Some toddlers show signs of terrible twos earlier than others. Some toddlers don’t show any signs at all.
Whether your toddler is showing signs of terrible two early or late, one thing is for sure… it’s an exhausting time for you both!
Related: Terrible 3s
Terrible Two Stage
Terrible two’s is a difficult time for both parent and child.
At this stage, your toddler is learning independence and getting a better sense of their own unique charter.
Your child is growing and learning more about the world and all of the things in it.
This includes the ways to interact with you, other children and other objects.
This Freedom is important for growth and development.
Whilst you want to give them as much sovereignty as possible tensions occur when you need to reign in their behaviour for safety and to teach self-discipline.
It is this ebb and flow of control and freedom that can cause your toddler to show signs of aggression, discomfort, anger and tantrums.
It’s important, therefore, you learn how to discipline a toddler correctly.
Tell-Tell Signs of Terrible Twos
As your child reaches two years old they have a significant shift in their behaviour.
Developmentally they are experiencing an enormous change, both physically and mentally.
At this age, they begin to test boundaries as they battle for independence.
You’ll hear the word “NO” and “Mine” frequently as your toddler begins to form their own character and struggles with power and autonomy.
Frequently parents as when do the terrible twos start?
There is not a particular time but there are very clear terrible twos symptoms that you may witness.
Why Does My Toddler Get So Angry?
Your toddler is still growing their vocabulary to a point that allows them to effectively express themselves.
They understand many of your commands and requests but still lack the language to communicate it as they continue to learn the exact words needed to convey their message correctly.
This tension causes an imbalance in emotions and is the leading reason for disruptive and defiant behaviour.
It’s a developmental milestone that all toddlers go through.
Terrible Twos Symptoms
- Excessive Screaming
- Excessive Hitting or Lashing Out
- Moody behaviour and Mood Swings
- Temper Tantrums (that can last up to 30 minutes)
- Mini Meltdowns
- Extreme Anger
- And lots and lots of tears!
These examples are tell-tell sign your toddler is entering the ‘Terrible Two’s’ stage.
Remember, they don’t technically need to be 2 years old for it to make it’s appearance.
It’s not uncommon for toddlers to experience the terrible 2’s before and around the 18 months mark with each child being at different stages of their developmental milestones.
Most children will experience aggressive and oppositional behaviour, but your job is to understand why it’s happening and provide support and relief to calm them down.
This will help them express their frustrations in a more appropriate way.
The Signs Of Terrible Two’s
1. Frustration When Misunderstood
If your child is showing more signs of frustration when you respond incorrectly to his wishes this can be telltale signs of terrible twos.
Your toddler will expect you to understand them even though they are unable to correctly tell you what they want.
Being a mind reader is impossible, but spotting triggers and signs of what your child actually is referring to is important.
Try to stay calm and ask your child to repeat themselves.
If you still are unable to understand their request then just use trial and error until you get it right.
Parents often blur together the terrible twos threes as the underlying reason behind the defiant behaviour is the same.
All toddlers have BIG emotions but they can very easily be swayed from extremely upset to pleasantly happy.
Once you realise they actually wanted the ‘Red Train’ instead of the ‘Yellow Train’ they’ll soon forget what got them upset in the first place.
2. Kicking, hitting, biting, scratching
As toddlers begin to feel big emotions they also need a way to vent them.
Naturally, adults do this with their words, but as your child is still learning to use the correct words to describe their emotions they can get irritated and lash out.
If your child is starting to hit or bite you and you feel that it has happened out of nowhere then this can be a good indication that you are witnessing signs of terrible twos.
Remind your toddler that “Hitting is not an appropriate form of expression’ and that they should “Use their words instead”.
If that doesn’t work, continue to repeat yourself until the behaviour stops, stay calm, ignore the behaviour and consider giving a time out instead.
3. Temper Tantrums
If your child gets all wound up and resorts to loud screaming or crying, lashing out at others and throwing themselves on the floor you can be sure that you’ve witnessed your first temper tantrum.
Dealing with the terrible twos means dealing with extreme emotions that can explode at any given moment.
Remember that this is a developmental milestone.
Just like all milestones, it’s perfectly normal behaviour for terrible twos threes.
