I heard of the “terrible twos” way before I decided to have a child. The idea goes something like this: cute chubby, mostly benign babies turn into screaming, irrational, defiant dictators. The developmental shift that creates such an explosive potential is the child’s gradual understanding of their desires and wants and their intention to fulfil them independently while not expressing themselves fully.

That’s when problems start. Two year olds are pretty clumsy, and if they desire to climb up a ladder by themselves, that is not OK. Cue in a tantrum. What about refusing to get their nappy changed (they want to do it by themselves, but they don’t know how to tell you) or go to bed at a specific time, even if they are exhausted. The good thing, says Henry M Wellman, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, is that “adults can feel some reassurance in that this behaviour also indicates healthy growth for the child.”

When my son Lorenzo turned two, friends sent me direct warnings: the terrible twos were a reality I had to deal with.

Except that I feel uncomfortable with the idea of associating the word terrible to a child’s developmental stage. Of course, it can be terrible and hard for a parent to navigate these tantrums, but does calling this stage the “terrible twos” help us in any way? Don’t different developmental stages serve a function, and isn’t the point of knowing about them to find a reasonable way to react to them? I hate the idea of the terrible twos because if I expect my child to go through a terrible period, then my expectations will influence my reactions – possibly in an unhelpful manner. Moreover, research has shown that the terrible twos can be minimised or avoided if parents show flexibility with their children – especially if they don’t have an easy temperament to begin with.

Yet it was hard not to find consolation in the idea of the terrible twos last week when Lorenzo had a tantrum after another – crying, screaming, kicking – the perfect textbook combo. It felt easier to get to the end of the day and think: “Oh, it’s normal for him to behave like that. It’s just the terrible twos.” But it also felt a bit like a cop-out, like using one of those generic newspaper horoscopes to justify why your day has gone badly. So while I felt consoled by the idea that a tantrum may be age-dependent irrational behaviour, it didn’t help me understand what was happening and what to do about it.

So I put the idea of the terrible twos in the back of my mind, and I started analysing what was new in Lorenzo’s life. And there were so many changes! Nacho, my husband, shifted from caring for Lorenzo most of the time to working on a fellowship to develop a writing project about masculinity and fatherhood. Lorenzo started spending a full day at the nursery, eating and napping there too.

The nursery wasn’t the problem in and of itself: he is happy to leave the house every morning, and his teachers say he is lively and calm. The problems started when he got back home. One day he cried when Nacho picked him up – he wanted to spend more time at the nursery. One night the crying started when Nacho left to go to physiotherapy, and it didn’t stop until Nacho got back. The only thing that calmed the sobbing and pushing me away was for me to stand next to him on the balcony, waiting to spot Nacho as he drove back.

Lorenzo then became obsessed with a T-shirt and a resistance band that Nacho brought back from physiotherapy. When he saw them in our bedroom the morning after, he started repeating “silla down, silla down”, referring to the chair (silla in Spanish) that was downstairs, by the house entrance, where Nacho had put his things when he had arrived home.

He repeated and repeated “silla down” while whining for a full hour as I prepared breakfast, and nothing I tried got him out of that mood – not even when he did put those objects on the chair downstairs. I tried listening to him, and I tried to hold him. The crying would not go away. I was about to lose my mind and scream. Before I did, I decided to put on some music to cancel out the whining. When Julieta Venegas, a Mexican pop singer that puts me in a good mood, started playing, something magical happened: Lorenzo stopped crying. He smiled, commented on the music, came over to hug and kiss me. The crisis was over.

Reflecting on the episode with my therapist, she suggested a symbolic reading of “silla down” as an invitation to sit down together and spend more time together. I can see how that makes sense. Lorenzo was probably feeling a little confused by the changes, a little abandoned even. He was maybe looking for ways to communicate his sadness to us, and we didn’t get it. So when faced with a new crisis, I decided to set up an aperitivo with him on the terrace: me sipping a glass of wine and him some sparkling water, sharing some nuts and crisps. He was happy once again. And the tantrums have gone since.

So, are the terrible twos over already, or were they never so intrinsically terrible? I can tell you that an hour of crying and whining does feel terrible, but not understanding how to be there for Lorenzo feels even worse.

What do you think? Does the idea of the terrible twos bring you comfort, or do you find it unhelpful? I would love to hear your thoughts below the story.

