I've heard a lot about the terrible twos. Why are 2-year-olds so difficult?
Answer From Jay L. Hoecker, M.D.
The term "terrible twos" has long been used to describe the changes that parents often observe in 2-year-old children. A parent may perceive this age as terrible because of the rapid shifts in a child's mood and behaviors — and the difficulty of dealing with them. One minute your child might be clinging to you, and the next he or she is running in the opposite direction.
These changes, however challenging, are a normal part of child development. Two-year-olds undergo major motor, intellectual, social and emotional changes. Also, children at this age can understand much more speech than they can express — a factor that contributes to emotions and behaviors that are difficult for parents to interpret.
Two-year-olds are struggling with their reliance on their parents and their desire for independence. They're eager to do things on their own, but they're beginning to discover that they're expected to follow certain rules. The difficulty of this normal development can lead to inappropriate behavior, frustration, out-of-control feelings and tantrums.
During this time, expect that you and your child will occasionally lose patience with each other. Try to stay calm. When your child begins to get worked up, try to redirect his or her attention. If you can't distract your child, ignore him or her.
If you're in public, take your child aside without discussion or fuss and wait until he or she has calmed down before continuing with your activity. Also, consider avoiding challenging situations — such as going shopping during your child's nap time — and be sure to praise your child for appropriate behavior.
By accepting the changes your child is going through and showing him or her love and respect, you'll help your child make it through this difficult stage with confidence.
Feb. 23, 2022
- Shelov SP, et al. Your two-year-old. In: Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5. 6th ed. New York, N.Y.: Bantam Books; 2014.
- Hoecker JL (expert opinion). Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. March 6, 2019.