Updated February 2019
It’s the infamous age of two (cue horror music), but don’t be scared! Just having a little knowledge about this age will go a long way in helping both of you navigate this new stage of toddlerhood (and perhaps make the “terrible twos” not so terrible).
At this age, your toddler has a bit more language, is all about playtime, and is working hard to figure out the world and his place in it.
Here’s what you can expect from your toddler between ages two and three.
Disclaimer: This is not a comprehensive behavioral-developmental synopsis. It is a cheat sheet outlining behavior and broad norms for what you can expect as far as a two-year-old’s capabilities and conduct.
Reminder: children ages 1-3 tend to go through times of “equilibrium” around whole years (1, 2, and 3) and “disequilibrium” around half-years (1.5, 2.5, and 3.5). So your little love may be super sweet at two, and a total terror at two-and-a-half. Just know you’re not alone; it’s all part of the growing-up game.
You will likely notice, for example, major changes between ages two and two-and-a-half, and then again more changes approaching three. The stereotypical troublesome behaviors known as the “terrible twos” often don’t kick in until closer to 30 months.
In comparison to 24-month-olds, who tend to be somewhat agreeable, two-and-a-half year olds are more likely to become “rigid, ritualistic, demanding, oppositional, and altogether difficult.”
Furthermore, girls tend to develop “ahead of schedule” compared to boys — so girls are apt to hit developmental milestones and generally move through developmental stages a bit more quickly than their male counterparts. (Hence, if your two-year-old is a girl, don’t be surprised if she’s ahead of the curve; if he’s a boy, don’t worry if he’s “dragging behind” a little.)
Oh, the Irony: Sameness and Opposites
Two-year-olds love repetition. They love sameness. They love to copy. If it were up to them, everything would be on repeat. You might start to feel like you’re listening to a broken record.
We know you’ve heard it before, and you’ll definitely hear it again: routines are your friend.
Be precise and nit-picky when you set them up, because once a pattern has been established, it can be hard to break. In other words, be thoughtful and conscientious about how you want to set up your routines before you jump into something haphazardly.
Case in point: morning and evening/bedtime rituals — two classics.
The basic premise is that your life might run more smoothly if your toddler’s routines follow an expected pattern each time – especially if you have to get out the door and be somewhere.
For example, mornings might look something like this: diaper change, get dressed, milk, a little playtime, breakfast, and then a story before heading out the door (for work/daycare, a walk, a playdate, whatever).
It’s especially recommended to have a similar wind-down routine in the evening to help prepare your kiddo for bedtime. You don’t have to be robotic about it, but most kids respond to bedtime routines because they know what to expect and when.
You might follow dinner with a bath, then put on jammies, then maybe some quiet playtime — and maybe even reading the same bedtime book(s). Dimming the lights and turning off screens for at least an hour before bedtime is an added bonus. Do whatever works for you, but following a routine is key for minimizing bedtime battles.
In general, the idea is to keep things as predictable as possible — on a grand and small scale. And remember: with your two-year-old, variety is not the spice of life.
But … there’s always a twist, isn’t there? Even though they might be obsessed with things being the same, or doing the same thing over and over and over again, two-year-olds also just love extreme opposites. Their propensity for polarity stems from their developmental drive to learn about everything and figure things out for themselves.
They are simply learning physics by doing.
Primal Instinct: Independence
A child’s third year of life (24 months +) is practically defined by his efforts to establish himself as a unique individual, separate from the rest of the world and other people.
His primary drive—in all that he does—involves asserting his autonomy. This is where all the NO’s, tantrums, opposition, bossiness, demands, rigidity, stubbornness, and negativism come from. Since two-year-olds still don’t have the ability to exercise self-control, it’s fairly impossible to reason with them.
Parents: don’t fret or feel bad about this! Though it can certainly cause us a lot of distress, this is healthy toddler behavior; it’s very normal for two-year-olds to push boundaries and continuously assert their independence. This is how they learn.
You can also rest assured that your child isn’t acting defiantly to hurt or upset you—it’s simply a two-year-old’s instinct to be a bit…rebellious.
So when your child sadistically stares into your soul while she performs whatever forbidden thing you’ve told her not to, she’s not taunting you (per se, lol) … she’s simply exploring her identity, herself, and her abilities.
Though it’s always challenging when your toddler actively defies you, perhaps just knowing your two-year-old developmentally needs to strive for autonomy — he is programmed to do so — might help you get through some of the tougher moments (well, that and perhaps a glass of wine…). Check out more practical tips for navigating classic toddler power struggles in our Discipline Article (coming soon!).
While some two-year-olds might enjoy being around other young children, they still tend to keep to themselves when it comes to playing. They play near other children, but not with other children. Professionals refer to this as parallel play.
Even in playgroups, two-year-olds are mostly going to play individually and do their own thing. Still, experts note that playing in the presence of other children is beneficial and worthwhile for two-year-olds, even if it doesn’t look like they’re interacting as they do so.
When they do interact with their playmates, two-year-olds might even be a little — eek! — violent. As the experts from the Gessell Institute explain, two-year-olds are apt to hit, slap, push, and grab…on the regular. They aren’t particularly friendly. This kind of aggressive behavior towards other children (or adults or objects) is totally normal — it’s a toddler’s way of exploring, and these kids don’t yet fully understand that actions such as hitting are offensive or hurtful.
