By Dr. Helen Andrews, Clinical Psychologist.
The Terrible Twos – we’ve all heard of them, and many of us dread them. But what are they and why do many, but not all, children go through them?
Although called the terrible twos, many parents find that their child starts to become more challenging before their second birthday. It often coincides with becoming a confident walker and climber and perhaps having a few words. This is no coincidence.
Our children change so much over the first two years. Initially, they are so helpless and so completely dependent on us for everything. Over time they learn new skills; rolling, sitting, crawling and walking, and new ways of expressing themselves, from crying through babbling and then talking.
The early maturation of the sympathetic nervous system results in ‘junior toddlers’ (around 10 – 18 months) living life full of exuberance and excitement, embracing every challenge. As parents, we delight in these developments. We smile and encourage their efforts. We clap as they take their first steps and are proud as they climb up on the sofa for the first time. We listen intently as they babble at us, and strive to keep the conversation going. Studies show that around 90% of interactions between mother and child at this stage are positive and nurturing.
Things then begin to change for our ‘senior toddlers’ (around 18-30 months). Brain developments enable them to view themselves as separate from others. They become more clingy, displaying separation anxiety. If we think about it, this is actually important from an evolutionary perspective. Now they are independently mobile, there are dangers associated with them wandering off, so it is important they stay close to those that keep them safe. However, this new awareness brings with it more mood swings. Now not only do they show us joy, but also fear, sadness and anger. They are still learning how to regulate their emotions themselves, so these strong and changeable feelings can often spill over into difficult behaviour.
In addition, there is a developing strive for independence that comes along with these new motor, cognitive and language skills. As they are still learning what society’s ‘rules’ are, and are unable to see anyone else’s needs or point of view but their own, it is no wonder that their behaviour can seem challenging at times, as they explore what is acceptable and what isn’t.
Our role as parent then changes – from one of constantly encouraging and praising, to one that is regulating, limit–setting and educating. In fact, observations have shown that mothers tell their two year olds ‘no’ every minute! What a change from just a few months ago.
From the child’s perspective, it must seem that mum has typically gone from being a fun companion to a bit of a grump, just at the time when they need our help to manage new and changeable feelings and challenges.
So when we think about the ‘terrible twos’, it is true that there can be some difficult situations for us as parents – but it’s important we don’t forget to feel some sympathy for the tough time that our little ones are having too.
Dr Helen Andrews is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years of experience working with children and young people. Through her business, Family Matters in Warwickshire, she helps parents when they can see that their child is struggling with their emotions, behaviour or development. Contact Helen on 01564 795337 or visit www.familymattersinwarwickshire.co.uk.