This allows your children to test boundaries and form appropriate behaviours for future interactions with you.
It’s all a part of the learning process and is actually a good sign.
This shows you that your child is hitting (no pun intended!) all the correct milestones for their age and are developmentally on track.
Remind your child that shouting and screaming isn’t an acceptable way to vent their frustrations and try to ignore the behaviour.
This will reduce giving it any more attention then it needs.
Stay calm, repeat yourself, in a polite but stern voice, and try to distract your child out of it.
Big emotions can take some time to cool down from so remember that it’s just their way of showing you that they need some extra special care and recognition.
4. Saying No
If your toddler is constantly saying “NO” to things and they sound like a broken record all the time then yep, you guess it, signs of terrible twos!
As your child realises what words mean and how to use them they will pick and choose those words more carefully to explain how they feel.
Unfortunately, they are also copying your actions and language, meaning that you have to be very careful about how you interact and communicate.
Think about how many times do you say “NO” to them in a single day?
“No, put that down!”
“No, Put that Back!”
“No more toys it’s time for BED!”
It’s not difficult to see why they love using the word “NO” as they hear it more than YES!
Also, toddlers like to play games and test boundaries so saying the word “NO” can just be a fun game for them to get a response from you.
Dealing with the terrible twos is about picking your battles and knowing when to fold.
Remember, “saying no” all the time is just a phase and it will pass (eventually)
5. Saying “Mine”
As children discover their character they become more territorial.
This can be demonstrated with siblings or peers who are close together in age.
Toddlers are not yet able to understand the concept of sharing personal items (Like toys, food, clothes etc) and will routinely tell you and anyone else around who the “small green toy car” belongs to… “It’ s MINE!”
You’ll find this may only get worse as they get older and are still learning to share the things that belong to them.
Reminding them to “share” and that “not everything belongs to you” should do the trick.
Again it’s just a phase and will eventually pass.
Signs Of Terrible Twos – What To Do
1. Be Calm
Your first reaction to seeing signs of terrible two’s should be one of calmness.
Managing your child in a mini-meltdown or temper tantrum is never going to be easy.
Having them shouting and screaming at you for not letting them play with their “non-water proof toy car” in the bath time is never going to go down well.
Dealing with the terrible twos is an uphill battle, but you have to stay calm.
When you are calm you are rational and will be able to deploy the necessary consequence for disruptive and aggressive behaviour.
Remember, shouting back or showing aggression to deal with the situation will only make things worse.
What’s even more damaging is that your child will learn that aggression is an appropriate form of expression so will continue to act in a disruptive way when they get wound up.
The Simple & Rational Approach
Stay calm and be patient. Keep your requests simple and rational.
Saying things like “If you don’t’ stop right now I’ll take all your toys away” or “You won’t get any screen time for a whole week” won’t’ work as it’s too vague and will probably not be enforced.
Instead, focus on 1 form of punishment or consequence for repeated outbursts or disruptive behaviour.
If your child is not sharing their toys and continues to show signs of aggression and saying “MINE” at playtime, then do this:
- Remove them from playtime
- Tell them ‘You won’t return to playtime until you’ve calmed down”
- Tell them, “If you don’t share your toy for 3 minutes then I’ll take it away for 10 minutes’
- Explain “Hitting others hurts and is not acceptable. It also won’t get you what you want”
- Ask them to “apologise to your sister, she’s very upset now” (showing him that the other person is hurting and sad is crucial for building empathy)
- Hug them, “Thank you for listening, let’s all go and play together”
This will help you to be proactive when you see the signs of terrible twos.
Distraction is a smart way to ease a situation and can be very handy when you are dealing with a toddler around the terrible twos threes stage.
Toddlers are very easily distracted and can forget why they got upset in the first place.
Your role, therefore, is to find a suitable distraction that will be so engaging that they forget what they may have been upset about in the first place. For example:
If your child likes to read, give them their favourite book.
If they like to sing, then sing out loud their favourite nursery rhyme.
If it’s the pet they love to chase, put them on the floor and let them run wild!
Distraction is a smart way to instantly change your toddler’s emotional state.
It also works extremely well in a busy shopping centre or playgroup were thing may take a turn for the worse.
