Two-year-olds get all the buzz, but the truth is, tantrums and mayhem can strike at any age, for a variety of reasons. “Most toddlers begin testing limits shortly after their first birthday and continue until about age four,” says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411.
So how did the Terrible Twos become such a pop-parenting phenomenon? “It's an old-fashioned idea and not supported by research,” says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Center at Yale University. The term was coined in the 1950s, perhaps because so much pressure was put on families to be detergent-commercial perfect that the moment a child grew out of compliant infancy, moms were freaked out. But modern parents agree—every kid is different, and every year presents new joys and challenges. Read on for a fresh perspective on each stage.
What's to Love: They can be wonderfully cuddly. And since many 1-year-olds haven't yet realized the power of the word “no” to antagonize you, they can often be more compliant than their 2- to 4-year-old sibs. Their distractible nature means you can get them to stop fiddling with the oven knob by giving them a pot and a spoon to bang with.
What's Tough About It: Establishing good sleep patterns is still a struggle throughout this year, as you drop the morning nap, lengthen the midday one, and solidify bedtime. All that snooze drama can make for an overtired, cranky kid. In addition, his limited vocabulary makes for misunderstandings. (He says “nana.” You put him on the phone with Nana Helen. He wanted a banana. Cue meltdown.)
How To Make the Most of It: They need about 13 hours of sleep (11 at night and 2 during the day), so try to make it happen, suggests Bronwyn Charlton, Ph.D., co-founder of SeedlingsGroup, a collective of child-development experts in New York City. Inadequate sleep stacks the deck against you: A tired toddler is a cranky toddler.
What's to Love: There's no denying it—2-year-olds are stinking cute! Their curiosity about the world is infectious. And while they certainly get into trouble, their mishaps feel accidental, making them easier to forgive.
What's Tough About It: Two-year-olds are fully mobile. Translation: They're into everything. And that means this is the first time you've had to set limits (no climbing the bookcase, crossing the street, or picking up cigarette butts off the sidewalk). Your child has never heard “no” so many times in her short life—and she doesn't like it. To top it all off, 2-year-olds don't yet have the language to express feelings, so they resort to pitching fits. Their young brains can't handle extreme emotions without going a bit haywire.
How to Make The Most of It: Praise often: “You didn't throw any toys today! Great job!” When she blows her stack, ignore her, as long as she isn't hurting anyone. Yelling or attempts to subdue—even with affection—make tantrums last longer. Kazdin notes that a tantrum is a futile time for discipline. “Wait until your child is able to absorb what you say.”
What's to Love: The reasoning skills that can make life with a 3-year-old trying also make it easier for him to understand why he has to wear sunscreen. And his ballooning vocabulary means no more misunderstandings. Plus, how cool is it that you're having a conversation with your kid?
What's Tough About It: “Research shows that age three is the peak of defiant behavior,” says Kazdin. You're more controlling (you have to be—he's a force of nature now!), but he wants autonomy desperately, which makes life a series of battles. And your child is up for it: That improved reasoning lets him enter into high-level negotiations (“I'll put on my pajamas now if you give me a piece of chocolate”).
How to Make the Most Out of It: If what he's doing—say, taking all the clothes out of his drawer—isn't hurting anyone, ignore him. “Behavior that gets no attention will go away,” promises Charlton. In nonnegotiable cases, carefully restrain your child or move him to another place.
What's to Love: Your child's personality expresses itself more, so you'll know her triggers and what to do when something does set her off. And since she's likely in preschool now, you both get a break from each other. That makes a big difference in your energy and patience.
What's Tough About It: Think age 3, but with an even larger vocabulary with which to slay you. Plus, 4-year-olds are navigating new social waters in the outside world, so they're more likely to act up at home.
How to Make the Most Of It: When she has a fit, stay calm. Afterward, ask “Can you think of something better to do next time?” Share your own tricks, too: “When I get upset, I like to close my eyes and take a deep breath.”
