You’ve probably been expecting it to happen sooner or later: Your sweet and adorable toddler suddenly morphing into a defiant, tantrum-prone tornado that seems to subside just as quickly as it sweeps through. Believe it or not, this challenging and sometimes frustrating phase is a normal part of toddler development as your little one becomes more independent and assertive. Find out what’s behind those “terrible twos,” how long this phase lasts, and how to deal with the tantrums and defiant behavior.

What’s Behind the Terrible Twos?

At around 2 years old, your child is becoming more and more independent and may want to push back against what you tell him to do or the boundaries you have set. The resulting battles can lead to tantrums, defiant behavior, and frequent use of the word "no.”

The outbursts and demands can seem to happen out of nowhere: One minute your toddler may be clinging to you like a barnacle or happily doing his thing, while the next he could be disobeying you, stomping his feet, or screaming at the top of his lungs.

Your toddler doesn't know how to express his emotions in acceptable ways yet, which can result in outbursts that can grow into full-blown temper tantrums. Welcome to the terrible twos!

For your 2-year-old, the terrible twos may feel like the terrific twos. He’s realizing he can try to assert more control over situations, that he can fight for what he wants, and that he can try to flex his muscles a bit.

Even for your little one, though, this can be a tricky time. He may not want to compromise, which can lead to battles with you, and he doesn’t yet know how to handle feelings of disappointment when he doesn't get something he wants.

This new behavior mode in your child comes from a host of changes in his intellectual, social, and emotional development. This means that the so-called terrible behavior may actually be a good sign that your child's development is on track.

How Long Do the Terrible Twos Last?

The terrible twos can last for a short time, or can continue for a longer period. You may have to tolerate this phase for a while as the terrible twos typically start around your child's second birthday and stretch into his third year, or even longer, when you may see it come to an end.

A wise approach is to accept that this is a normal part of your child’s development while doing your best to lead your child through this phase. How you respond to your child in certain situations will be key, because it’s important to balance supporting your child’s growing independence while also enforcing the boundaries you’ve set for his safety and well-being.

Signs of the Terrible Twos

When your child starts exhibiting some of these behaviors, you can assume that he has entered the terrible twos phase:

  • Says "no" much more often than before
  • May be clingy one minute, and then want his independence the next
  • Doesn't interact well with other children, and may show signs of aggressive behavior, such as pushing and shoving
  • Becomes frustrated easily
  • Has frequent temper tantrums
  • May have rapid mood swings, going from happy to mad to happy again in what can seem like the blink of an eye
  • Might try testing your limits to see how far he can get
  • May express that he’s upset or frustrated by crying, screaming, hitting, biting, or kicking.

Causes of the Terrible Twos

To help you better understand why your toddler is behaving this way, it might help to know more about the developmental changes that your 2-year-old is going through:

  • Intellectual changes. Your child's language ability is improving, but she likely understands more than she can express with words. This can lead to emotional outbursts like crying or screaming if she’s unhappy with what’s going on.

  • Social changes. Your child may be showing signs of selfishness or possessiveness, especially when she's around other children. She probably doesn't want to share her toys and may even want a toy that belongs to her playmate. This is normal at this stage because your child tends to only see the world through her own eyes, and she can’t yet empathize with the feelings or wants of others. She may also not yet realize that others could get hurt, and she might snatch a toy or hit a playmate without a second thought about the consequences.

  • Emotional changes. You may find your child is cheerful one moment and upset the next. These types of mood swings are pretty common during the terrible twos. Your child is still developing emotionally and is still learning how to control her feelings and actions. She may butt heads with you and then immediately seek your approval and affection afterward. She may react aggressively or start a tantrum over something that may seem trivial to you because she can’t really control her emotions.

10 Tips for Navigating the Terrible Twos

During the terrible twos, don't take your little one’s behavior personally, and try not see the tantrums as reflective of your child being "bad." Your child is just frustrated and overwhelmed by the changes he’s going through.

Here are some additional guidelines and techniques for dealing with the terrible twos phase:

  1. Be consistent. It's important to respond to your child's actions by acknowledging and encouraging the good behavior and discouraging the misbehavior in a way that isn't harsh or physical. Ensure you're consistent with your responses so that your child learns the routine and will know what happens when she behaves in a certain way. Being consistent in this way can help her boost her self-esteem while curbing bad behavior.

  2. Be straightforward. It can be very hard, if not impossible, to reason with your 2-year-old. She doesn't understand reasoning just yet, and she may conflate make-believe with real life. So, it's important not to be too hyperbolic when you speak to her. Avoid saying things like "If you keep making that silly expression, your face will freeze like that." She won't know that you're just kidding. Instead, aim to explain things in the simplest way possible, especially when it comes to discipline and behavior.

  3. Be ready to distract your child. If you see her getting all worked up about something, try to redirect her attention before a full-blown tantrum can start. If that doesn't work, let her be. Often, trying to reason with her or punish her for her emotional outbursts can have the opposite effect and reinforce the bad behavior.

