Skip to main content

Are the terrible twos really that terrible?

The terrible twos are coming - are you prepared? How did toddlers get the bad reputation?

Toddler refuses to eat
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Rocker Joan Jett doesn’t give a darn about her bad reputation. So why should new parents worry about the terrible twos? Babies enter the toddler stage when they celebrate their first birthday. Toddlers are between the ages of 1 and 3. When your little one turns 3 years old, they become a preschooler. Toddlers, particularly 2-year-olds, have long had the reputation for being “terrible.” Where does that bad reputation come from and are the terrible twos really that awful? Well, that depends.

The terrible twos

The terrible twos are a stage of development for young children that typically happens from 18 months of age through 30 months. Tantrums or meltdowns, defiance, and frustration usually characterize the terrible twos. The tantrums and meltdowns often occur because toddlers are frustrated. This developmental stage between 1 and 3 is a big one. Toddlers are growing both intellectually, physically, and emotionally. There is a lot to take in. Since toddlers’ language skills are developing, too, they don’t have the communication skills to express how they’re feeling.

“No” and “mine” are words parents of toddlers hear quite a bit. That’s because toddlers don’t necessarily want to do what you want them to do. Toddlers also want to be independent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention explains that it’s your toddler’s desire to do things for themselves that earns them the terrible twos rep.

Toddlers also are learning to understand the concepts of sharing and taking turns. Without the language to express why a toddler doesn’t want to leave the park or let a sibling have a favorite toy, frustration occurs. Frustration then turns to tears and sometimes full-blown tantrums. Parents have all experienced tantrums at one time or another. Meltdowns are a big part of why 2-year-olds get the reputation for being terrible. The Mayo Clinic defines a tantrum as the way toddlers show frustration with their lack of language to explain what they want or need. What about the terrible threes, though (also known as threenagers)?

The terrible twos aren’t just for 2-year-olds

Some parents may tell you it’s not 2-year-olds you need to be concerned about, it’s 3-year-olds. Others may say the terrible twos lived up to their reputation with their toddler. The truth is, the terrible twos aren’t defined by the number of birthdays a child has. Behaviors earning the terrible twos label can actually occur from 18 months until around 4 years of age. The reason is the terrible twos are developmental and kids are individuals. One toddler’s terrible twos is another preschooler’s terrible threes.

An upset toddler child sitting on the floor in the kitchen.

How to know if a child is in the terrible twos

The terrible twos are characterized by tantrums. All tantrums aren’t the same, however. Some are mild while others explode into head-turning meltdowns. Sometimes tantrums amp up quickly depending on the frustration level of the child and can get physical with biting, hitting, and kicking. Besides tantrums, terrible twos behaviors can include irritability, mood swings, fighting with siblings or friends, yelling, or throwing things. Jennifer Katzenstein, Ph.D., is the Director of Psychology and Neuropsychology at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. Katzenstein says temper tantrums are a normal part of a toddler’s development.

Surviving the terrible twos

Once the terrible twos hit, know that as a parent, you will weather the storm. Keep these tips in mind to help manage the turbulence ahead.

  • Have a set sleep schedule. Tired kids get frustrated quicker.
  • Try to have a regular meal schedule. Like being tired, hungry kids have short tempers.
  • Have healthy snacks on hand if you know lunch or dinner will be late or when you’re out and about.

Structure is important for developing toddlers, but you also don’t want to be so rigid that you never deviate from the schedule. When you do give your kiddos choices, keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm them with options.

Try not to stress over the terrible twos

Just like the Joan Jett song, don’t focus on the bad reputation of toddlers. Sure, the terrible twos can be trying, but the toddler stage is also a wonderful one where your little one is learning and growing every day. It’s actually a fun stage, but yes, there will be rough seas. Accept that, breathe deeply during those challenging moments, and pack your patience.

Editors' Recommendations

Dawn Miller
Dawn Miller began her professional life as an elementary school teacher before returning to her first love, writing. In…
When babies get their first haircut: Everything you need to know to get through this milestone without tears
Here's when babies should get their new look
Baby getting a haircut.

The first year of your child's life is filled with exciting milestone moments, like their first smile, learning how to crawl, and taking their first step. For most parents, that first snip of hair is another milestone that is just as celebratory and emotional. The notion of cutting your baby's hair for the first time could bring parents and baby to tears.

Whether you choose to trim your baby's hair yourself or take them to a trusted professional, you may wonder when baby gets their first haircut. If you think your little one is ready for their first styling, we have tricks and tips to help make the experience enjoyable for everyone — with limited tears involved.

Read more
10 incredible, memorable one-syllable girl names
How to choose the perfect single syllable girl name
Baby girl with a "hello my name sign is" on her onesie

One-syllable girl names are perfect for parents who are looking for something clean, classic, and simple. Many parents who have longer last names often choose a one-syllable first name to give some balance to their daughter's name, while others prefer a shorter name because it lessens the likelihood that it will be shortened.

Many struggle with finding the perfect name for their child, only for it to evolve into some shortened version or catchy nickname. If you love the idea of a strong, sweet, and simple, one-syllable name for your daughter, we've got some great ones to choose from.

Read more
The baby registry: Pros and cons of this popular practice
Know if a baby registry is the best way to get all of that gear ready for your little one
Pregnant woman on a computer

After the initial shock of finding out you're going to have a new human in the house wears off, your mind shifts to thinking about all the stuff you need to buy. You start making a list of things, and it grows and grows until you want to cry like a baby yourself.

But then you remember you could create a baby registry, and that will take the stress away. Or will it? Does walking through various stores or browsing endlessly online to create the perfect baby registry help the parents-to-be? Or does it create more stress of needing to have everything you want for the baby thought out and planned earlier? 

Read more