A phase children go through, usually around the age of 2, when they become contrary and difficult. The "terrible twos" are caused by a variety of factors:

  • Children at this age have the motor skills to move around and manipulate objects, and they're more interested in experimenting with their environment. They are naturally upset when their experiments are cut off.
  • Two-year-olds also have discovered that they can control things. The terrible twos could be called the first manifestation of the will to power.
  • Their ability to actually do things is still pretty limited, so their desire to do things can't be channelling into useful--or even harmless--tasks, because there are relatively few things that are harmless in the hands of a two-year-old.
  • Two-year-olds don't have very clear ideas of cause and effect--that's what all their experimenting helps them learn. They also have a limited ability to communicate and understand. It's still almost impossible to reason with a two-year-old, and so they often have to be forced to stop doing something dangerous. Naturally they get upset.
All these factors combine to create a tough time for parents. Two-year-olds make a lot of messes , get furious when adults help them with things they can't do, and have temper tantrums when their will is thwarted. My daughter, for example, went through a phase where she insisted on putting on her own shoes in the morning--but she couldn't always do it. For a while, I spent some time two or three mornings a week physically restraining a hysterical child while her mother put her shoes on.

The terrible twos subside when children become able to exercise their autonomy without causing trouble, and also able to communicate and reason enough to compromise. My daughter doesn't have fits about her shoes anymore. Eventually, she got to the point where she could put on most of her shoes in a reasonable amount of time--and if she had trouble, I told her that she could take her shoes off and put them on, by herself, when she got to her daycare. Lucky for me, her terrible twos are coming to an end.

A myth.

Children can be difficult to deal with at any age. A four year old is just as likely to be upset at something going wrong as a two year old.
So is a sixteen year old, for that matter. The difference is how the child deals with his or her emotions. Any child without proper care and upbringing can learn to be "Terrible".

see also: yossarian. Beware of that picture. *shudder*

If only the Terrible Twos really were a myth. My life would be so much easier.

The scene: the Morgana family’s living room in late afternoon. Sunlight streams through the window. Birds are chirping outside. Toys, crayons, books and sippy cups cover most of the carpet. The cats are taking cover elsewhere. The cats are smarter than we think.

On the couch sits Daigoro, twenty-three months old. She has just finished her afternoon snack. She is perfectly healthy and has already had her nap. Her father DejaMorgana is trying to figure out what she wants.

DAIGORO: I watch Blue!

Fair enough, thinks DM. Blue's Clues is a reasonably educational show, and one of her favourites. Daigoro has spent most of the day drawing, reading her books with Daddy, playing with Matchbox cars and chasing cats around the house (“Come here, Isis. It’s all right...”) No reason why she shouldn’t watch Blue for a while. He puts the tape in the VCR.

Blue’s Clues begins to play. Daigoro screws up her face and begins to shudder.

DAIGORO: (loudly) I don’ watch Blue!
DEJAMORGANA: You don’t need to cry. You don’t want to watch Blue?
DAIGORO: (louder) I don’ watch Blue... (tears roll down her cheeks)
DM: Okay. Do you want to watch something else?
DAIGORO: I watch something else!
DM: What would you like to watch?
DAIGORO: (VERY loudly, sobbing) Something else!
DM: Do you want to watch Alphabet? (Sesame Street’s “Do the Alphabet”, another favourite.)
DAIGORO: I don’ watch Alphabet! (More sobbing)
DM: What do you want to watch, then?
DAIGORO: I watch something else! (Wailing, as if the end of the world is nigh)

DM knows where this is going, but plays along. Suggests several more shows and movies, while a few new gray hairs make their debuts on his head. Finally, as if this has just occurred to him...

DM: Do you want to watch... Blue?
DAIGORO: Otay. I watch Blue. (Tears vanish)

DM starts the Blue tape again, gets another cup of water for Daigoro, sits with her for a minute. All is well. DM sighs and goes to his computer to ponder the alleged mythical status of the Terrible Twos, while Daigoro begins to sing the Blue’s Clues song.

Two is the Golden Age of Negativism. Part of the experimentation that ximenez talks about is learning to say “No” to everything that is offered, just to see what happens. At this stage in her development, Daigoro is learning to assert her independence, to discover that she is an individual person. She doesn’t have to accept everything I say. Far from being a myth, this very real phase is vital to the formation of a child’s personality. I wouldn’t want to have a child who agreed with everything anybody told her. But right now it would be nice if she would agree to some things, some of the time, without tantrums and Oscar-worthy crying scenes.

This is a very confusing time, full of wild mood swings and conflicting signals. In public it can be even worse than at home. This is the phase where the child is eager to get out of the house, enraptured by all the new sights, proud of her ability to walk and run and jump and call things by their names. And this is the phase where the same child runs screaming for Daddy every time a scruffy-looking stranger smiles at her. It has become almost impossible to take Daigoro to a restaurant lately, because she wants to explore everything - including climbing onto the table, shredding the tablecloth, pouring pepper over everything, reading the menu and holding Mummy’s glass of water - and she is quite prepared to start bawling the instant we deny her any of these pleasures. We have learned to cope with the tantrums, and usually we can get them to stop pretty quickly. But I won’t try to deny that there have been several occasions when we just had to pack up and leave well before we finished our dinners.

The leisurely shopping days we used to enjoy when Daigoro was a baby are now completely out of the question. We’ve learned new methods of shopping. We used to shop like elephants rambling through the forests, looking this way and that and pulling down leaves at random. Now we shop like wolves cutting through herds of elk. The wolf method of book shopping is this: before you go to the bookstore, you figure out exactly what you want to buy. Then you put the toddler in the stroller with a cupful of milk or juice, charge into the store, head straight for the section you’re interested in, grab the first book that looks even remotely like what you have in mind, and run for the checkout line. You want to go look for some cool new music to go with your new book? Too bad. When the girl’s drink is finished, so is your shopping trip. You are not the alpha wolf in this pack.

That’s not to say that the whole period is nonstop trauma. As stressful as it can be, it is also a phase of great excitement, a time when you can see your child developing like a flower in time-lapse photography. Daigoro is picking up new skills almost every day. She can be sweet and genuinely helpful when she wants to. Her language skills are developing quickly (sometimes too quickly - I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream when she told our Fourth of July visitors “I gotta NIPPLES! Onna CHEST!” But at least I know her vocabulary is all right.) And she is learning to explore and inquire about everything. A hundred times a day, she will ask me, “what’s that?” Half the time, she already knows what “that” is. I don’t know if she does this to practice her words or reassure herself that “that” hasn’t changed into something else overnight. Either way, exploring the world together is a lot of fun for both of us.

But on the bad days the negativism and tantrums can make a parent’s life miserable, especially when combined with the other phenomena that usually pop up around this age: separation anxiety, sleeplessness and hair-raising adventures in mobility and manipulation (climbing up on a chair to get the wine glasses out of the sink is NOT a good idea, Daigoro). This whole package is why the age is popularly known as the Terrible Twos, and no parent I’ve ever met thinks it is a myth.

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