The Emotional Development of Two-Year-Olds

By Shannon Bussnick, LSW

You can find Shannon’s blog at

The world of a two-year-old is complicated to say the least. One moment they are smiling, exploring their environment with a sense of joy and wonder; while the next, they are tearful and solemn—or easily frustrated by just about anything, or anyone, they come in contact with!

Though this up-and-down behavior may be puzzling for parents to understand at first, and perhaps a bit exhausting to navigate each day, such varying emotional states are quite normal and a result of healthy toddler development.

When looking at the many research studies conducted on the emotional development of two-year-olds, there are many significant findings.

In particular, it’s been widely accepted that how a child is cared for, the safety of their environment, and their exposure to positive learning experiences can all play a large part in helping—or hindering—the creation of a secure, confident sense-of-self. 

The Emotional Development of Two-Year-Olds: What the Experts Say

In order to understand the emotional development of two-year-olds and to provide the safety and security they need to thrive, we must look at the world through their perspective.

We must remember that a two-year-olds’ life experience is limited; how they view and make sense of the world around them is molded by every minor, and major, interaction they have—the good, bad, and impartial.

Let’s take a look at some of the emotional milestones to expect at this age.

The Formation of Sense of Self

Starting around the age of 18-24 months it’s common for children to understand the concept of having their own identity.

As stated by Dowling (2014), “We begin to recognize ourselves from early on. After about 18 months old a toddler will have a pretty good idea that the reflection shown in a mirror is a representation of herself…This heralds the early recognition of self.”

Even before a toddler begins recognizing the ‘self,’ young babies start to form a picture of themselves based on how they are treated by those closest to them—especially their mothers.

A mother’s love and recognition is often the first signal that they are someone who matters.

If this early emotional connection does not occur in infancy, or the attachment is strained or conflicted in any way, the emotional development of toddlers can be greatly affected. 

Mimicking Others

At this age, children are beginning to mirror the behavior and emotional responses they are exposed to the most—even if they cannot make complete sense of that behavior yet.

In the study, Toddlers’ Understanding of Peers’ Emotions, it was demonstrated that by the end of the second year of life toddlers are more sophisticated readers of emotion messages as well as of peers. 

And since two-year-olds are constantly observing the emotional messages conveyed to them, it’s also suggested that this is a time when empathy may start to develop (Nichols et al., 2010).

Still, while many children are making strides with social referencing, and playing with or alongside others, the desire for independence, autonomy, and self-expression will continue to be at the forefront.

Difficulty Regulating Emotions

With new emotions and experiences flooding their growing brains by the minute, it can be difficult for two-year-olds to control and regulate emotional impulses.

As a result, while learning to process new information, understand boundaries and rule-setting, and communicate as best they can with a limited vocabulary, it’s common for undesirable behavior to show up in the form of crying, hitting, yelling, or biting.

Although this behavior may be taxing for parents, caretakers, and professionals to address, it’s vital to accept and respect the emotions experienced by a toddler.

For it’s not usually the emotion that is problematic, but rather, the actions or interpretations that can follow (Hyson, 2004).

By saying “I understand you’re frustrated and it’s OK to be frustrated—but it’s not ok to hit,” we allow a child to own their emotions, but also find more productive ways to cope with hard feelings.

While certain undesirable behavior is common to show up for toddlers trying to regulate emotions and communicate their wants and needs, such behavior should not be ignored or encouraged.

If you notice your child is frequently agitated or under stress, it’s always recommended to talk to your Pediatrician.

Defiant Behavior

During this developmental stage it’s common for toddlers to begin testing limits—especially in the environment they’re most familiar, with those they’re closest to.

In other words, if a two-year-old is told not to do something, they most likely will try their hardest to do it.

This is because a level of trust and comfort has already been established with their caretaker/s, which makes risk-taking feel more exhilarating and increases the desire to assert their newfound independence.

For this reason, individuals closest to a child often have the most influence, and responsibility, when it comes to guiding a two-year-olds’ emotional development.

Looking for toddler appropriate toys to strengthen their newfound skills?

We’re adding an article soon.

Photo by GOLFX


Leave a Comment