If you can see typically signs of negative behaviour then don’t wait for it to get any worst.
Distract them away from the negative triggers with a song, a dance, an object, a picture etc Anything that removes their attention away from the reason they got upset in the first place.
You are out in the car and have forgotten to bring their favourite nursery rhymes song.
Instead of having a car ride with a screaming toddler, sing to them the entire way.
What if it doesn’t work?
If distraction doesn’t work you know that your child is having multiple emotion attacks and other factors like hunger or tiredness, might be the reason for defiance.
Consequently, you will be able to gauge the severity of the temper tantrum and can then deploy the correct response to the situation.
Let’s look at an example.
You are in a park and your child is playing nicely but then suddenly breaks down, starts shouting, flips out onto the floor and has a mini-meltdown.
You rush over, pick him up shake him off and immediately try to distract him with his favourite car toy.
If he looks at it and runs off to play you know that it was just a surface level tantrum and was probably nothing to worry about.
But if he rejects it or throws it down you’ll be able to tell that he is having a compounded attack with bigger emotions and one of his basic needs some attention
Now you can attend to his needs with food or drink.
But it could just be time to go home for a nap, as he’s been running around in the park for so long.
Finding smart ways to distract your child away from disruptive behaviour and using it in your disciplining toolkit is a smart way of dealing with the terrible twos.
3. Give Them Power!
Your toddler wants to be in control of more of the things they do.
If you offer them a way to be involved in your day to day routines then you give them a command and power over the things they can and can’t do.
Toddlers love interaction and will want to be involved in as much as possible.
Try getting them involved in housework, (Packing the washing machine, sweeping the floors, cleaning mirrors etc)
This will give them a sense of direction and purpose.
The best way to remain in control of these types of situations is to narrate when and what will be done and at what time intervals.
“Sweetie, I know you want to watch your favourite TV show, but right now I need you to help me load the washing machine. How about we load the washing machine for 5 minutes together and then we can watch 20 minutes of your favourite show?”
Packing the washing machine is fun and has a clear time frame.
So instead of having your child just watching TV while you do the laundry you have influenced their decision to help out.
This has the unintended but pleasant consequence of demonstrating the principles that “housework comes before privileges”.
This will help to build character and discipline.
If done over longer periods, will have the added bonus of framing your child’s mind in a positive way
Now you will see less defiant behaviour and more positive helpful behaviour. It’s a win-win for everyone.
4. Ensure Basic Needs Are Met
A very useful strategy to keep the terrible two’s at bay is to ensure your child’s basic needs are being met.
A vast majority of terrible two’s symptoms occur when your child has not had 1 of their basic needs met.
Is he thirsty, when’s the last time my child had some water?
Is he hungry, what time did my child it last and did he eat all of it or just some?
Is it nap time, have we overlapped playtime with nap time to heavily?
Is he playing too much, maybe my child is overstimulated?
Consequently, you’ll find that in the vast majority of cases when 1 or 2 of these basic needs are not met your toddler may show signs of defiance, frustration or anger.
A Way To Vent Emotions
Many children show signs of defiance before or after a nap and will get more grumpy on an empty stomach than a full one.
By ensuring that their basic needs have been met you can limit the disruption your toddler causes.
Think about how snappy or abrupt you when hungry, tired or you have a headache?
Without the ability to express themselves correctly your toddler will lean to his natural way of venting his emotions…whinging, crying, screaming and potentially even lashing out.
This is all normal behaviour for a 2 year old as they encounter developmental strain.
Try and be patient and ensure their basic needs have been met.
Just being mindful that your child’s basic needs have been met will help you handle the terrible two’s symptoms with less stress.
5. Don’t Give Them Too Much Attention
Children crave attention and will get it in any way they can.
As they enter the “terrible twos threes” stages they begin to need more and more positive reinforcement.
They will sometimes act out to get attention from their parents as they continue to explore the possibilities of what they can and can’t do.
If they conclude that they can get more attention from disruptive behaviour then they can from positive behaviour they will resort to what works best.
Try to offer less attention to disruptive behaviour and more to positive actions.
Of course, it’s very difficult to ignore a full blow tantrum but you can show your child that shouting and screaming are not appropriate ways to express their feelings.
