Do the Terrible Twos actually exist?
As a new book claims the tantrums usually expressed by two-year-olds are the parents' fault and not a phase at all, Chrissie Russell looks at her own parenting after speaking to the author
Published 05/10/2016 | 02:30
We've just ordered dessert when our two-year-old starts grabbing cutlery and attempting to re-enact a Phil Collins drum solo on his high chair. "No sweetie," I whisper through clenched jaw, prizing forks from his fists and trying to ignore the hostile looks from fellow diners. "Quick get the Twirlywoos," I hiss at my husband who hastily hands over his iPhone, primed with cartoon downloads, but it's too late.
"No want Twirlywoos," howls Tom, and I kiss goodbye to my caramelised banana cake as the pair of us scuttle from the restaurant, where, as soon as we hit cool air, the tantrum abates.
Here comes the parental disclaimer: my son is generally very chilled out and well behaved. But I'd be lying if I said these little displays of rebellion were entirely isolated events. Yesterday he flung himself to the ground in abject misery because I said no to ice cream. Only a bag of puffed corn snacks silenced the beginnings of a hissy fit in the supermarket recently, and this morning he raged when I tried to coax him upstairs for a bath… then raged again when I told him bath time was over.
It's his age I tell myself, he's going through the Terrible Twos.
Except, according to one child-rearing expert, the Terrible Twos don't actually exist. In her new book, 'The Significance Delusion', therapist Gillian Bridge lays blame for the "semi-feral behaviour called the terrible twos" firmly at the feet of parents.
Terrible two tantrums are not inevitable, she argues, but rather the result of bad parental decisions, specifically regarding where they take their children and how they deal with strops. They are an invention entirely of our own making, illustrated by the fact that many other cultures have no such phrase as 'terrible Twos'.
Not all two-year-olds are programmed for spontaneous bursts of demon behaviour? Surely not? And yet, the impeccable behaviour of some tots would suggest otherwise. Bar the occasional spurned high five or bouncing on a dog, Prince George and Princess Charlotte have been nothing short of angelic during Kate and Wills' recent tour of Canada; not a hissy fit or tantrum in sight.
Between one and three, toddlers have an enormous explosion of brain development, much of which is linked in with their growing independence and increased understanding of personal preference.
I'd assumed that navigating this development leap meant terrible two behaviour was a rite of passage.
"Their brains are definitely beginning to connect up differently, but no particular behaviour is an inevitable outcome," says Gillian, talking to the Irish Independent.
Strops in supermarkets, movie-house meltdowns, and restaurant rages could easily be avoided by not taking two-year-olds to these inappropriate 'adult arenas' where they're going to get over-stimulated and fed up she says.
She has little truck with the argument that sometimes taking a tot to Tesco isn't so much a parental preference but the last resort of a time-short, multitasking mum.
"Mums say they can't fit everything in, but still seem to find time to use social media rather a lot," she contests. "Use it to arrange reciprocal care if there are really dull shopping expeditions in sight. Make arrangements and try not to do so much 'off the cuff'. Children need more calm and order than is in their lives at present. And walking to the shops, rather than car travel if possible, gives them much needed exercise which is calming too."
As unwelcome as this news is to my ears, there is a ring of truth to it. When Tom had his cutlery drumming meltdown he was in a rather nice restaurant and had already sat in one place for a long period of time while mummy and daddy enjoyed their starters and mains. I missed out on pudding, but was I getting my just desserts by expecting a two-year-old to sit patiently through three courses just because I fancied a night out?
Possibly, says Joanna Fortune, who specialises in child and adult psychotherapy at the Solamh Parent Child Relationship clinic in Dublin. "I do think we have inappropriate expectations of children and instead of expecting them to adapt to our world, we need to facilitate the developing child and think about how to integrate them into a calm family setting.
"Expecting a two-year-old to sit quietly in Starbucks so you can chat with your friends - that's not a child -friendly environment," she explains. "Or the cinema with bright lights, loud noise, lots of people, heat… that's a lot of sensory stimulation and two-year-olds don't have the regulatory capacity to deal with it.
"Nor can they articulate their feelings to say they've reached their limit, they just have a meltdown," Joanna adds.
As much as we might want to continue our adult lives as normal, trying to do so with a two-year-old in tow simply isn't feasible or fair. We need to find a middle ground that suits everyone.
But a key thing Joanna feels parents need to be aware of is the difference between a meltdown and a tantrum.
"Meltdowns are when a child is so sensory overloaded they can't process it and can't regulate," explains Joanna. "Tantrums are very specific, they're about something that has just happened."
Meltdowns, like Tom's strops in the restaurant and supermarket (where he'd reached his limit in dealing with an adult arena) could have been avoided by better decisions on my part. His fit over the 'no' to ice cream and having to swap play for the bath - those were tantrums. Both are normal toddler behaviour.
"It's children doing what they are supposed to do," explains Joanna. "Developing children do get challenging at that age, that's a fact, and to dismiss it is quite patronising to parents who are living that reality every day."
She reckons the terrible twos should actually be renamed the Developmentally Appropriate Twos. "It's such a negative phrase and gives the impression that it's something to be stopped, when really it needs to be supported".
At two, toddlers are going through the second attachment cycle, a development stage that is all about boundaries and limit-setting. Basically, they think they are the world and if they want something, then it's the most important thing in the world.
"Shouting, screaming, getting louder - that's all very appropriate," says Joanna. "But it's the parent's job to put limits down. If you give in and think 'just have the ice cream', they learn the lesson that screaming is a very good form of getting your own way."
But let's face it, a lot of us are prone to just handing over the ice cream. It's the easier and more popular option and really, where's the harm, particularly if you've been working all week and fancy easing a bit of parental guilt with a treat?
"I can empathise with parents who want to be their child's friend," says Joanna. "But you are what your child wants, they don't need a constant stream of cinemas and play centres and treats. Being calm, consistent and clear in boundary-setting is kinder in the long run because you're setting the trajectory for the childhood stage that comes next."
Gillian agrees: "We must all be more consistent and reliable in our dealings with our children. Love them enormously, but less sentimentally and more caringly, caring for their long-term well-being, not their short-term approval of us."
Happily she admits that her own children (she has a son and daughter as well as five grandchildren) "had their 'moments' at that age. And, if that latest picture of Kate Middleton giving Prince George 'The Look' is anything to go by, I'm betting he has his moments too.