Updated: Nov 10, 2018
There’s bad news about the “terrible twos”: Researchers say they can begin well before the age of two, and can go on for a number of years afterward - if you’re not careful.
The symptoms are well-known to all parents of toddlers: Your once-angelic cherub suddenly becomes prone to screaming fits, tantrums and, perhaps, randomly assaulting other children. They go ballistic when they don’t get their way, and fall deeply in love with the word “no.”
This phase can test any parent’s patience, but it is an inevitable and important developmental phase. Some researchers see this phase as an early forerunner of the teenage years as it is a time of disconcertingly rapid physical, emotional and intellectual development. The very rapidity of the changes can make it a difficult time for the child undergoing the rapid change. So have some sympathy for your “little terror” who is very likely feeling overwhelmed or frustrated because nobody understands them properly.
However, even apparently negative behaviours like an unwillingness to share toys can be manifestations of the growth of a healthy ego. The phrase “It’s mine!” might sound rude and selfish, but it’s also evidence that your child has made the developmental leap into the awareness that they are a separate person, capable of ownership and asserting their will.
Manipulative whining, begging and false crying - while annoying - are all signs that your child has become clever enough to deceive, negotiate and devise complex strategies to get their way. They are finding out what boundaries and rules they are expected to live by. Parents are advised to give clear boundaries, but not to have unrealistic expectations of their two year old.
If you think your child is behaving like a “little monkey,” Dr Frans Plooij author of the international bestseller, ‘The Wonder Weeks,’ agrees. He started out studying chimps, but ended up studying toddlers - for reasons obvious to any parent.
Dr Plooij went to Africa to study chimps with Jane Goodall and began to specialize in studying the development of chimp infants. Speaking from his home in the Netherlands, Dr Plooij recalls the origins of his research into infant behaviour: “I started to observe the chimp babies with a very blank mind, no hypothesis, just observing.” From his data, certain specific developmental leaps in infant chimps became apparent. During these developmental leaps, the infants became more clingy or difficult. Soon, it became apparent that this pattern was common to many primate species. He later found the same phenomenon of “wonder weeks” in human children.
Speaking from his home in the Netherlands Dr Plooij said: “If it’s any consolation, the phenomenon of temper tantrums is millions of years old.” He has observed it in chimps being deprived of their mother’s nipple who lie screaming on the ground, kicking their legs - just like human toddlers do.
What chimp mothers do is ignore it and remain very calm, while not giving in to the infant’s demands. Dr Plooij says the “terrible twos” actually begin at around 15 months with a very important developmental phase which he calls the “leap of principles.” The toddler begins to understand the principles of life around him and the rules he must live by. The next developmental leap comes at 17 months, which Plooij ‘the leap of systems.’ This is beginning of conscience.
“Start small with simple household rules, such as staying at the table when eating. You should not impose too many rules. Stick to a few important ones. Temper tantrums tend to start at around one year of age, and so by around the time they are 15 months of age, and you start setting rules, there are temper tantrums around. Sometimes children are misunderstood, and get frustrated and so they throw a fit.”
“My advice is ignore it - I learned that from chimps. Chimp mothers remain so calm and continue what they are doing and ignore it. You should just ignore it, and let it die out. If you give in, you are in trouble!” Setting a precedent that tantrums work as a way of getting what they want effectively rewards tantrums and invites further ones in a downward spiral.
Toddlers’ early obsession with ownership can seem selfish but, Dr Plooij explains, “From about 15 months they begin to develop a self-concept: This is my house. That is my friend’s house. This is mommy and daddy. Daddy has a penis, just like me, but my mother hasn’t. Their self-concept develops from there.”
“At this stage, you have the conflicts over possession. They see a toy car in the street and want to take it home, and they get frustrated when you won’t let them take it home.”
Understanding that these behaviours are normal can help parents. How best to cope with them varies from child to child, but experts generally advise some of the following techniques:
- Be consistent: Give the child the stability of the same rules in the same situations, so they can learn what to expect.
- Help them to communicate: Ask them to use simple words to let you know what’s wrong: “milk,” “nappy,” “hot” and so on. Otherwise they may retain the infant habit of just crying, no matter what’s wrong.
- Praise good behaviour: Make them feel good when they co-operate. As soon as they begin to settle, be warm to them and empathise.
- Distraction: When they are in mid-tantrum, suddenly say, “look at that big bus!” or show them their teddy. Such ruses can help them to snap out of it.
- Offer them choices: Many child experts say it’s good to offer toddlers choices, where appropriate. For example, ask them whether they want a cheese sandwich or soup, or whether they feel like juice or milk. This can help them feel that they have some control over their lives. Part of their frustration can be that, just as they are developing a sense of autonomy, everybody keeps telling them what to do all the time. However, the toddler must not think they are the leader of the pack, either.
- Don’t forget the basics: are they tired, hungry or thirsty? Naturally, these factors can increase the likelihood of tantrums. On any day out, always plan time for naps at their regular naptime.
The good news is that the “terrible twos” does pass, although how long this takes varies from child to child.