The Terrible Twos Reconsidered: Toddlers Are Trying, They’re Just Frustrated

Put yourself in the tiny shoes of a two-year-old for a second.

It must be really frustrating being a toddler.

Like, initially it’s fairly stress-free. Toddlers don’t have to worry about work or bills or anything, they always know where the next meal is coming from and nobody’s relying on them for anything. At the same time, they’re hitting a point developmentally where the world must just seem crazy. They’re suddenly taking in and processing loads of information at a hell of a pace, and everything just gets more and more mysterious and difficult – and then it’s tantrum city.

Put yourself in the tiny shoes of a two-year-old for a second. You can walk, and talk, and are pretty pleased about both those things. The giants that look after you shower you with affection. They show you funny pigs on the telly and read you books about Gruffaloes. You can sing, and whenever you do it everyone things it’s just great.

But the more you understand, the more limitations you see. You’re not allowed to eat whatever you want. Sometimes the giants manhandle you into bed when you don’t want to go. You’re having a fun yell and they get angry. They were all excited about you being starting to talk, and now they want you to shut up? You can understand loads of words, but can’t quite articulate what you want to say when you have strong feelings. They took you to the zoo and it didn’t have a Gruffalo, the tiger wasn’t funny, and the pig didn’t look anything like the ones on the telly. Everything is a lie.

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That’s what two-year-olds must feel like. I’ve got one – she lives with me, I love her and one day she’ll (pretty understandably) resent having my nose. But at the moment she’s absolutely livid all the time. She kicks! She scratches! She pulls my beard! It’s incredibly stressful! None of the tension-resolving tactics adults deploy – talking things through, sulking on the sofa, slagging people off, binge-drinking – are available to her, so it’s just screaming and kicking all the way.

I myself shouted “GOD DAMN IT!” regrettably loudly the other day after she threw her lunch, which consisted solely of foods she loves, at the window. Why did she do that? At the time, it felt like she was doing it to be annoying, but it was probably borne out of frustration at all those complicated abstract ideas – agency, freedom, decision-making – feeling just out of reach to her.

She probably wanted to say something along the lines of: “Father dearest, while I adore you and appreciate you making this wonderful, nutritious meal for me, I’m rather in the mood for something different. That Nando’s we enjoyed a few weeks ago was a delight – could you, perchance, procure more of that sumptuousness?” But she can’t speak like that yet so what came out was “No mont it! AAAAAAAAAAAAGH!” and an airborne plastic bowl.

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The summer after doing my GCSEs I was really confident I pretty much spoke Spanish. I’d done it in school and was one of the better students in my class, and confidently asked a woman in Madrid for directions. She answered, and I immediately realised, I didn’t speak Spanish at all. I understood maybe one word in fifty. That kind of rug-pulling moment must be going on for little kids, but instead of the nuanced emotions I felt – embarrassed, devoid of confidence, immediately sure I’d ballsed up my exams – all toddlers can do is freak out.

Every time they think they’ve figured the world out, someone massive comes along, garbles a bunch of nonsense at them they don’t understand, then picks them up and plonks them somewhere they don’t want to be.

So, maybe we should reframe how we think about “the terrible twos”. Toddlers aren’t monsters, they’re just pissed off. They’re learning so much, so fast that everything’s bound to be a bit overwhelming, yet however much they figure out about being a person they’re not treated like a proper one.

It’s something to think about while cleaning spinach off the window, anyway.