The Not So Terrible Two’s

Parents have historically been forewarned about the “terrible two’s,” that stage of life when their child turns from a sweet little toddler into a monster.  What they have not been told, unfortunately, is that it is one of the most important developmental stages they will ever witness.  During the second year of life children begin to differentiate from their parents.  As they explore the world on their own you can see them hastily returning to the safety of their parent’s arms when they become frightened.  It is also a time when they develop more independent cognitive skills.  In order to define themselves as separate from their parents they often become disagreeable.  To establish their own sense of self they begin to use the word “no” very effectively, and repetitively.  With the proper attitude, however, it can really be quite a wonderful time for parents as they watch their children develop a better sense of themselves.  Regrettably, parents often view their child’s natural progression into a freethinking individual as defiance that is taken all too personally.  

The struggle that children experience between the poles of their developing independence, and the security they find in rushing back to the safety of their parents, is called “disequilibrium.”  That’s why one minute they can appear to be determined and defiant – relentlessly saying that they are not going to get dressed and flailing around until you feel you have to restrain them – and the next minute they can be clinging to your pant leg and telling you how much they love you.  Unfortunately, the disequilibrium they experience is often transferred to their parents as well, who end up feeling “off balance” too.  The cycle of distancing and clinging that the two year old goes through can be very frustrating for parent and child alike.

To be able to enjoy your child’s developing personality you will have to learn how to parent in new ways.  In the stage prior to the “terrible two’s” you could easily persuade your child to follow your lead.  Children are still attached to their parents in their first year of life and instinctively know that if they separate from them prematurely they may not be able to survive the insecurity of being alone in the world.  In the second year of life parents can no longer persuade their child to obey them.  As children begin to separate from their parents in earnest, they become noncompliant.  At this stage, the task for parents is remain firm, set realistic boundaries, have appropriate consequences, and most importantly, be consistent.  Your child needs to know that their world is predictable, and even though they may rail against you, they will be reassured if they know that your reaction isn’t dictated by the fluctuation of their mood.

The following two examples illustrate two diverse styles of parenting.  They both brought their two year olds into therapy with them because they didn’t have day care.  Anna was a strong-willed parent who was raised by parents in a low socio-economic environment.  She was told what to do by a stern mother and learned how to comply or else risk the consequence.  When her son, Timothy, began playing with the light socket in my office (don’t all two year olds love light sockets!) she slapped his hand and told him “No!” with such suddenness that it startled me.  Tim began to cry, but Anna just kept on talking to me while ignoring Tim.  I am not a big fan of hitting or spanking, and debated talking to her about her brusque attitude towards her son, but before I could gather my thoughts Tim stopped crying, resumed playing with his toys, and never went near the light socket again.

Joan, on the other hand, was raised in a higher socio-economic bracket that emphasized understanding above all else.  In contrast to Anna, when her son Jason began playing with the light socket Joan stopped her therapy session and attended to him.  She said “now remember sweetie, we don’t play with light sockets.”  Jason was determined, however.  After moving away from the socket he quietly worked his way back.  Joan stopped her therapy again and said, “Jason, sweetie, mommy told you that you can’t play with the light socket.  Now come here and sit on my lap.”  Predictably, Jason said “No.”  “Now Jason, mommy asked you to come here.”  “No.  I don’t want to,” he said.  Joan, looking a little flustered said, “Jason, I have some keys in my purse, do you want to play with the keys?  (She held them up and started jingling them.)  “No.  I don’t want to,” he said again, and started inching his way back to the light socket challenging her to stop him.  As you can imagine, this went on for most of the therapy session.  Joan finally got her son to do what she wanted, but not after he was rewarded with his mother’s attention and a “special treat” once he stopped playing with the socket.

Let’s look at these two examples.  Obviously, these women were from two different socio-economic backgrounds and were raised with completely different values.  Anna was no nonsense.  Joan was very intellectual.  Both mothers loved their children.  But, whereas Tim learned where the boundary was around the light socket quickly, Jason learned that if he defied his mother he would not only get his attention, he would also get a “special treat.”  There was a lot of incentive for Jason to defy Joan, while there was no incentive for Tim to defy Anna.  Joan’s method of parenting was clearly ineffective for this stage of her child’s development.  It was also dangerous because she did not make it clear to her son that sticking things into light sockets could be harmful to him.  The devotional attention that she gave Jason was better suited for when he was one year old, not two.  In some respects, she reinforced the notion of the “terrible two’s” because she did not adapt her parenting style to Jason’s stage of development.  Jason ended up holding the power in his relationship to his mother, while his counterpart, Tim, knew who was in charge and to stay away from light sockets!

Although Anna’s method was more effective, it is foolish to think that Tim will not feel the pressure of disequilibrium again.  He will, and probably soon.  Jason will as well.  But Tim’s outbursts will subside more quickly than Jason’s because he will be given a consistent message, and a consistent consequence, when his behavior crosses the line.  Jason, on the other hand, will learn how to get his mother to reason with him indefinitely, and will come to see it as a game that he can play to get his mother’s attention.  When she is not able to take the time to reason with him his behavior will escalate until he gets the attention he expects from her.  Joan will end up feeling a lot of futility in her dealings with her son, and will probably chalk it up to the fact that he’s in the “terrible two’s,” but once she learns how to be firm, fair, and consistent the “terrible two’s” will no longer be so terrible.

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