THE ‘TERRIBLE TWOS’

STORY / DR GREER BENNET

We have all seen it – a screaming, crying toddler and a dumbfounded parent wearing a, “who is this child and where is my beautiful baby?” look on their face. At the shops, in the park, on the street – toddlers don’t discriminate.

Many parents can attest to a seemingly irrational dummy spit because the toy their child wants is not within arms reach. Maybe they were not finished playing with the dog before it was time to leave. The ‘terrible twos’ are an infamous stage in infant development that will truly test new parents and throw stark caution to parents-to-be.
This important time in a baby’s life, around the 1,000th day since their conception, is an incredibly busy time for their brain, and their physical and emotional development. It can be a difficult time for both parents and infants so it is important to know why toddlers can behave differently at this age. It also helps to know what is normal and what is not, and what to do if you think things are getting out of control.
When a baby is born, their brain is like a sponge. Everything they see and hear is brand new, and what they experience has the ability to shape the way they think and behave.
Our babies develop amazingly quickly during the first two years of their lives. In fact, a brand new baby is born with almost all of the brain cells (called neurons) that they will ever need. Over the next two years, their brains will double in size and these neurons will make millions of new connections with each other as the baby learns and grows.

Developmental changes

At this age, there are more individual connections between neurons (known as synapses) than at any other age in our lives, sometimes twice as many as an adult will have. This means that throughout childhood and development, these connections in the brain will be refined by experiences, relation-ships and life events that all help to determine which connections are strengthened and which are pruned. Think of the pruning of brain connections like a walking track in the bush: every time it is used, the path becomes easier to walk the next time rather than to forge a brand new walking track every time. The brain development of toddlers is much the same. Importantly, as a two year old takes in the world around them, their brains are being wired for social interactions and the structures in the brain that regulate emotion and language are developing rapidly. A toddler’s vocabulary at two years of age is typically four times that of a one year old which shows how far they have come in just 12 short months.
At the same time, toddlers are learning the ability of self-awareness, which is how their actions can affect others. They may begin to understand that there are consequences to their actions and will also be able to recognise themselves in the mirror by the age of two.
So why do toddlers seem to act out so much at this age? Sure, there are a lot of developmental changes happening, but why the behaviour that earns itself the name ‘the terrible twos’?

Change in behaviour

Part of the reason why toddlers start to behave differently around the age of two is because they are in fact feeling different. They are no longer babies and can feel and think for themselves now. The problem is, their communication and language skills are not always up to the task of telling us how they feel yet. Instead of saying, “I’d like toast for breakfast please” they might toss their porridge on the floor and cry.
How do you know if their behaviour is OK? The answer to this is that there is no simple answer.
As a parent or parent-to-be, it is important to set your boundaries early and decide what is and is not OK in your household. It is these early experiences a toddler has that will help to shape their brain development and reinforce ways of behaving that you encourage.
Consistency is important. Young brains learn through patterns of behaviour. They learn to predict how you will react to certain situations and may often even push the limits to experiment with your consistency. In fact, social research experiments have shown that toddlers are advanced enough at two years of age to determine when something is probable or not, and behave accordingly. So your behaviour at this time is essential in informing your baby of how to act as well.
Often acknowledging the toddler’s feelings and explaining that you understand why they are expressing themselves in such a way can help to regulate their emotions. As a toddler grows up, it may also be useful to help with their vocabulary development by teaching them appropriate words to describe how they feel, and how to express
themselves when they are upset or unhappy.

Tips for helping toddlers to learn how to express their emotions include:
• Provide them with opportunities for activities that enhance self-awareness and pro-social behaviour such as game or toy sharing.
• Ask them to help you with appropriate tasks like putting their toys away and praise them for positive behaviours.
• Ask them to teach you how to play a game they enjoy.
• Allow plenty of opportunities for exercise and active play, particularly games that focus on cooperation, sharing and collaboration with other toddlers and adults.

Learning through play

Finding time to play with toddlers is also highly beneficial for their development. They crave time for play and bonding from parents and family members as well as other children. Engaging toddlers in activities of everyday life will help them to feel special and included. For example, when out shopping, explain to them what you are doing, ask them to help you pick out the red apples from the green or explain why you are waiting to be served at the supermarket. All of these behaviours will help your toddler learn about the world around them and will also provide opportunities for bonding.
Toddlers that are overtired or not eating well often show more difficult behaviour for parents to manage, so it is also important to establish good eating and sleeping routines as early as possible.
If you or someone you know is concerned about their toddler’s behaviour, there are a few key signs that can be kept in mind. Toddler’s change a lot during their first few years, however if their behaviour seems to regress or they lose abilities they once had, such as vocabulary or communications skills, this could be an indicator to seek further advice from a health professional.
Paediatricians, general practitioners (GPs) and other allied health professionals such as speech pathologists can all provide assessments on toddlers and give advice about how to deal with problem behaviours.

Reducing stress levels

Caring for a toddler can be rewarding but it is also hard work, so parents or carers need to look after themselves too. Here are a few tips on quick ways you can keep your stress levels in check:
• Try to do something for yourself each day. This may be as simple as eating your favourite food or putting your baby in the pram and going for a walk.
• If friends or family offer to help, don’t feel bad about accepting it. A meal or two cooked by a family member can sometimes make all the difference.
• Speak to your partner or a friend about what is going on in your life. Tell them any successes or struggles you may be having and listen to their perspective.
• Try to fit in at least 30 minutes of exercise a day and eat a well-balanced, healthy diet. You may not be getting as much sleep as you like with a two year old, so keeping your body as healthy as possible is the best thing for your baby.

Do you know a toddler who is experiencing ‘the terrible twos’? Do you know a parent who has a baby at this age? There are many support systems available for parents or carers having a difficult time in their baby’s early years. If extra help is needed, don’t be afraid to ask – your GP or child and family health nurse will be able to help you find the right services.
There is no doubt that having a toddler, or caring for a toddler, can be both a gift and
a serious challenge. Whether they are experiencing ‘the terrible twos’ or not, every child is different and will need different levels of care and support. Whatever the case, spare a thought for the family at the shopping centre or play group whose toddler simply must carry their shoes instead of wearing them… ‘the terrible twos’ are completely normal.