The “Terrible twos” in a nutshell
Navigating the second year of your tot’s life may be one of your biggest challenges as a parent. Here are some tips on how to get through what’s sometimes referred to as the “terrible twos”
Two-year-old tots can have a bad reputation.
Childhood is complicated and messy. It’s unpredictable in the sense that every child is different and will most likely require a different (if even slightly) approach to parenting and discipline. One thing that is predictable about children is that they all go through similar developmental phases and stages – how each individual child progresses through each stage however is where we see the variances.
Throughout the early years in of a child’s life, development occurs in predictable phases, cycling in and out of peaceful equilibrium and breaking up phases. In my practice, I teach parents about the childhood maturational cycles observed by Dr. Arnold Gesell (gesellinstitute.org) that begin in the first weeks of life and repeat throughout development. When children are younger, the phases of development cycle through faster as the child is quickly learning, growing, and maturing. Around the age of 24 months these cycles slow down a bit, and children move through the developmental phases at roughly 6 month intervals (the rate at which each individual child cycles through may be more slowly or quickly, but the sequential progression of the phases is relatively stable and predictable for all children – i.e., it’s the order of the phases that is predictable, but not always the timetable).
Because of the six month cycles in the child’s early years, it’s inaccurate to lump all two-year-olds into the same bundle. At 24 months of age, most children are progressing out of a phase of disequilibrium and disruption that began around 18 months, and the typical 2-year-old can be described as quite pleasant. Two-year-olds are more organized and at peace within themselves and the environment, and parenting seems to run more smoothly. Two-year-olds are more confident in their motor abilities than they were at 18 months, allowing them to get around on their own with improved balance and movement. At this age, parents are often able to develop patience and empathy for their tot at greater ease as two-year-olds are capable of following verbal cues and limits set by parents. While this phase is quite nice for parents, it is short lived and often changes abruptly as the child nears the age of 2 1⁄2.
In order for children to gain more maturity and develop advanced skills, they must go through a sorting out period in which the new skills are tested out, acquired, practiced, and eventually integrated. Around the time when children turn 2 1⁄2, they enter a new phase of development in which they need to develop more skills to meet the demands and needs of the environment. This change is often rapid and unexpected, as the child at 2 1⁄2 now acts in a manner usually the opposite of how parents desire.
Two-and-a-half is at the peak of disequilibrium in the Gesell developmental cycle, and requires a great deal of patience from parents to navigate this difficult time. Two-and-a-half year-old children can be extremely rigid and inflexible, as well as domineering and demanding – they must give the orders and have things done exactly as they want them. A common phrase heard during this time is “No! Mommy do it!” when another caretaker or parent attempts to step in a help (and not following a 2 1⁄2 year-old’s directives usually leads to a tantrum and full on fit).
Children at 2 1⁄2 have extreme emotions and often fluctuate between these extremes, making choosing between alternatives difficult for children at this age (as they often want one choice, then rapidly change their mind and want the other). Parents can help avoid this trap by making some decisions for their 2 1⁄2 year-old and streamlining routines.
Despite the difficulties of this age, 2 1⁄2 year-olds are enthusiastic and energetic. They are working on gaining maturity and the ability to do things on their own. This is not always a smooth process, and children at this age need extra patience and understanding as they move through this developmental phase in order to get to the next stage of equilibrium and peace.
Parents of 2 1⁄2 year-olds are encouraged to use creative techniques to work around the rigidity and extremes of their child’s behaviors. Advance planning can help a 2 1⁄2 year-old avoid emotional meltdowns when the parent is able to provide predictable, consistent routines and structure that meet the child’s need for rigidity. Morning and bedtime routines are your best friends during this phase. At this developmental phase, it’s easier and better to work around your child’s rigidity rather than attempting to take it on head first or defeat it (you won’t). Parents that understand the difficulties of this age are also able to incorporate more empathy and patience with their child and step in to de-escalate their child’s extreme emotions.
This age is difficult, but relief is in sight as children enter a brief phase of peace and balance at 3 years of age. Patience with yourself as a parent and with your child and his or her struggles will help both of you manage this trying time and transition to the next phase of development with your relationship still intact. Parental self-care is of utmost importance so make sure that your tank is full first in order to be able to give to your child what he/she needs. Recognize cues from within yourself and notice when it is time to step away to regain composure before the parent-child relationship is damaged. As with all parts of parenting and childhood, this phase is short-lived. Just keep counting down the days until your child turns 3 and take deep breaths. You’ve got this.