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Terrible Twos

“Mom, Joshua developed the “terrible twos” overnight! Yesterday he was docile and loved going to the park. Today when I asked him if he wanted to go to the park he said no, really loud.”

“Then when I asked him to stop playing with the liquid soap at the sink he said no and yelled “go way.” What do I do?”

You have to develop as fast as he is doing so. In other words you need to develop some new ways to parent “overnight.”

What makes a sweet, docile baby morph into a cantankerous creature? Maturity! In two short years a baby goes from being a totally helpless entity to an autonomous child who can clearly say what he does and doesn’t want to do. What an accomplishment! Hooray for the wondrous human brain, programmed to take in information from the environment and make neuronal connections. Each of these tiny connections is a bit of knowledge about the world we live in and how to act in that world.

But, despite Joshua’s overnight change, human development is a long process. Psychosocial development begins at birth. A newborn baby has a lot of separation to do. First is separation from the mother’s womb. Next there is the “psychological separation” from the mother when babies begin to recognize self from non-self. Baby starts exploring Mother’s face and then touches and tastes everything within reach. Next is the “motor separation” from Mother when Baby can crawl or toddle away. It’s interesting to watch a baby crawl away and then scurry back to the mother, a behavior once described as “emotional refueling.” Both crawling away and getting safely back are accomplishments. During this stage parents provide a safe environment so baby can go back and forth. Each skill that is mastered gives the child an increasing sense of self and autonomy.

However, parents must still watch over and protect the child who does not yet know the boundaries of safe or acceptable actions. So parents must keep saying, “No!” The negativism Joshua displayed is an example of the frustration children exhibit because of their lack of complete autonomy. They have developed enough to know what fun it is to explore or do whatever they want. But they will need parental control and guidance for many years.

The term “terrible twos” was used to describe this stage and was attributed to Dr. Frances Ilg. She worked with Arnold Gesell, the renowned pediatrician and psychologist who put child development on the map. While writing my first book I called her to find out where the term came from. She laughed and said the term was a misunderstanding. The toddler’s tantrum indicates normal development of the child’s will as he or she becomes independent of the parent but does not yet have autonomy or know how to express feelings. Hence a meltdown. This indicates normal development and can occur earlier or later than age two.

What specifically does a parent do? First of all rejoice in your child’s advancing development! Second, change your parenting strategies. Continue to give your developing child as many choices and as much autonomy as possible. Examples: choices of what to wear or which book to read. But if it is time to go to the park for outdoor exercise, say so. “It’s time to go to the park, Joshua.” If you get a “donwannago” response, quietly repeat that it’s time to go.

Talk softly but firmly. Be clear in your expectations. Don’t coax, wheedle, or talk about all the fun he will have at the park. Use as few words as possible. What you want to get across is that the “battle ” is not between you and your child but rather it is time to go to the park. This as analogous to saying, “The rule is no hitting.” An abstraction, not your will against his.

What if the above strategy doesn’t work and the response is a full-blown tantrum instead of grudging cooperation? That’s another column but if your child is showing a tendency to tantrum, click here.

Other principles of parenting that will help at this stage include basics like picking your battles and working with, not against, your child’s biorhythms. Don’t exert your autonomy if the child is hungry or it’s naptime.

Finally, feel and act in charge. You are the parent, the one in charge. Accept this role for your child’s sake. As I have written many times, kids feel scared if you abdicate this role by giving in and letting them be in charge. By the time they are able to have a full-blown tantrum they are smart enough to realize they can’t rule the world. That’s what Mommy and Daddy do.