Reframing the Terrible Twos

Photography: Serina Crinis Photography

By Sarah R. Moore

The terrible twos have a reputation, even among non-parents. The moniker has become so commonplace that at just the very mention of a second birthday, well-meaning friends reference the possibility of impending doom, as if the milestone is going to summon something akin to a year-long root canal.

Is it warranted, though? As a positive parenting writer and educator — and not to mention as a mum — I’ve heard from a whole lot of parents that the “twos” would be more appropriately named the “terrific twos”, with nary a cloud in sight. Why the confusion?

When it comes right down to it, the fear of “terrible twos” isn’t so much about the child; but rather, it’s about our own lack of confidence about how to parent this newly emerging toddler.

I recall one afternoon shortly after my own daughter turned two. She looked at me and announced ever so confidently, “Park. No pants.” Hold the phone — when did she learn to say “park?” And was she actually requesting to go there without any pants on? (She was. We went; her, without pants, and me, fully clothed. It was warm. No one batted an eye.) I realized at that moment that the baby I’d just figured out, suddenly wasn’t that person anymore. She was evolving before my eyes.

So, true. We do need to adjust our parenting at this milestone age.

Whereas before we had a child who was likely happy to be carried much of the time, we now have someone who wants to walk. (And by walk, I mean sprint precariously forward, and usually with turbo speed when stairs or vehicles are present.) Suddenly, we need to sprint after a fully functioning human body, and that’s new to us.

Whereas before we could talk to our little person and he’d smile or babble in response, we now have someone who’s forging his own opinions about things. Suddenly, we need to navigate a new opinion in the house, and that’s new to us.

Whereas before, nap time came fairly easily, we now have a child who realizes, “Heyyyyy… you get to keep playing out there, but I’m supposed to SLEEP?” Our children are more aware than they’ve ever been before, and that’s new to us. 

As tempting as it is to blame the “terrible twos” for all of this, it’s all part of normal child development.

The human brain will never again grow as fast as it’s growing right now in these first few years of childhood. As much as it is for us — the adults — to process, it’s even more overwhelming for the little people to whom this “growing up” thing is happening. Sometimes, it manifests in what adults perceive as suboptimal behavior, such as tantrums.

One important thing to note is that throwing a tantrum isn’t about disobedience; it’s a little one’s way of saying, “This is pretty overwhelming right now! Can you please support me?” Unfortunately, two-year-olds often lack the verbal skills, not to mention the development in the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that controls impulses) to help them do anything other than exactly what they’re doing. Some quick brain science: the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully develop until around age 25.

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