The ‘terrible twos’ describes a stage of mental and emotional development in kids that is marked by unpredictable behaviour. Sheryl L.Olson and Adam S. Grablell, authors of Defiant Behavior During Infancy and Early Childhood, say that this is common between the ages of 2–5 years. It declines as children develop age-appropriate skills for regulating negative emotions.
Why do two-year-olds seem so difficult?
Psychologists told Poppabum that this behaviour is all about a child beginning to find her place in the family and the world. This stage is marked by key milestones such as learning to communicate in small sentences, acquiring an understanding of basic concepts such as ‘yes and no’. This is when a sense of ‘self’ emerges. What seems like unruly behaviour is merely the child asserting her independence, testing boundaries.
This may be made worse by a sense of frustration in the child at being unable to fully express her needs. Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behaviour specialist and author of You’re Not the Boss of Me, writes that it is also about ‘learning to recognize that those desires may sometimes be different than those of the child’s caregivers’.
Parents tell there tale
Pritika Mahendru, a homemaker, was taken aback to be suddenly faced with an assertive toddler who would throw tantrums, cry for a toy, his favourite food or just more TV time. She was discussing it with her friends when the penny dropped - her son had become a bonafide member of the ‘terrible twos’ club!
Writer and professor, Meenakshi Rao told Poppabum that she felt as if she’d been hit by a tornado when her twins Veer and Veni turned two. “They would spill everything from water to milk to juice. Toys were no longer enough – they wanted to play with pots and pans and all things dangerous. They would test my patience and energy levels every day.”
"I felt as if I was hit by a tornado!"
Nothing 'terrible' about the twos
When Poppabum discussed this with Sukarma Dawer, a developmental psychologist with Children First, New Delhi, she said that she finds this epithet troubling. “This is a very important stage and should not be presented in a negative light. Children this age are learning to understand their emotions and find their voice. They discover that what they say matters, elicits a reaction, and has consequences. They use this to navigate their world better. Since negative behaviour seems to draw the strongest reaction, toddlers often repeat it to get more attention. However, this is a wonderful phase marked by learning, curiosity and exploration.”
How do I cope?
Since there is no such thing as a Hogwarts School of Parenting, first-time parents are usually left floundering. “There were times when we were so exhausted that we would simply give in,” says Pritika.
Dawer emphasizes that a flexible approach built on communication, explanation and negotiation works best. Her thoughts:
- Do not label the child’s behaviour as ‘bad’. A two-year-old may have no idea of the consequences of her actions.
- Help your child label her feelings, examine why she’s feeling that way, and finally, finding a fix. This requires sensitivity and patience but ultimately helps children learn to regulate emotions.
- Use positive affirmations and praise every time your child constructively communicates her emotions.
- Let your baby have some sense of control. Allow her to pick her snack, clothes or enjoy 30 more minutes of screen time. (However, don’t let her push you to make that 3 hours!)
- No compromise or mixed messages on emotional and physical safety. Parents must be stand their ground and explain how certain things may hurt him or her.
Is there a FINAL takeaway?
When faced with defiant behaviour, parents need to set firm boundaries.
Some tools to help you navigate:
- Calmly explain why a certain kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
- Negotiate and compromise till you come up with a solution acceptable to both of you.
- Distract with a favourite activity or game; or doing something that would pique her curiosity.
- Physically remove the child from a contentious situation.
- The final tool – time out – should be used sparingly so that it does not lose its efficacy.
- Once emotions have cooled down, explain to your toddler yet again why their behaviour was unacceptable.
All of this is a lot of work! But with a consistent approach you’ll raise a disciplined child who can be adaptable and reasonable. Now isn’t that a great foundation for a successful adult? Poppabum wishes you all the best.
(This post features our Pops Originals.)