Is there a 'terrible twos'?

Having had twins who sailed through their twos without much of a challenge, I was convinced there was no such thing as the ‘terrible twos’. Then my youngest entered this stage, and forced me to re-think. Child psychologist, Dr Sasha Lynn, helps us understand some of the quirks and challenges of this important, if at times difficult, development stage. 

It’s a hot summer’s day, we’ve been out all morning and the kids are getting tired and hungry. It’s too late to drive home and then have lunch, so we opt for a quick bite to eat in the city. I find somewhere to sit with the kids while my wife places the order, only for her to sit down moments later with the terrifying news that they’re out of juice. We both know what’s coming.

“I want juice, I need juice, I want juice!” complains our youngest. He has no interest in the food we provide him (without juice), and even less interest in sitting up at the table while the rest of us eat. He cries, screams, re-arranges the furniture (even while other patrons sit at it), and even attempts to launch himself off the loft balcony.

We survive lunch, barely, and walk away from the shop cursing their juice shortage. Silently I wonder: how has my little ‘golden age’ toddler turned so suddenly into a monster? Is this the ‘terrible twos’ everyone talks about?

What do we mean when we say ‘the terrible twos’?

Until I’d experienced it, I assumed the ‘terrible twos’ was just a convenient parental excuse for a child behaving poorly. But child psychologist, Dr Sasha Lynn, explains that there is a little more to it than that.

“I think, for us, we define this stage of development as ‘terrible’ more so tongue-in-cheek. The ‘terrible twos’ is often thought to be that tricky stage (for parents!) in childhood development where children are learning to find their place and assert their independence. But often it can appear like some really interesting boundary pushing. Couple this with a limited vocabulary and it can result in frustration when kids know what they want, but they can’t quite communicate it with you. Cue meltdowns and tantrums.”

In other words, my son was simply trying to explain to us that if we’d given him a heads up regarding the juice shortage, he’d have recommended we head somewhere else that did have juice, because that was a priority for him. Silly us.

Why is the ‘terrible twos’ such a thing for some kids and not for others?

Our twins sailed through this age with a few heated conversations and a couple of silent tantrums—the kind where they threw themselves on the ground and refused to move, all the while not betraying a whimper (I kind of liked those). My youngest, on the other hand, has displayed a lot more of the ‘terrible’—meltdowns, tantrums, not following instructions, and a strong desire for independence. We’ve raised them the same. So why the difference? 

Dr Lynn explains, “The whole ‘terrible twos’ stage lies on a big continuum. Some kids cruise through; others really grapple with the developmental stage. Like all development, it is a unique and different pathway for us all, though we tend to see some commonalities.”

These include wanting to exert independence, struggling to communicate needs and not quite knowing how, and regulating emotions, which we don’t see full development of until adolescence and beyond.

So, the twins seemed more capable of regulating their emotions in general, and gravitated towards communicating them in a quiet and controlled fashion. While my youngest has been much less capable of controlling his emotions, and much more willing to vocalise and demonstrate them.

Three children gathered together

How do we as parents survive the ‘terrible twos’ if they do set in?

‘Terrible’ might seem the appropriate word for some, especially if your child is in the middle of a very public meltdown (it certainly seemed terrible to me at the point my child attempted to launch himself off the loft balcony). But as Dr Lynn explains, it’s a little less terrible if we understand it in the context of our child’s development and ask for help when we need it.

“I think if children are really asserting themselves and it’s a trying time for parents, knowing that ‘this too shall pass’ is vital. Also, ensuring that you have your ‘village’ around - doesn’t have to be in person, could also be a virtual village, online support is often under-rated - to vent to, to gain reassurance from, that can help you when needed.”

Dr Lynn also recommends focusing on:

  • Helping our children build their emotional literacy so they can begin to understand the feelings they have, as opposed to just feeling ‘ick’ and lashing out as a result.
  • Empathising with them— for example, ‘I can see how frustrated you are right now’—which shows our kids that we get it. We get how difficult it is to want to do certain things but not being able to articulate what it is, or being at the level to actually be capable of doing them.
  • Re-directing our kids’ attention when a meltdown appears imminent. Take them out of the situation as soon as you can. Distraction is key.
  • Providing our kids with options, so that they feel that they’re in control (but we’re ultimately driving the ship).

Perhaps if we’d given my son some choice in the matter of the juice—have lunch with water here or head home without lunch and have some food and juice at home—things might have gone a little differently.

“I think for us as parents, being able to take a big breath, stay calm and remind ourselves as to why our kids are doing what they do is a big help,” Dr Lynn says. “It’s not personal. They’re not out to make life difficult for us, although it can really feel like it! It’s more about them and their developmental growth; the combination of physical, emotional and behavioural changes and how they negotiate those changes.”

Back to top