Do you have a terrible or terrific 1, 2, 3, or 4-year-old? Take our quiz!Age 1
Your 18-month-old fights like mad against being strapped into his car seat. You finally click the buckle. He…
A Wails for the whole 20-minute ride to the store and bites you when you take him out.
B Cries for five minutes and then falls asleep.
C Is quickly distracted by the sippy cup you offer.
Every morning when you leave for work, he…
A Clings to you for the entire 30 minutes before you go, as you apply mascara, choose earrings, and eat breakfast. If you attempt to put him down or hand him off for a second, he lets the entire neighborhood know that hell hath no fury like a baby scorned.
B Sobs as you say goodbye and bangs against the door for a few minutes after you've gone.
C Objects just enough for you to feel loved.
It's time for her afternoon nap. She…
A Hides under the couch where you can't reach her and shrieks amid the dust bunnies.
B Allows you to put her in the crib, but rattles the railings and cries for 20 minutes.
C Falls asleep if you stroke her cheek for a minute.
In the car, your son drops his favorite book in that spot where neither of you can reach it. He…
A Screams bloody murder until you pull over and get him the $#&!ing book.
B Cries for a while but settles down when you hand him a small bag of Cheerios.
C Says “Oopsie!” and gazes out the window.
Your daughter can't get the shirt off her doll. She becomes frustrated, but when you offer to help with the undressing, she…
A Yells “No!” and whips the doll at you before breaking down in tears.
B Throws the doll on the floor and gives up.
C Sits quietly and watches how you do it.
At a playdate, your boy's friend snatches something he was playing with. He…
A Throws himself on top of his friend and wrests the toy out of his hands, twisting his pal's arm in the process. In front of his mother, no less.
B Whimpers a bit, then engages in a brief tug-of-war with his playmate.
C Looks annoyed but quickly finds another toy.
Walking out of the mall, she asks to be carried. You're pushing her baby sister in a stroller. When you refuse, she…
A Throws herself down in the middle of the parking lot, forcing you to break out some heavy-duty threats (no Disney World, ever!) or bribes (a lollipop! Five lollipops!).
B Moves as slowly as an inchworm, stretching out the trek to the car to an agonizing 20 minutes.
C Scowls briefly.
Your son finishes his ice cream and asks for more. You say no, and he…
A Tantrums so hard that he throws up.
B Repeats “But why?” in Most Annoying Voice Ever for five minutes before giving up.
C Says “I really like ice cream a lot.”
You give your girl a pink cup instead of red. She…
A Spills the contents of the offensive cup on your shoes and squawks “Wrong, Daddy!”
B Whimpers until you make the switch.
C Pouts cutely when you say the red cup is dirty.
Your daughter notices that you have given an eighth of an inch more juice to her brother. She…
A Spills both glasses out of spite.
B Surreptitiously switches the glasses.
C Asks for a little more juice, please.
When it's time to leave the playground, she…
A Screams “No way, lady!” then keeps playing.
B Hard-bargains 15 more minutes out of you, but then leaves calmly.
C Nods in agreement and begins searching the grounds for her lost hair clip.
Your son is playing superheroes. When his friend tells him he can't be Iron Man because he's not strong enough, your son…
A Demonstrates his strength by punching him.
B Tells him he doesn't want to play anymore and hops on your lap for a cuddle.
C Ignores the unkind remark and keeps on playing.
How did your kid score?
Two or more C's We don't believe you. But if you're telling the truth, consider yourself very lucky. That kid is a dream.
Two or more B's Your child is typical, with good and bad days. That's to be expected from a “preoperational thinker” (illogical and unable to consider other points of view), which is what all kids are until about age 6.
Two or more A's Twenty percent of babies are born with a high-need temperament, which can last years. A spirited kid is exhausting, but he is not “bad” and, with your love, will grow up happy and well-adjusted.