Simple Ideas with Profound Impact
Do The Terrible Twos Really Exist?
This past September after completing our work teaching The Reach Family Institute’s French families we were lucky enough to meet up with Juliana, Jack, and the kids. They joined us in France to celebrate the 20th anniversary of REACH, the 30th anniversary of the pilot project that became Programa Leopoldo in Venezuela, and the 40th anniversary of Charlie completing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail with a group of young adults with special needs.
While at a train station waiting to go to Versailles a French couple with a baby girl sat by us. The kids were chatting and singing while waiting when they they noticed the baby and walked over to say, “Bonjour!” The baby girl was 9 months old. The mother asked how old Adeline was and when she heard she was just over 2 she said, “Is it true what they say? Do the terrible twos really exist?” Juliana gave her a quick answer as the train approached and I immediately felt bad that we could not answer her question more completely. I told her to check out the BFK blog and promised that we would answer her question. I loved how she put it! Do the terrible twos really exist? Are the terrible twos a myth or real?
The terrible twos can most definitely be real but it doesn’t have to be the long miserable year that many make it out to be. The “terrible twos” expression has been around for a long time. No one actually defines or describes the terrible twos. It is just understood. It’s the frequent tantrums and defiant behavior of the average 2 year old. Right? In addition to the terrible twos, many now refer to three year olds as “threenagers”, an expression that was not used 30 years ago when I was a young mother. Many parents now find the behavior of their three year old child to be more difficult than the 2 year old stage. So, real or myth?
Yes, the behaviors that drive parents to describe them as the “terrible twos” or the “threenager” stages do exist. And they are one and the same! In both stages parents are describing the same behavior. In some children it is mostly accentuated when they are 2 and in others is more apparent at the age of 3. For some this “difficult” stage can last for a couple of years whereas others move beyond this stage quite quickly. Why? Let’s talk about some of the reasons.
Let’s begin by understanding that what determines the timing of when you’ll start to see these outbursts relates to the child’s neurological age, not the child’s chronological age. They are not always one and the same! Chronological age has to do with time alone. Everyday the child is one day older. Neurological age is based on the child’s level of function. Neurological age therefore relates to the level of brain development achieved as a result of exposure to stimulation and developmental opportunities. When it comes to behavior and how a child relates to the world, her level of understanding and language are the most important neurological factors.
Understanding and Language
So, let’s look at understanding and language in relationship to behavior. A child who cannot follow multiple step instructions and who has no concept of time will not understand when you try to reason or negotiate with her. First, your child needs to have moved from understanding simple one-step instructions to more complex multiple-step instructions. The child should also be able to reasonably follow simple conversations that are not directed to them.
And finally, the child needs to have some concept of time. It will not work to say to a child, “You cannot have this candy now but I will give it to you later” if she doesn’t know what later means. This will most likely result in a temper tantrum. The child who does not understand “later”, wants it and she wants it right now! Immediate satisfaction is all that she understands. If your children is at this stage it is pointless to try to negotiate with them as they simply do not have the understanding level necessary for negotiation. All you can do is divert her attention to avoid or diminish tantrums.
In previous blogs, I have talked about the importance of speaking with your child from birth. Speak often and about everything that surrounds her. Sing songs, read books, and provide lots of opportunity for hands-on play. These are the best ways to develop understanding.
In order to begin negotiating with your child you first need to teach time concepts. You can do this by using concrete concepts. “Later” is too vague. Later can mean 5 minutes or 30 minutes from now to you, and 2 minutes from now to your child. So, how do you make it more concrete? Tell her “when we get to the car you can have it” or “after you eat lunch you can have it.” Relate it to a clear physical activity that is not too far off in time.
As your child’s understanding is developing, provided she has been given the right opportunity for good brain organization, her language will also be developing. Children who do not develop the language to express their feelings and desires will often have more outbursts out of frustration. Related to language development, the “terrible twos” are often more pronounced in two types of children.
- Those who do not have enough language to communicate and who learn that screaming or “acting out” is the only way to get their point across.