  4. Establish some simple rules. Straightforward, age-appropriate rules can help your child control impulsive behaviors; for example, saying "No pushing or hitting." But be sure that the rules you develop aren't too restrictive and that there aren't too many. You can always add more rules once your child better understands the basic ones. Don’t change the rules unexpectedly as that can be confusing for her.

  5. Be affectionate. Loving, physical contact is very important during this time, as it is during each stage of your child's development. Hugs and kisses can help your child develop a strong sense of security and self-worth.

  6. Show that you're paying attention. Try to listen to what your child has to say and respond with more than just an "uh-huh" or "OK." She'll know when you're not really paying attention to her. Being attentive in this way may set a good example for her when it comes to using words to express feelings, and proves to her that she can count on you to listen. In the future, she may be less likely to throw a tantrum just to get your attention if she knows she can get your attention simply by talking to you.

  7. Help your child verbally express her feelings. Have conversations with your child regularly, and help her describe her feelings in words. Giving your little one the tools to express herself verbally can help ward off emotional outbursts in the future. You should also model this by verbalizing your own feelings; for example, you might say something like "Mommy is upset because you ran away from me in the store."

  8. Offer options. Rather than making choices for your child every time, offer her options when possible, sticking to a few that you’re happy with. So, instead of asking a broad question like, "What do you want to wear today?" and then getting into a battle when because she’s chosen shorts in the dead of winter, ask, "Do you want to wear the blue or red shirt?" When it's snack time, you could ask, "Would you like carrot sticks or celery sticks?" Letting her have a say in the matter goes a long way toward increasing her confidence and good humor.

  9. Set limits with positive discipline. Give your child firm yet loving discipline, which means teaching her to behave better by noticing and praising the good aspects of her behavior while firmly instructing her on what she may have done wrong. If your child misbehaves during a playdate, for example, tell her you will take away her favorite toy—this can help her understand the repercussions of misbehaving. Whatever you do, don't turn to physical punishment, which conveys the wrong message—that it's OK to solve an issue through violence.

  10. Use time-outs when needed. This can be an effective strategy if your child is in the middle of a tantrum, for instance. Remove her from the scene of action and take her to a designated area for a time-out. Once there, have her spend a few quiet and still minutes (the recommended time is one minute for each year of your child's age) before she can return to you. Afterward, give her a hug and say "All done!"

Dealing With Tantrums

The occasional tantrum is not only characteristic but also inevitable during the terrible twos phase. It's easy to see one coming: Your child may be upset or more irritable than usual, and he may be tired, lonely, or hungry.

To help prevent some of these outbursts, pay extra attention to your child's moods and try to avoid situations that may lead to a tantrum. For example, taking your toddler on several errands without stops for play and snacks could be fertile ground for a tantrum.

If you do see a tantrum on the horizon, here are some ways you can channel your child's energies away from this aggressive behavior or stop him in his tracks:

  • Try distracting your child with a play activity to redirect his attention

  • If distraction doesn't work, you can try letting him be and ignoring him as giving him attention now may result in a longer tantrum

  • If he starts to get physical with you, like hitting or biting, tell him immediately this is not proper behavior and put him in a time-out. An in-depth explanation of why it was wrong won't do anything at this point, so just emphasize that what he did was wrong.

  • If a tantrum happens in public, try to remove your child from the situation by taking him to a private spot (like your car or a restroom) where you can institute a time-out.

Temper tantrums typically fade away between the ages of 3 and 4. But if you're still experiencing them regularly beyond that, or are having trouble knowing how to manage this behavior, speak to his healthcare provider.

FAQs at a Glance

  • One secret to getting through the terrible twos is not taking anything personally. Your child is not being terrible on purpose: He doesn't hate you and isn’t inherently naughty. Your child is going through changes that make it difficult for him to control his actions and emotions. The best thing to do is to set clear boundaries, curb bad behavior, and praise good behavior regularly.

    • He may act more independently and defiantly
    • He may behave selfishly
    • He may have emotional outbursts like tantrums
    • He may have mood swings: One minute he may cling to you, and the next he may throw a tantrum.
  • From a parent's perspective, the terrible twos are terrible because your child may be temperamental, defiant, and prone to outbursts when he doesn't get his way.

  • The tantrums that characterize the terrible twos can last up until your child is about 3 years old. After that the tantrums usually start to peter out. If you’re still seeing regular tantrums beyond this, consult with your child's healthcare provider.

The Bottom Line

Yes, the terrible twos may be terrible, especially for you, but just know that this phase will eventually end. Teaching your child how to manage his emotions and behave in acceptable ways, as well as praising him for all the great things he does along the way, will help you both get through this developmental phase a little more easily.

Once you've gotten through this phase, you'll finally have some time to relax—that is, until you get to the next challenging phase . . . such as the teenage years. By then you may be reminiscing fondly about what an angel your little one was as a toddler, and this period won’t seem so terrible after all!

Did you know that you can learn more interesting facts about your child's development in the Pampers Club app? You can also use the app to earn points for every Pampers purchase you make. Collect rewards points and redeem them for a gift for your child or for yourself—you deserve it!

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.