they might indicate a mood disorder or conduct disorder. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Tantrums that occur more than half the time include hitting, biting, and kicking the parent or caregiver.
  • Tantrums in which the child tries injure himself
  • Frequent tantrums are those that occur between 10 and 20 times per day.
  • Tantrums that last more than 25 minutes on average
  • A child’s inability to calm down.

Remember that the study only looked at children aged 2 and older. 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.

If teachers or caregivers suspect something is wrong with your child, or you notice that your child is not doing well, you can seek professional help.

  • Retired or not seeking attention from other people
  • Do not make eye contact
  • Particularly aggressive or argumentative
  • You are violent or you try to injure yourself or others
  • Stress can cause a lot in your household

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 factors that could lead to aggressive behavior in a child include:

  • Being exposed to alcohol in the womb
  • Being exposed to violence young in life
  • A difficult temperament is natural.

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.

These children are becoming independent and self-sufficient at an early age. It’s reasonable to assume their views and expectations won’t always match up with yours.

Some children will get through the worst twos with fewer tantrums than others. This is especially true for children who have developed language skills that help them express themselves better and reduce frustration.

Parents and caregivers can help avoid common meltdown triggers. Tendencies to keep a child awake past their bedtime, or run errands while a hungry child is around can cause mood swings or tantrums.

Sometimes, the terrible twos can turn into the terrible threes. By the age of 4, a child usually has enough language and motor skills to communicate with their caregivers and understand instructions.

Research shows that 20 percent of 2-year olds experience one tantrum per day, while only 10% of 4-year-olds do.

The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests the following to help your child and yourself through the difficult twos:

  1. Regularly schedule your child’s meals and sleep hours. If your child is tired or hungry, you are more likely to see less desirable behavior.
  2. Be kind to people you like, and avoid those you don’t.
  3. Don’t spank or hit, and try to avoid yelling. You want to model nonviolent behavior in your child.
  4. When possible, redirect or distract your child. If your child starts whining or acting out, point out something fun or interesting.
  5. Keep the rules simple, and explain them briefly. 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.
  6. Give your child some choice by allowing them to choose between two options. For example, you might say “Would you like to wear your blue sweater or yellow jacket today?”
  7. Keep your toddler’s home environment safe. If you don’t want them getting into something, put it out of sight if you can.
  8. Don’t give in. Be firm and consistent with your boundaries. 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.
  9. Keep calm. Your stress will be a source of stress for your child. Keep your cool by counting to 10, taking a deep breath, or counting to 10.

The horrible twos, which can sometimes extend into the threes or even fours, are normal developmental phases. 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.

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