In the community that I am a part of, we prefer not to speak of the Terrible Two’s. A lot of moms say they don’t believe in it, or just don’t want to jinx themselves by saying that they do.
To some degree, I really do believe that. I don’t think prophesying over yourself and your child that their second year is going to be horrific helps anybody. Would you like that if everyone did that when you were going to turn 40? I’d be destined for a nervous breakdown.
That said, I somewhat disagree with my mom friends who say they don’t believe in Terrible Twos. Maybe they just have rosy retrospection. Or maybe they were too busy with other children to notice! (I suspect this because some of those moms had teenagers too 😉 But you definitely go through something around two years old, no matter what you call it.
In my experience, the Terrible Twos refers to a period where your toddler starts developing a sense of self, and with it, a sense of autonomy. Sometimes starts earlier, at 18 months. Or later, at 30 or 36months. It might last less than a year, or almost two… depends on when they get the cognitive, verbal, and moral skills they’re looking for to make sense of and interact with what’s being asked of them. Two out of four or my kids had amazingly smooth second years. They were truly angelic and I enjoyed almost every moment. But somewhere around the three-year mark, things started turning sour. It seemed like we were always on each other’s case, and I was filled with mostly annoyance at their behavior. But I taught and disciplined my children a lot when they were toddlers and continued to, through their sour stage. We got through it largely unscathed and even with a lot of laughs! While I felt as if we were perpetually dealing with rudeness, foolishness, and testing, we had nowhere NEAR the experience that I saw people around me having. No fits in the library or supermarket, no temper tantrums on the floor, or antics in the restaurant. So I learned that the time, duration, and outcome were not etched in stone. I took each child as they came, dealt with what they gave me (largely the same, since they were only a year apart and learned from one another), and I was pretty surprised! We somehow have made it through three two-year olds in a row.
But something does happen to the child around the age of two, which is totally normal developmentally and is, in fact, very positive. That is, the child starts individuating himself, realizing that he is distinct from people around him. He starts understanding that ever-important concept of CONTROL. This has the effect of driving you crazy, but it also has the added bonus of helping the child leave babyhood behind forever. Whereas they once saw themselves as part of you and the cosmos, all whooshing around in a kind of chaotic, interdependent mess, now they are able to see that they are actually an individual with different wants and needs than others (you) but able to manipulate their environment enough to get them taken care of. They cry less because they are afraid or needy, and more because their plans are thwarted. They have more plans! They can pick a goal, reason how to get there, and start on a course of action. All of this was in rudimentary form during their baby years, but now their brain and cognition is taking off. Their identity is in full drive, helping them to become an active agent in their world. What they know now is exponential to what they knew before, so they have more to work with too.
So you can see why the Terrible Twos may take shorter or longer to come about. Children develop at different rates, and the parenting style you have + the temperament they have will help them come into contact with control and moral/goal-oriented behavior sooner or later. I believe a more active personality type has the revelation sooner, and the passive personality has it later. Precocious kids are also sooner than late bloomers. Threes can be harder than twos, from my experience.
But eventually, the behavior abates (somewhat). If you as the parent steer them through this stressful identity crisis without losing your cool, you will have taught them a lot about life. They emerge ready to use the moral lessons they’ve harnessed. But if you tear your hair and they run wild, then you set them back. Prepare for more of the same their third year. Just keep in mind that the wilder they are during that second year (or whenever), the more learning opportunities they are having. If you avail yourself of those opportunities—lovingly confronting, patiently redirecting, consistently correcting—your child learns more, sooner. If you neglect those opportunities or respond to them unwisely, your child learns less for longer.
Of course you’ll be tested. Take lots of walks and short breaks as necessary.
So take a breath, prepare for the worst, expect the best, and you’ll be ok. And don’t be embarrassed—every child has to go through it for themselves no matter what kind of mom you are, and every mom has seen their child go through it no matter what type of mom they were. Even your own mom and mother-in-law 😉