Terrible Twos? I Don’t Think So

So many people see two-year olds as terrible that the label “Terrible Twos” has become the tagline for this stage of life. Two year olds are not terrible, they are just at a stage when they are trying to establish their independence or autonomy.  The person they first establish independence from is the mother or primary caretaker. You know a child is fully in that stage when they say the word, “NO!” Saying “no” is the beginning of developing one’s identity and independence as an individual. It is a drive, something that children cannot avoid. There are many positive aspects of being in this stage. Children in this stage want to do things for themselves, and they want to make decisions on their own.They are also trying to learn what their bodies can do and gain control of their bodies and their functions. That’s why it’s  a good time for potty training because you can appeal to their desire to be a big girl or boy, and they are learning to control their muscles. But the most important development during this stage is the desire to be independent.

Why is this Stage so Important?

You want your child to learn to sa,y “no”, so that they can assert their independence later in life. The next stage in life when they will be driven to be independent is during adolescence. Saying “no” at the early stage of Autonomy (age two) is just the beginning of establishing your identity in adolescence. Having independence empowers a child not to follow peer pressure, and to think for him or her self.  If you remember adolescence, you remember that what ever the authority figures in you life said, you were poised to do the opposite. You wanted to do your own thing in what you wore, where you went, what you said, and what you did. Even now as an autonomous individual, if a spouse, partner, boss, or overbearing friend, tries to tell you what to do, you may have the tendency to resist. You might find a way to way I can decide that on my own. You may even remember a time when you actually wanted to do what the person said to do, but because they said it, you couldn’t help, but think, “I can make up my own mind. Don’t tell me what to do.”

So now consider the two-year old, who is driven to say no. He has none of the logic and ability to reason fully yet. You want him to do something and he cannot help but say, NO! Some adults see this not as the drive to become an independent person that it is, but as outright defiance of their authority. I had a friend, who actually put her two-year old in the corner, because he said no. When I said he can’t help it,  she said, “Oh, he’ll learn to help it or he’ll be in the corner every day all day. I am not going to have a two-year old say no to me!”


Rather than punish a child’s attempts at independence, you can use this desire to your advantage. There are some things you can do to engage the two-year olds need for independence rather than turn it into a battle of wills.

Parenting Tip 1) Don’t ask a question that has a Yes or No answer unless you are prepared to hear no.  For Example:  Don’t say,”Don’t you want to wash your hands for lunch?” Your two-year old can’t help but say, “No.” Instead say, “Who is big enough to carry the bread and peanut butter to the table after they wash their hands?” This way you have appealed to your child’s desire to be a helper, who does what the adults do.

Parenting Tip 2) Give Them Two Choices When You Can. As the adult in a situation with a two-year-old, you know what you want them to do, so set the situation up where you give them a choice. Don’t give them many choices, but give them two choices that are both outcomes that you want anyway. For example:  If you want them to go to Grandma’s house, don’t say do you want to go to Grandma’s? They will say no even if they want to go. Instead you might say, “We are going to Grandma’s house do you want to wear your red jacket or your blue sweater?” Or, you might say, “We are going to Grandma’s go get two books you want to take. These two suggestions gives the child a chance to show his independence and does not set up a battle of wills about going or not going.   It works well at breakfast time, Rather than “Don’t you want to eat breakfast?” try,”Do you want Cheerios or Corn flakes for breakfast?”.

Parenting Tip 3) Out of Sight Out of Mind. Some adults feel they should leave things in the child’s environment and demand that they not touch. For example: They might have a small figurine that they do not want the child to touch, and then actually call attention to its presence saying, “Now remember, don’t touch my little statue over there.” They want to teach the child not to touch, and to assert their will over the child’s impulse to touch. This is just setting up a battle of wills. As soon as you say don’t touch that, the child will automatically want to touch the object you are prohibiting. So first of all, I would suggest putting away things that are valuable that you don’t want a child to touch. The old saying, “Out of sight out of mind,” is true . If they don’t see it they can’t touch it. Later when children are better able to reason you can explain why they should or should not touch certain things.

Tantrums Do Happen

If you see this stage for what it is, then you can also appreciate that there will be times when a two year old cannot be independent, or make up his or her own mind about what he wants to do. These times will be frustrating for the child and for you. You cannot always give him choices, and there will be times when you have to say no to their desires. At those times, you have to give them tools for dealing with their frustrations by giving them the words to express them and validating their feelings. One way is to say, “I know you are angry. But Mommy or Daddy cannot let you walk by yourself in a crowded street. We do not want you to get lost.” Then scoop him or her up to prevent him from the behavior you do not want. Or, “I know you are angry that your baby brother took your ball, but you may not hit him. You need to tell him with words.” Be firm and calm. The key is not to lose your cool, and end up modeling the behavior you do not want the child to use.

Enjoy This Stage

Lastly, enjoy your child’s beginning attempts at being an individual. Give them time to do things on their own. Begin dressing for a day out a little early, so that your two year old can put on his or her own socks or shirt. If their attempts aren’t perfect, let it be, and praise their attempts. All of their statements like: “I am a big girl,” or, “See I can do it,” are the ways in which they try to demonstrate that they are capable human beings, who are leaving being a baby behind. It is a wonderful stage where you see the budding personality, and desire to set his or herself apart. The choices you permit and encourage now, will make your two-year old a better decision maker later on. As you encourage your two-year old to become an individual, you will begin to see his or her many talents and abilities begin to blossom.

If you have your own questions or concerns about twos, or tips for dealing with twos that you would like to share, jot them in the Comment section below.

About Dr. Delores Lowe Friedman

Dr. Delores Lowe Friedman is an Educator, Author and Retired Full Professor from Kingsborough Community College, City University of New York (CUNY). She holds bachelor's and master's degrees from Hunter College, CUNY, and a doctorate in Educational Leadership from Teachers College, Columbia University.
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4 Responses to Terrible Twos? I Don’t Think So

  1. Raven Whyte says:

    Dealing with toddlers, I learned that sometimes the acting out is because the child wants something but does not yet know how to communicate it. In a daycare I worked at at one time, a young boy would have a temper tantrum every naptime. I took him aside and started talking to him about ‘did he want’s (eg: did he want to keep playing, did he want to wake up his friends, etc). I ended up finally learning that he wanted to always have his back rubbed. If you have worked with children and naptime, you know that some children have their back rubbed first because otherwise they cannot sleep at all and start crying because of being overtired. This boy was not that type. So I spoke with him about how other friends needed my help first, and could he quietly wait for his turn getting his back rubbed. he expressed he was afraid it would not be rubbed because I get my break at that time of day. I assured him that if he lay quiet, when I came back from my break, I would still rub his back. Other staff could not understand why I would rub his back even if he had fallen asleep after that, until the one day I accidentally forgot to, and he was acting out the rest of the day until I realized the problem, took him aside, and rubbed his back for awhile. .

    • Dr. Delores Lowe Friedman says:

      You are so right about one major reason for the frustration of very young children, especially twos. They do not yet have the words to communicate their frustrations, fears, and discomforts. You were patient enough to talk with him and offer him alternative reasons for his inability to rest. And you were caring enough to follow through with helping to meet his needs. His trust in you even allowed him to self soothe, knowing that you would be there even after your break. Thank you so much for your comments and your caring remarks.

  2. This was an insightful post. I can only imagine how trying the “no” stage must be. It’s nice to see the positive side of this. Thank you.