DEVELOPMENTAL DISTURBANCES OF THE TODDLER: THE TERRIBLE TWOS
The “terrible twos” aren’t really so bad when you understand the developmental purpose of this period of time.
Using the newfound ability to walk, and lacking in judgment and reason, the toddler ramrods into life. The imbalance between physical and mental abilities often results in destructiveness, messiness, motor restlessness, clinging, inability to separate, whining, as well as chaotic emotional states including temper tantrums. Fortunately, despite the dramatic intensity and abnormal appearance, such behaviors are short-lived. They occur as long as there is no alternative to motor outlets for the child’s energies. And they disappear or diminish in intensity as soon as new pathways for expression appear, especially the acquisition of speech.
(This will not be the last time that parents encounter such unevenness in development. Ahead lies adolescence! Then the body of the child vanishes overnight, trapping the innocent mind of the child in the awkward, hairy Frankenstein body of adolescence. This imbalance takes longer to redress; the mind doesn’t catch up for several years.)
Difficult Behaviors During the Terrible Twos
Destructiveness: The destructiveness commonly seen in toddlers is an expression of unbridled aggression and curiosity operating in the absence of the concepts of cause and effect and value. The parental challenge is to control the toddler’s aggression without stifling his developing curiosity, since ambition and curiosity are highly valuable aspects of normal learning.
The destructive tendencies can be managed by creating a toddler-safe zone, ideally close to the area where the parents spend most of their free time. Valuable objects should be removed from this area and sharp edges and corners covered to prevent collisions between corners of furniture and toddler’s heads. Toys should be durable but not hard enough to be weapons of destruction themselves. Toddlers have a short attention span, so there should be a choice of play objects. By limiting the toddler-safe zone to a room or two, the parents can have spaces of their own and retain the illusion that it’s their house, too!
When the toddler, through a lack of understanding attempts to play with objects that have value to the parents, a limit should be set. This is one of the many times when “No” is used.”No, Jerry. You can’t play with that. That’s important to Mommy.. Let’s go find your toys. They’re in the other room.”
Messiness is a natural consequence of exploration in the absence of a need for orderliness and organization. Toddlers should not be punished for their messiness. Nor should they be required to clean up after themselves. However, the need for order can be introduced during the toddler years. By evening, the play area is usually a mess, with toys strewn everywhere. As Mom or Dad clean up after Johnny, they might say “Johnny, I’m going to put your toys away for the day. Do you want to help me?”
I know you had a few other choice words in mind, but mine are probably more helpful for Johnny and, in the long run, for you, too.
Once toilet training is completed, attempts to require orderliness and organization are likely to be more successful, because the toddler has not only gained control of bowel and bladder but has begun to adapt adult attitudes toward neatness, order and organization.
Motor restlessness stems from the desire to continually practice the new motor skills of walking, running, talking, and eye-hand coordination. Although monotonous for adults, such activity is just as enjoyable to the toddler on the hundredth repetition as it was on the first. When parents get tired of participating in the repetitious play, they can console themselves with the idea that Johnny or Susie is acquiring important motor skills.
Motor restlessness should be contained, rather than squashed and controlled, within a toddler-safe zone and through good nutrition, regular nap and bed times and close adult supervision.
The toddler-safe zone described above provided a safe place in which the sometimes–apple-of-Mom-and-Dad’s-eye can explore and practice. Because they do not yet have the ability to recognize danger, toddlers must be protected from cutting themselves on sharp objects, falling down stairs, or swallowing harmful substances.
Twelve month old Frank had just begun to walk and immediately decided that he wanted to climb stairs. A very determined child, Frank would scream and cry when his parents refused his repeated attempts to mount the stairs. When Frank’s parents asked for advice about this, I told them that Frank would have plenty of time to climb stairs when he was older and more capable. Not only did they not need to feel guilty, but they did need to set limits on Frank due to his inability to recognize the dangers of falling. One of the most common causes of injury or death in toddlers is falling down stairs. Rather than feeling guilty about restricting their toddler, Frank’s parents could choose to feel good about setting limits to keep their adventuresome toddler safe. He’ll be bounding up the stairs in no time!
Temper tantrums: Although routinely occuring between the ages of 1 and 3, temper tantrums, one of the developmental disturbances of the toddler, are characterized by a genuine loss of control of both feelings and behavior.
In the midst of a true temper tantrum, the toddler will usually throw himself on the floor, kicking, screaming, and crying. Since becoming overwhelmed by one’s feelings is a genuinely terrifying experience (regardless of age), the Mom and Dad should help the child regain control of his or her emotions as quickly as possible. This is accomplished by remaining in physical and verbal contact (rather than through isolation and punishment), calmly providing support and reassurance until the tantrum ends. It’s hard for parents to see their child in such intense distress. And out of frustration or lack of understanding, tantrums are often misinterpreted as willful and disobedient behavior.
In fact, tantrums occur when the toddler’s immature mind is overwhelmed by frustration. This leads to an outburst of emotion and an uncontrolled physical discharge. Providing close physical contact and gentle restraint, if necessary, is important. Toddlers can easily injure themselves as they are thrashing about, unaware of their surroundings.
Please do not leave your toddler alone during a temper tantrum.
During an actual temper tantrum, the presence of an adult who prevents the child from inadvertently hurting herself is more important than words. But words can be helpful. “There, there Mary. It’s OK. Mommy’s here. Try to calm down. I’ll stay with you until you feel better.”
Fake tantrums, used by older children to manipulate and control parental interactions, can be readily distinguished from genuine tantrums. They should be treated like any other attempt to test limits- with explanations and consistent firmness.