So parents, please don’t worry that you are raising a bully or have a violent child on your hands (at this age, at least). I promise this is all typical toddler behavior and developmentally normal, and as your child grows, so will his ability to communicate with words (and not fists).
Plus, remember that two-year-olds are deep in the throes of grappling with the self-vs.-the-rest-of-the-world thing. A child this age can’t quite understand the boundaries between himself and the objects and people around him, so he is not yet aware that his actions can hurt others.
To summarize ~
- Do expect them to be exceedingly possessive – it’s basically a requirement for any two-year-old to defend (as if his life depends on it) any object he’s ever thought about, played with, or might want to play with in the future. To understand how a two-year-old feels about another toddler playing with his toys, imagine how you’d feel if a total stranger asked if he could borrow your laptop. (Makes sense now, doesn’t it?)
- Don’t expect them to share or play nicely. Objects are everything to a child at two, and much of his “social” behavior is inevitably going to revolve around asserting occupancy rights over anything and everything. He can and will expend a great deal of energy declaring and maintaining ownership over whatever he sees or recalls or desires (so basically….everything).
Again, this means that we can’t expect two-year-olds to share. Nor can we expect them to take turns on their own (though you can certainly help them learn to “take turns” by waiting with them until another child is done playing with the desired toy). Or be generous. Or collaborate. Or make friends. At best, we can hope they’ll play nicely alongside each other.
Terrible Twos No More: The Beginnings of Empathy
BUT … this doesn’t mean we should expect it of them—merely that the emotional potential for empathy is budding during this year of life.
This might manifest in subtle ways, such as expressing distress when another child is crying, or in offering a hug or a toy to a person who appears upset. So rest assured that empathetic behavior, though probably not common, is on the horizon!
Now that you know what’s considered normal cognitive, social and developmentally appropriate behavior for a two-year-old, here’s a brief rundown of behavior that may warrant a call or visit to your pediatrician:
– Has a language delay or doesn’t talk at all
– Has unusual speaking patterns –uses strange tones, repeats words or phrases over and over
– May not respond to his/her name
– May laugh, cry or scream inappropriately
– Focuses on a single topic at a time, sometimes obsessively
– Doesn’t engage in pretend play
– Shows little interest in playing near others
– Displays rigid behavior and has increased difficulty with transitions
– Bites or hurts him or herself
– Exhibits repetitive motions, such as hand-flapping or arm-waving
– Extremely sensitive to many sensations such as smell, touch, noise, fabric, tags on clothes, etc.
– Has major sleep disturbances
– Has behavior problems such as aggression, hyperactivity, excessive impulsiveness, etc.
Some of these signs maybe indicate a delay or a more serious problem — or it could be nothing at all. To know for sure, please discuss with your child’s pediatrician.
Here’s what you can do: continue to hold reasonable (ahem, limited) expectations for your two-year-old in terms of behavior, social skills, and general conduct.
This will be your first and most important step in promoting your child’s success and maintaining your own sanity. Of course, remember these descriptions are generalizations and not hard-fast rules. The key is to keep them in the back of your mind as you begin experimenting with disciplinary approaches that work for you. Read about some tried-and-true disciplinary techniques for two-year-olds here (coming soon).
In the meantime, try not to focus on typical “terrible twos” behavior, and instead on all the incredible ways your child is growing. Enjoy watching her gain independence, empathy, and learn more about herself and the world. And keep up the great work!
Written and edited by Brittany Cowgill, Marissa Bader, Meg Collins and Alicia S. ~
Back to: Toddler Stuff
Ames, Louise Bates, Clyde Gillespie, Jacqueline Haines, and Frances L. Ilg. The Gesell Institute’s Child from One to Six: Evaluating the Behavior of the Preschool Child. 1st edition. New York: Harpercollins, 1979.
Ames, Louise Bates, and Frances L. Ilg. Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender. 4th Printing edition. New York, N.Y.: Dell, 1980.
Gopnik, Alison, Andrew N. Meltzoff, and Patricia K. Kuhl. The Scientist in the Crib: What Early Learning Tells Us About the Mind. Reprint edition. New York: William Morrow Paperbacks, 2000.
Schaefer, Charles E., and Theresa Foy DiGeronimo. Ages and Stages: A Parent’s Guide to Normal Childhood Development. 1 edition. New York: Wiley, 2000.
Myers, Robert, and PhD. “Moving Onwards – Your Two-Year-Old’s Development -.” Child Development Institute, June 15, 2015. https://childdevelopmentinfo.com/development/moving-onwards-your-two-year-olds-development/.
California Department of Education. “Ages and Stages of Development,” n.d. http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/re/caqdevelopment.asp.
Street, ZERO TO THREE 1255 23rd, NW Suite 350 Washington, and Dc 20037638-1144899-4301. “Coping with Defiance: Birth to Three Years.” ZERO TO THREE. Accessed August 24, 2017. https://www.zerotothree.org/resources/199-coping-with-defiance-birth-to-three-years.
 Louise Bates Ames et al., The Gesell Institute’s Child from One to Six: Evaluating the Behavior of the Preschool Child, 1st edition (New York: Harpercollins, 1979), 27.
 Ibid., 28.
 Louise Bates Ames and Frances L. Ilg, Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender, 4th Printing edition (New York, N.Y.: Dell, 1980), 23.