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

Red and yellow octopus plushes. The red one has an angry expression while the yellow one has an happy expression.

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,…

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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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