The “Terrible Twos”

Carol Osborn is an early childhood educator and president of CAO Training Associates which offers workshops on parenting and early childhood education. She is the mother of six grown children and grandmother of thirteen.

Dear Carol:

Can The Terrible Twos start at 12 months? When do toddlers start testing limits? How can I respond when he does push limits or has a tantrum? Is a gentle smack on the hand to tell him “no” an acceptable form of discipline?

DC, Mom of 12-month-old son


Dear Mom of a 12 month old,

First, I’d like to start addressing this question by saying you are not alone in your thoughts or feelings. Many parents of young toddlers begin to wonder, “What happened to my sweet baby?”  The simple answer is that your child in growing up!

After many years of teaching, I have redefined the “terrible twos.” I like to call this autonomous stage of development the “terrific twos.” These children have tremendous motivation and persistence. Those attributes, along with curiosity, communication, confidence, and the ability to relate to others are the social emotional skills children need to succeed in school and life.

Babies are born to learn. So, I guess you could say that they are continually “testing limits”, from day one. What they are actually doing is learning about their world and how it works. They are explorers and investigators of life. They are seeking to find how they can get their needs met. Just as you or I might, babies get frustrated when they cannot get those needs met. That is when a tantrum may result. This happens until they learn other ways of gaining satisfaction.

Before the age of five, children are basically egocentric. All this means is that they are the center of their universe. All things start and end with them. Theirs is the only viewpoint. It is our job as parents to help them in the socialization process and guide their behavior in appropriate ways. Guidance is the forerunner of discipline. These very early years are the times when we show children what is acceptable and what is not.

I am not sure what limits your baby is pushing. However, I know that many one year olds want to begin feeding themselves, refusing to sit in their car seats, resisting naps, and wanting to grab everything in sight! Of course, they love touching buttons on the TV or stereo system. Why not? This is powerful¦they can make something happen. A picture comes on or the sound begins. This is fascinating for a young child and it is also how they learn.

You can see why I say this is a “terrific” time and not a “terrible” time? You want your baby to learn and grow and that’s what he’s doing daily. How can you help him to do it in a developmentally appropriate way? You mention a “gentle smack” on the hand. I’m guessing that one of the first things you want your baby to learn is not to hit. In that case hitting your child would be counter productive.

What you want to do is show your child what to do. If he is touching things that are dangerous, remove the danger and tell him in words, “No that is dangerous to touch. I will take you away to keep you safe.

It’s fun to walk your child around the house and tell him what is his to play with and what is yours. If there is something of yours that he can have, show him how to use it. Provide safe spaces for your child to explore and manipulate things; that is part of his learning.

At about 18 months discipline kicks in. Selma H. Frailberg in her book The Magic Years tell us that child rearing needs to be deliberate and based on knowing your child. “It should derive from an understanding of the developing child, of his physical and mental equipment at any give stage and, therefore, his readiness at any given stage to adapt, to learn, to regulate his behavior according to parental expectations.

In other words, we can define socialization and guidance as meaning, “to share rules for living through example, demonstration, explanation and focusing attention.” Discipline on the other hand would be “the enforcement of rules and the carrying out of consequences for transgression of rules.” (J. Ronald Lally, WestEd, The Program for Infant/Toddler Care.)

To answer your question on how to respond to your child’s tantrum or testing of limits, begin by sharing expectations with your 12 month old and then around 18 to 24 months when language begins to become more developed, begin with a few simple rules, consequences and the enforcement of those rules. Physical punishment does not work. Time out can complicate the matter, but giving your child a space and opportunity to compose himself is important. Stay with him and talk him through the tantrum. This will strengthen his trust in you and your relationship.

The relationship between parent and child is the strongest factor in the socialization and guidance process. I know you love your baby. Relax and enjoy each moment. He is growing up fast!

Do you have a parenting question that you’d like answered?
Email Carol Osborn at


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