The terrible twos describes the age when children generally undergo some noticeable physical, emotional, social, and behavioral changes, and when parents often have a difficult time predicting their child’s behaviors and/or emotions. Many children at this age are beginning to develop a sense of independence and are eager to start doing things on their own, but haven’t yet developed the abilities or skills corresponding to those desires. As a result, they can become frustrated and act out using inappropriate behaviors. These feelings and behaviors correspond to the physiology of the brain, as around one year of age or so is when the part of the child’s brain most closely linked to the emotions begins to develop more fully. It’s during this time that parents will likely notice more extreme emotional expressions from their child—such as extreme happiness, anger and sadness—and often with little reason for such outbursts. This is due to the fact that the rational part of the brain develops more slowly than the emotional part. As such, children at this age tend to be very emotional, with these emotions expressed immediately when an event occurs, seemingly without reason.
There are two main factors that affect a child’s more long-term habits. One of these is the child’s nature or character, known in medical terms as temperament, whereby each child has individual differences in behavior and personality. Temperament, however, is not the only determining factor—the environment a child is raised in and the care they receive from parents and families are also incredibly important.
Even for a child who acts impatient, overbearing, or selfish, if their family upbringing helps them to change and modify these more aggressive habits, then when that child grows up, he or she does not need to have such an extreme temperament and will be able to control his or her emotions in a positive, constructive way.
Many children at this age may naturally be more impatient or easily upset or have mood swings, as this corresponds to their brain development as mentioned above, and some children will express these behaviors more visibly than others. As such, parents will need to give more attention to modifying those behaviors so that they develop in the right direction.
Before children can even learn to control their own emotions, they must first understand how they feel. As such, parents will need to help their child to correctly define the emotions they are feeling in that moment, as well as outlining what they can and cannot do using short but firm phrasing, such as, “You are angry, but you cannot throw things”, and “You cannot bite me”. Remember, your child is still very young and still does not have a large vocabulary or language comprehension.
Some children also like to be comforted by being hugged by their father or mother in order to calm their emotions and mood. As such, while hugging your child, you can also hold his or her hand to show that it is not acceptable to throw things, hit others, or hurt themselves. While doing so, you don’t need to try to divert the child’s attention in order to calm their anger; instead, refrain from showing aggressive or angry behavior yourself, speak to the child softly and periodically using short phrases, letting them know that when they stop crying, mom or dad will talk with them. Wait until the child calms down, and then talk with them, as this helps train the child to control their emotions.
Punishing your child by spanking them when they are bad-tempered or acting spoiled is not the best approach. Instead, before you can even help your child to control their emotions, you must control your own emotions first. Children at this age are most likely to imitate the actions and reactions of those closest to them, and thus next time, the child may decide to hit their parents back. Additionally, some families use the approach of giving a time out by separating the child and leaving them alone in a room for a long period of time. This too is unhelpful as it can cause the child to feel insecure and anxious.
One example of a good way to help manage your child’s emotions is to have them stand on a square piece of carpet or rug or some other type of limited area and teach them to control their emotions first before they are allowed to step off the carpet. If the child starts to feel irritable and walks off the carpet, parents can have them go back to the carpet and then sit next to them, talking to and letting them know that when they calm down, they can talk or do other activities. Using this method and style will help the child to understand that whenever they feel angry, they must first deal with their own emotions before interacting with others.
How long a child remains moody and irritable depends on two key factors—the child himself/herself, and the family environment and the upbringing the child receives. Parents should raise their children in such a way that it helps the child gradually learn to control their own emotions. Continue explaining and providing reasons to your child until he or she understands and knows what should or should not be done and what is appropriate behavior and what is not. This may take time, as the part of the brain that controls reasoning is undergoing change and development. Then, when the time comes for the child to enter pre-kindergarten or to be in a social setting with other children and engage in activities with friends, classmates, teachers, or other adults, the child will be able to do so. In this way, children can learn how to be and act in social settings with others, how to control their behavior, how to control their emotions, and how to better adjust to situations and modify moods and behaviors in a direction that allows them to be happier and more confident.
While the terrible twos may be a natural part of this stage in a child’s life, the behaviors each individual child exhibits are dependent on their own temperament, their environment, and the care they receive from their parents as well as the interest the parents take in observing and studying the development of their child at each age level so that they are better prepared to handle the behavior and emotions of the child when they occur. However, if you feel like your child’s behavior is getting out of hand or you are simply overwhelmed, you can talk to your child’s pediatrician or seek advice from a developmental-behavioral pediatrician.