Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT
Anna Baker M.A., OTR/L BCP SIPT LKS & Associates, Occupational Therapist
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The phrase “terrible twos” has been around for over seventy years for a good reason. The behaviors that start to emerge at this age can be pretty “terrible.”  A child that was previously so sweet and docile as an infant may turn into a cranky crying toddler with big tantrums. Why is it such a challenge and such a big change for children at this age?  Let’s find out. 

What are the Big Changes for a Two-Year-Old?

The first big area of change for a child at this age is movement.  Infancy is all about depending on an adult for movement through the home and immediate environment.  A child is carried into every task and has limited ability to move independently.  At the age of two to three years, however, the toddler has the run of the house.  Quite literally.  Toddlers can run quickly, climb stairs, and jump from elevated surfaces.  They love to explore with movement by walking backward, balancing on one foot, and jumping sideways.  They do not, however, have the best safety awareness when it comes to learning these new movements.  A parent’s limits on this exploration can be the proverbial “wet blanket.”  The second biggest area of change for a child of this age is the development of speech and language capabilities.  Children at this age have moved from 1-2 word phrases to up to 3 phrases and a large vocabulary.  That large vocabulary can make a lot of requests.  Setting limits on those requests can be a big challenge. The third biggest area of change for a child of this age is in the area of cognition.  A child under the age of two years generally learns through sensorimotor play or experimenting with objects to determine the function¹.  This is why cause-and-effect toys like a jack-in-the-box or push toys are so adored by children of this age.  After the age of two years, the preoperational stage of thinking emerges.  In this stage, children start to use words and language for self-talk.  They also generate pictorial images in the brain for mental shifts².  This is also the age where symbolic play emerges, and children will use an object to represent something else entirely.  A block can be a train or an airplane, or a cookie! Though the brain is starting to learn a lot of new information, the skills for problem-solving are not yet in place.  Thinking is still based on concrete past experiences that are limited as the child is so young.  Without problem-solving, a toddler often doesn’t know how dangerous something new can be and may put themselves into dangerous situations. At this age, everything becomes a toy and making boundaries on what is and is not a toy also leads to challenges. 

¹  Babakr et al., 2019

²  Babakr et al., 2019

How to Help Set Boundaries for a Two-Year-Old 

Setting limits on toddler behavior can be difficult and, in the face of a constantly changing daily schedule, may seem overwhelming.  Often, rushed parents may assume a child knows what to do in various situations.  This may not be the case.  Also, in a busy household, a toddler may not get a chance to communicate basic needs.  Here are some tips to help with the process of setting boundaries.  It’s great first to understand what clear communication looks like and then understand how to set boundaries.

Toddler Communication

A toddler is starting to use 1-3 words in communication, but these words may be difficult to understand at times and may be misunderstood.  Communicating clearly starts with clear communication by a caregiver.  Using long sentences with your child can be confusing and overwhelming.  When communicating with toddlers, it’s great to use short, clear sentences of 3-7 words to make requests such as “Wipe your nose, please” or “Use your spoon, please.”  When a child follows through with a request you communicated, it’s important to provide praise that is equally as specific, such as “Nice job wiping your nose by yourself!” or “I like how you used your spoon to get the strawberry!”  Sometimes, a child that can’t communicate a basic need (i.e. hunger, fatigue, thirst, cold, hot, etc.) may become frustrated and upset.  This is where a good communication partner is needed. A lot of what a toddler is trying to communicate may not be easy to understand as the child’s language skills are still developing.  This is where it may be helpful for a caregiver to use active listening³.  Active listening requires that the caregiver pay attention to the language and context of the child’s attempts to communicate, then respond to the intent of the communication. This may mean that the caregiver has to figure out what the child may need or want.  For example, a child is crying and rubbing his/her eyes.  A caregiver may go to the child, sit at the eye level of the child and say, “You’re crying and rubbing your eyes!  Are you feeling tired?”  The child may then nod their head or say “yes” and reach for a caregiver to take them down for a nap.  Alternatively, if the caregiver guessed wrong and the child didn’t want a nap, the child may then re-attempt to verbally communicate, “No want snack!”  A caregiver can then reflect as part of the active listening, “Oh, you want a snack!  You can say snack, please!”.  Giving the child the 2-3 word phrase can help the child build the communication skills to meet basic needs.  It may take several tries to determine exactly what a child is trying to communicate, but the important piece is that a caregiver is ready to engage in the active listening process with the child.  The more that the active listening process occurs, the more in tune a child and a caregiver will be.  Everyone wants to be heard.  This process sets the stage to encourage clear communication in the toddler years and even later into the elementary school and teen years. 

³ CDC, 2019

Creating Boundaries

According to the CDC, there are three main concepts to creating boundaries.  These concepts are consistency, predictability, and follow-through.  Consistency means the activity and consequences are the same each time.  Predictability means that everyone knows what will happen.  Follow-through means that the consequence is applied each time.   Creating boundaries occurs when a child knows the daily routine, follows the activities in the daily routine, and experiences consequences as a result of engaging in the daily routine.  Consequences may be positive, like getting a hug or a sticker for following directions.  Consequences may also be negative such as removing access to a toy or a time-out.  Each situation is different, but the consequences should be clear to the child and consistently applied by the adult.  A great example of creating a boundary is bath time.  Instead of having a child choose when and how to take a bath, create a consistent routine each time led by the adult.  Communicate your requests to the child in simple language, assist the child through the routine, and provide positive consequences after the routine.  Select a time, either morning or evening, whichever is more convenient in your schedule, and build a routine around what will happen.  As bathtime approaches, a child and parent together clean up the current activity, gather the materials for bathtime (bath toys, bath soap, towels, etc.), go to the bathroom, remove clothing, wash and play, then dry.  During the routine, it may be helpful to give specific praise for engaging in bathtime activities, such as, “Nice job carrying the towel!” or “Good putting your toys in the tub all by yourself!”.  It’s great for a child to assist at his/her level with each task.  As a toddler should not yet be expected to bathe independently, praise the child for small activities such as washing the arms or washing the feet.  Any help that a child gives in the task may benefit from praise to continue to support the engagement in the task.  After the bath time routine is complete, it may be helpful to provide a special reward like a favorite toy or book.   You can learn more about toddler behavior by checking out the books or websites below.  You can also contact the LKS office at 310-739-9337 or by email at  

4 CDC, 2019

Books (in alphabetical order):

“Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection – Not Punishment – to Raise Confident, Capable Kids” by Sarah Ockwell-Smith “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (The How to Talk Series)” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind” by Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson “Positive Discipline: The First Three Years: From Infant to Toddler – Laying the Foundation for Raising a Capable, Confident Child” by Jane Nelsen, Cheryl Erwin, & Roslyn Duffy Toddler Discipline for Every Age and Stage: Effective Strategies to Tame Tantrums, Overcome Challenges, and Help Your Child Grow” by Aubrey Hargis Websites:  The CDC milestone tracker:


Borst, H. (2022). Piaget’s stages of cognitive development. Babakr, Z.H., Mohamedamin, P., Kakamad, K. (2019). Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory: Critical review. Education Quarterly Reviews 2(3): 517-524.  Centers for Disease Control (2022, August 9). Important milestones: Your child by three years. Centers for Disease Control (2022, August 9). Important milestones: Your child by two years. Centers for Disease Control (2019, November 5). Quick tips: Three main keys to building    structure. Centers for Disease Control (2019, November 5). Quick tips: Three main keys to communicating    with your child.