If you’ve asked yourself why I’ve ventured into writing about toddlerhood, that’s a fair consideration. Technically the terrible twos are beyond the realm of the first 1,000 days. But I use the timeline of the first 1,000 days to show that our influences start even before we are born and that supporting those who carry a pregnancy – and their reproductive rights – is necessary to raise healthy adults. The first-1,000-day timeline is a prompt to talk about childhood more generally. If you’d like to read more about the principles behind my coverage, you can find them here.

What I’ve been reading

The article by Henry M Wellman that I refer to above is a great read to go beyond the terrible twos and examine other annoying behaviours children have as they grow older, including lying or being sarcastic and dismissive. Wellman explains that part of these behaviours has to do with their growing understanding of other people’s minds, which ultimately helps them in their social interactions. Fascinating insights, recommended.

What I’ve been listening to

This episode of the Evolutionary Parenting podcast with Dr Tracy Cassels, whose website and podcast provide research-based information for parents, offers excellent insight into children’s emotions. She makes a distinction between children’s needs (for nutrition, love, sleep) vs. children’s wants (of chocolate cookies, a specific t-shirt or that one toy at the playground). She explains how parents can support their children in getting what they need and understanding whether their strong and emotional reaction to something that may appear unreasonable (remember, Silla Down?!) may arise as a want that hides a more profound need. Recommended.

What I’ve been watching

If you want to watch an epic textbook tantrum episode, this video offers a great example. It’s nice to see the calm attitude of the father, who tries to keep the child from harming herself and eventually manages to hug her. The father, Joel Mitchell, explained in a later video that he is not that patient all the time, “but when I saw that she was going to need me to be, I switched into that mode.”

Who’s been inspiring me

I loved this simple, heartfelt, profound letter that Amy Silverman wrote to her daughter Sophie when she turned 18. “When I look at you, I don’t see your diagnosis. I see your newly blonde hair, your pretty skin, my old Birkenstocks you insist on wearing even though they are three sizes too big and the Dunder Mifflin tee shirt you adore,” she writes. “You have topped out at 4 foot 5 inches, but I don’t notice that, either. Sometimes the world does. I watch people try to figure you out. It’s harder with a mask. In a way, the masks have been a gift — people see you before they see Down syndrome.” Silverman is an independent journalist based in Arizona, and her book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It deals with her daughter’s Down Syndrome diagnosis. It’s on my reading list.

What members have been saying

There has been an interesting exchange of comments below last week’s piece on breastfeeding aversion. Jenny shared her personal experience of breastfeeding aversion after a traumatic post-birth experience with a midwife in a hospital. “Every time I tried to nurse after this experience I had flashbacks of this midwife’s behaviour and I was completely unable to focus on my baby. I eventually stopped nursing after 2 months, because I just couldn’t take it. I believe that without this traumatic experience I would have nursed much longer,” she wrote. Hanny said: “You are not alone in this. A lot of women have traumatic experiences around giving birth and breastfeeding, especially in hospitals. I believe it would help if we have realistic expectations of what giving birth and breastfeeding is like, we will have a lot less traumatic experiences. Unfortunately this won’t help you.” Check out the whole conversation here.

With love and care,

📸 Photo credits and alt-text: photo by Mahdi Bafande on Unsplash; red and yellow octopus plushes. The red one has an angry expression while the yellow one has an happy expression.

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2 thoughts on “What’s wrong with the idea of the “terrible twos”

  1. I could relate so much with your story, Irene!
    The notion of “terrible” means you would expect a different behaviour, but I don’t remember hearing this term in Portuguese… It wouldn’t be so catchy I guess.
    2-3 years old children are developing their language in this stage, so thinking about it as “terrible” was super unhelpful to me.

    Another thing that came to my mind was a survey I took part, and I was surprised with 1 of their questions. It was something like this: in a scale, what do you value more in a child?
    > creativity ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) good behaviour
    > indepence ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) listen to olders

    1. Ha, Marina, I really like the questions you mention. It is almost worth a story in and of itself. Because it’s a deep question: is good behaviour more important than creativity, and are they antithetical, and what do we mean by good behaviour anyways? A lot of food for thought, as usual.
      Also interesting to hear that the terrible twos does not exist in Portuguese, I never came across it in Italian or Spanish either. Is there a word for “tantrum” that has the same or similar negative connotations?

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