Remember to remind them to “Use Their Words” as this is an effective route for correct expressions.
What about Reward Charts?
A good way to emphasis good behaviour is to use reward charts or behaviour tables.
Here you give a small incentive (like a gold star) for good, positive and compliant behaviour.
This is a very easy way for your child to learn constructive behaviour patterns and to follow along with their own behaviour score.
Remember you are not trying to ignore the temper tantrum itself, but just the reaction to it.
Hitting, biting and kicking are never acceptable so you may need to physically remove them from the situation if this is the case.
A great way for them to vent their emotions in a positive way is to:
- Jump up and down on the spot or on a bed
- Hit a soft toy, pillow or instrument (Like drums)
- Sing at the top of their lungs their favourite song
These are good strategies to vent negative emotions that you can monitor and provide positive feedback towards.
6. Give Expectations (tell them what’s about to happen)
As your toddler’s mind develops you will start to see more instances of power struggles and defiant behaviour as they form a better understanding of the things they want and how to get it.
A good way for them to develop a better understanding of rules and regulation is to give them expectations of how you want them to behave.
For example “Sweetie, you have 10 minutes left watching your favourite cartoon. Once 10 minutes is over we will have some dinner”
This is a clear instruction and leaves no room for ambiguity.
You should continue reminding your toddler as the timer counts down.
This will help them with their expectations on how long they have left doing an activity and what will happen next.
For example “Sweetie, you have 5 minutes left now then we will need to get ready for dinner, is that ok?
Ensuring you keep them involved in your decision-making process is a smart way to handle the ” terrible twos threes” and will avoid unnecessary temper tantrums.
7. Give Them More Responsibility
2-year-olds want to be involved in everything you do.
While this sounds amazing it can sometimes leave you in risky and dangerous situations.
This means that when you open and close the oven or use a knife to cut an apple they will want to help.
Whilst they can’t help you do the hazardous things they can help with other tasks.
Here is a few day to day task most children love doing:
Hovering or sweeping
Loading and unloading the washing machine
Washing up plastic cups and spoons
Tidying toys and other safe items
Emptying and Packing shopping
That’s just to name a few, but I’m sure you get the idea.
Try to get them involved in as much day to day things that you do.
This will teach a sense of responsibility, sensitivity around other peoples belongings and sense of purpose and achievement for helping out.
These are all great skills to teach your toddler and you get the added bonus of having some extra help around the house! (Win Win)
This, in particular, will help you to correctly navigate the principles around what are the terrible twos.
8. Alternative Choices
2-year-olds need to feel in control of the things they do.
They crave power and they want to show you that they can take care of themselves.
Use this to your advantage by giving them simple but effective choices throughout your day.
Do you want toast or porridge this morning for breakfast?
Would you like to drink apple or orange juice with that?
Should we read this book or that sign book?
This is a smart way to give them reigns and let them feel in control.
Simultaneously, this will also build up their communication skills as they begin to learn to understand how to correctly display the correct emotions for the things they want.
If you do feel very overwhelmed by the pressure your child is putting you under and the stressful situations you find yourself in again and again then don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Ask parents around you or even community leaders as well as friends and family.
Most parents go through very similar challenges with their children and you’d be surprised at the creative ways available to discipline children.
Hopefully, this will give you a clearer understanding of what are the terrible twos and provide support for dealing with the terrible twos.
Every parent and child relationship is different and some have been built on the most extraordinary circumstances.
Remember to value your unique relationship with your child first.
When do terrible twos end?
Remember the terrible two’s don’t last forever and most parents see noticeable differences in their child by ages 3 and up.
This isn’t to say that as soon as your child reaches 3 they will instantly become better behaved.
It’s more of a milestone from 3 years and up as your child is better equipped to express themselves.
Consequently, this will reduce the majority of the terrible two’s tantrums.
Hopefully, if you take on board our the practical tips and advice you’ll see bigger improvements in your child’s behaviour faster!
Related: Best baby sign language book
Here’s a quick video on Signs Of Terrible Twos
Iesha is a loving mother of 2 beautiful children. She’s an active parent who enjoys indoor and outdoor adventures with her family. Her mission is to share practical and realistic parenting advice to help the parenting community becoming stronger.