Terrible Twos

My 19-month-old son has always been a good boy and has done whatever I asked him to do. Recently he started refusing to do anything I ask of him. He has started crying and hitting me even when I ask him to do simple things. Where have I gone wrong? What should I be doing differently? Will he always be like this?
Redwood City, California

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

Children of perfect parents (if there were such a thing!) would still need to go through the developmental phase your son is going through. Ideal children do NOT always agree with their parents. Ideal parenting does not prevent the “Terrible Twos” — it helps children navigate them.

Although children are each born with a unique personality, their early experiences are profoundly influenced by their physical states and by their environments (primarily their parents). Thus, early on, your son’s desires tended to be either responses to physical needs (he was hungry and wanted to eat, he was sleepy and wanted to sleep, or he had a soiled diaper and wanted you to change it) or reflections of your desires. He wanted things that made you happy, that engaged your attention. When you smiled, he smiled. When you became tense, he became emotionally agitated. Through that first year a wonderful dance between parent and child developed as your son mirrored your moods. Because his moods were usually in synch with yours, he seemed like a “good boy.”

Gradually, though, sometime after he had mastered walking, an irresistible urge to make his own choices began to well up inside him. This is an exciting development, but the difficulty with his making an independent choice is that he must disagree with you in order for the choice to be his own. Now, when you ask him to do something, he refuses.

It is unpleasant to have anyone passionately disagree with you. When this opposition comes from your own little delight, the situation is decidedly disagreeable. Many people call this important phase of development the “Terrible Twos.” I prefer to call it “The First Adolescence.” This period begins long before age two and actually continues long afterwards, but in the majority of children, it is most intensely focused around the period from one-and-a-half to three years of age.

The hallmark of this stage is oppositional behavior. Our wonderful children instinctively want to do exactly the opposite of what we want. We have nice, reasonable expectations and they say, “NO!” or they simply dissolve into tears. Suppose you have some place to get to in a hurry. Your son has been in a great mood all day. . . until you say, “I need you to get into the car right now.” He will, of course, want to do anything except get into the car.

As if this weren’t enough, children in this phase of development have a great deal of difficulty making the choices they so desperately want to make. You ask your child what he would like for dinner, and he says macaroni. You lovingly prepare it for him, and then as soon as it’s made he says, “I don’t want that!” It is perfectly normal for him to reverse a decision as soon as he has made it, because at this stage, he even disagrees with himself.

His task is to gain skill at making appropriate choices. To help him accomplish this, offer your son limited choices at every opportunity. He will be demonstratively frustrated when he is given direct commands with no options. He will decompensate if he has too many alternatives. Two or three options generally works best.

Make sure the choices you offer fall within an appropriate agenda. Your son still needs the security of knowing that he’s not calling all the shots. When it’s time to eat, say something like, “Would you rather have a slice of apple or a banana?” He feels both the reassuring limits that you set and the freedom to exercise his power within those limits. If there are two things he needs to do, let him decide which to do first, when appropriate.

This phase is difficult for parents; it is also hard for children. When children take a stand that opposes their parents, they experience intense emotions. Although they are driven to become their own unique persons, they also long to please their parents. Even now, when I do something that my parents disagree with, I feel very conflicted. I am an adult, living in a different city, with well-thought-out choices — and it is still quite difficult. For a child who is tentatively learning to make choices, who is dependent on his parents for food, shelter, and emotional support, it’s even more intense. Dissolving into tears is an appropriate expression of the inner turmoil that is so real for children who are in the midst of this process.

I like to think of the process as similar to childbirth. Labor is a very intense experience. Pain, after pain, after pain eventually produces something beautiful– a child is born. The episodes of oppositional behavior in “First Adolescence” are psychological labor pains — one difficult situation, then another, and another, and as a result your son’s own persona is being born psychologically. This is a beautiful (but difficult) time with a truly worthwhile result.

As an oak tree is already present in an acorn, this aspect of your son’s unfolding development was already present when he was conceived. Although you will have a large impact on its course, it’s not caused by something you are doing wrong, and it won’t last forever.

Dr. Alan Greene

Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.

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  1. Sharon

    I have a 2 year old daughter who is going on 16. I was ready to pull my hair out and was tired of her telling me what to do and tired of yelling at her in return. Then I came across this program smartparentreviews . com/talking-to-toddlers-review/, which was heaven sent. I saw improvements after the first lesson. It was a miracle. I was waiting for her to fight back and then there was nothing. The conflict was resolved. Wow! The program was worth every single penny.

  2. Denise and michelle

    Hello a question for you i care for my granddaughter while her mother worksand have since her birth whilst changing her nappy she had a tantrum like she was affraid and scared of the floor .I had to do it whilst she was standing very difficult I told my daughter and she said it happened the same that evening and again in the following morning ..is this part of her independence ? Frustrated nanny and mummy.

