Skip to main content

The Terrible Twos: A Part of Emotional Development

Learn what you can do to help your toddler manage her emotions.

The Terrible Twos: A Part of Emotional Development

Why are they called the "terrible twos"? Probably because of the way two-year-olds express their emotions. Feelings are raw and powerful at age two. Most toddlers put their emotions right out there where you can see them clearly. So when your toddler is feeling happy and loving, she will throw her arms around you, she will beam and giggle and chortle, and she may even say in a singsong voice, "I love you." When your child feels sad or lonely, her face contorts with pain, and tears stream from her eyes as she desperately searches for your comfort and company. And when your child feels angry or frustrated, she screams and kicks and bites like a rabid animal. You've probably never seen such a naked expression of emotion as the display put on by your two-year-old.

And you're not the only one seeing the raw power of your child's emotions. Throughout the third year, your child will become increasingly aware of herself—and her emotions. What must it be like to notice emotions for the first time? Your child doesn't yet have the words to describe it, but she probably feels confused, overwhelmed, and frightened by the sheer power of her own feelings. For she knows that they are uncontrollable: that she cannot manage them by herself. They seem to come from out of the blue and possess her.

Your child probably doesn't even have the words to describe the increasing range of her emotions. Oh, sure, your toddler knows the basics: sad and glad and mad. But does she know the words for the more complex shadings that she now feels: scared, ashamed, guilty, jealous, kind, considerate, empathetic, embarrassed, resentful, disappointed, relieved, and proud?

Emotional Rescue

Your toddler needs your help to manage his emotions. He needs your help to find the words that express his needs and emotions. Your child also needs your help to cope with this new array of feelings. Perhaps you might dissipate your child's anger, helping to change the mood with a joke, a smile, or a treat. Or maybe you'll relieve some of his sadness or fear with a warm hug, kind words, and a soft voice.

Observe your child with care during this third year. Your two-year-old will send clear signals that telegraph his emotions. But he still needs you to receive them and translate them for him. Until your child has a greater facility with words, he needs you to help define his emotions. So do your best to pay attention and help your child acknowledge his feelings.

Try not to deny your toddler's feelings in your well-intended attempts to bolster his courage or relieve his pain. Eliminate from your vocabulary phrases like:

  • "You're not scared of that pigeon, are you?"
  • "Don't be sad."
  • "There's nothing to be jealous about."
  • "You don't have any reason to be angry."
  • "Buck up, you're not hurt."

Your two-year-old is probably having a hard time just trying to comprehend his emotions in the first place. You make it that much harder if you deny that these feelings even exist—or if you deny their legitimacy. Children feel sad, mad, jealous, and hurt. Whether we have a right to feel the way we do, or whether our feelings are reasonable, we feel what we feel when we feel it. Your child has become a person, too. So don't deny what he finds so real, so powerful, and sometimes, so frightening.

Join the Family

Your partner in parenting from baby name inspiration to college planning.