- Those who have very sophisticated understanding and language and who learn how to “turn the tables” on their parents. In these cases, the issue has more to do with how parents respond to the child rather than with the child’s level of understanding. They become so good at negotiating and reasoning that their parents too often give in to their wants and needs and when they don’t “win” they have a tantrum.
In all cases parents need to be aware of what could be causing their child’s challenging behavior which will determine how one should respond to them in order to minimize the tantrums and frustration.
Consistency in Actions
As parents you need to be consistent in your actions! Do not say one thing and then change your mind and do a different thing. You will be confusing your child and inadvertently encourage bad behavior. It is hard for your child to know how to respond to your requests, instructions, or wants if you are not consistent. How can they?
Let me use an example. Today you are in a good mood. Let’s say you are on the sofa reading something and your child comes running in and jumps on you. Because you are in the mood to play, you put your reading down and you begin to tickle your child. That was fun, right?
OK, now the next day you are tired and feeling a bit stressed. You are on the sofa reading something and your child comes running and jumps on you. He is expecting the same thing to happen. His assumption is that you will put your reading down and tickle him but instead you get angry because he jumped on you and could possibly hurt you. Do you see the picture?
We all have a tendency to be inconsistent in these types of actions with our children and it can be very confusing to them. This inconsistency can result in more problems especially with little toddlers who are just learning. They are constantly taking cues from us and mixed messages like this can be unsettling and confusing. We parents are human (gasp!) and we do and will make mistakes. We need to learn from them and do our best to be present and consistent with our children. And remember, you always have the option of walking away to take a breather for a minute if the stress is too much.
When dealing with a child who has immature understanding and/or language development (and therefore more difficulty expressing her needs and wants), you need to be even more attentive and sensitive to her. Pay closer attention to her actions. Is she throwing tantrums because she learned that it is the way to get your attention? Children at every level will do what works to get what they want. If acting out gets your attention they will use it every time to get what they want. So, if your child is in one of these stages pay attention to your actions and ask yourself, “Am I encouraging this behavior by giving it attention?”. If the answer is “Yes”, all you need to do is change your behavior. Change how you respond and your child will change how she behaves.
Each Child is Unique
Our last post had to do with the final core principle of brain development, Each Child is Unique. Each and every child is unique and that is a beautiful thing. So, when you are behaving with each child in your life in the same way but getting different results remember that Each Child is Unique and pay attention to the differences in your children! Again, be consistent, be observant, and most of all, be truly present and you will begin to see the gift that each child has within him or her and you will know how to best respond to them.
I would not be addressing all children and helping parents if I excluded this one. Tantrums are a normal part of development up to a certain point. However, if your child is having many tantrums per day on a regular basis and you are concerned please do not ignore your concern! We see many children whose parents refer to their tantrums as “meltdowns”. Frequent uncontrollable tantrums (we’re talking many in a day on a daily basis), are often of immature brain development and often problems of a physiological nature. Children who experience these types of tantrums are not brats. They simply cannot control it and they need help. In this case, changing your behavior or trying to change the child’s behavior by punishing or any other method will not stop them from having tantrums. In these types of cases children often have a neurological need that is not being addressed. When we fulfill those needs the tantrums go away. If your child is experiencing this and you want help please feel free to contact us and we will be happy to talk with you. We offer a free 30 minute online consultation to talk through your concerns and give initial advice.
All children have tantrums and not just when they are two or three years old. All children are trying to figure out where they have control and what to do in order to get their way. That is true throughout life, right? Aren’t we all trying to keep control?!
Now that the holidays are approaching, parents are feeling more stressed and so will the little ones. When stress is up, behavior is down! In a future post I will give some tips on how to keep you more in the “Zen Zone” to help you deal with the behavior issues of your little ones. In the meantime, begin by truly paying attention to how you act and react when your child wants something or is being testy. I bet you will be surprised how much you encourage the behavior that you are trying to stop by giving it so much attention! Begin by changing how you respond, and watch her changing how she acts. And remember, be kind to yourself and your child! We are all human and it is not about being perfect. It is about wanting and trying to do better! Give yourself grace. Give your child grace. Hug each other a little more and take a breath. We all have bad days from the littlest ones on up. Be there for each other and work to be better for each other. Those little eyes are always watching and learning.