  3. Peter Kulis

    Raising young children is always hard. We as parents have a responsibility to care for and guide our children. As a father of 4 boys, I can tell you that I have needed some “insight” from time to time. I found that this information was extremely helpful to get through the rough waters and enjoy them for who they are and not judge them by their actions. Any guidance is always helpful.

  4. Lynette Cox

    This seems to be so right on. My precious and wonderful grandson will be 2 on February 3, 2015 and you totally described everything that is happening with him. He is my world and I love reading things that help me (his Nana) relate to him. Looking forward to reading more from you.


  5. Wendy Garrido

    I appreciate the acknowledgement that there is no such thing as a perfect parent and want to take a moment to point that tout. There IS NO SUCH THING, so let’s GIVE OURSELVES A BREAK! I also agree that this period of growing independence doesn’t magically start on their 2nd birthday, but starts well-before then & lasts a while after.

    I disagree, however, that “…the urge to make his own choices” wells up sometime after baby begins walking. Babies are constantly making their own choices. The motivation to roll over, crawl and to stand are all sourced from a child’s urge to make their own choices.

    As kids get older, there are more choices to make, and because the early days of parenting “train” us so well to DO everything for our child and MAKE all the decisions, we are USED to making nearly all the decisions that impact our child.

    It is not so much that “…the difficulty with his making an independent choice is that he must disagree with you in order for the choice to be his own.”

    The issue is that most of us give kids so FEW opportunities to make an independent choice throughout the day, that their only option to feel a sense of choicefulness & control over their life is to disagree with those few options we do give them.

    The way out of this conundrum is to empower them with choice & responsibility in MORE areas of their life, and to structure the choice & responsibility in such a way that IT WORKS FOR YOU, TOO, and you will find yourself with a much more cooperative little person, who throws far fewer tantrums.

    So if you’re struggling with your little one, don’t give up hope. Thankfully, as a parent of a two year old, you have SO MUCH influence over the dynamic with your child (more than you probably realize).

    It’s just that you don’t know exactly how to USE your influence, and who can blame you?? There IS no ‘driver’s ed” for parenting, so you’re basically winging it, probably doing the same as, or the opposite of, what your parents did… But there ARE strategies — PRACTICAL strategies — that can dynamically transform your relationship with your child, now, and in the future. So don’t “grit your teeth” and get through this phase. Find a way to enjoy almost every day of it.

    • Wendy Garrido

      Hi Cheryl,

      I’m confused by your post.

      It is posted as a “Reply” to my post and it looks like you’re grading my approach and giving it a “C-“. Is that what you mean? And if so, like any good teacher, would you mind explaining your rationale?

      Or was it an accidental post??

      I put a lot of thought and energy in to mine and would appreciate the same in any comments about it. That said, I do appreciate my post being approved.

      Look forward to continuing the conversation!


      • Wendy Garrido

        :) Thanks so much for the explanation, Cheryl, that makes a lot more sense! :)

        It did cross my mind that maybe it stood for your name, but I just couldn’t make sense of the combination. Like any good student, I’m SO GLAD I ASKED!


        Thanks for approving the post and taking the time to explain. All the best.


        FYI, when I click on your name above, it shows me another post in another thread where that happened as well.

        • Wendy,

          Thank YOU for pointing out my error. I hope I found the other “Approach” that made it through and deleted it. Disqus is awesome, but if you’re one character off (which obviously happens to me) the whole thing goes wrong ;)

    • Great point re: they have many choices starting from birth. I think their choices increase over time and walking gives them many more opportunities for choice. And I think you and Dr. Greene agree, just using slightly different words.

      I also agree that the goal is to find a way to enjoy this time period. It goes by so quickly. What seems hard now is very temporary in the grand scheme of things.

      • Wendy Garrido


        And because of the temporary nature of each challenge, so often parents get stuck on a down-hill trajectory feeling more frustrated & more disconnected from their child over time because they:

        A) don’t know how to best address the current challenge, and

        B) they know it’s going to change eventually, so they hope it’ll be better in the next phase.

        One of the biggest ways my clients benefit from working with me is in receiving practical strategies to address the IMMEDIATE struggles, which also serve to BUILD trust & connection between parent & child so that the next phase is actually much EASIER than it would have been otherwise.

        If you’re a parent of a two-year0old who is reading this thread & you’re desperate for help, don’t stop here. Many people, myself included, offer free initial consults so make a call, send an email, or even just reply to this thread now (before you get distracted) so you can start to get the help you & your child both deserve.

        • Alli Divo

          I would love more advice and help for our 21 month old.


        • Ingrid

          Me too! I’m new here, though, and have no idea how to get your contact information!

          • We do not publish contact information on the site, but if the two of you would like to connect offline, I (as site administrator) can email you each other’s email addresses. Just let me know that you’re good with that and I’ll make it happen.

            Or you can continue your conversation here :)

        • Michel

          Hello Wendy/Cheryl
          That’s a great article and very informative comments also. We would really welcome some help as experiencing same struggles with our 2-year old. We really, as you said, are on the down-hill trajectory and feel lost, trying to grab bits and pieces of information to help.

          Thank you


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