How to Survive Your Child's "Terrible Twos"
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How to Survive Your Child's "Terrible Twos"

This article is a brief look at four developmental theorists work on the "terrible twos" and the child's need to develop will and begin to grasp moral values.

Stage development theory is fluid. It depends on what markers you use to define a particular stage. For the Early Childhood Stage Erik Erikson used 18 months to 3 years. In some kids that would be 2 to 4 years. Development is a concept the researchers and parents apply. The child is the one in charge regardless of what the adults think. He or she will develop according to a private timetable and the adults will have to adapt. Most abilities that we think we can teach and train are dependent on brain myelination that is outside the control of either the child or the parent.


Toilet training is a most significant event that occurs at this time. By the age of 2 many children can control bowel and bladder functions adequately and feel accomplishment in the event. Children who do not should not be shamed or punished, but if it continues, you should consult a doctor. Two of my children had problems that resulted in bladder and kidney infections requiring surgery. I think my children got over my criticism, but I suffered with a lot of guilt when I remembered my sharp words to them.


The “terrible twos” is a trial for parents. At this time a boy has fully grasped the notion that he has a will, and he can operate independently. According to Erik Erikson’s theory, the conflict at this time is between Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt and the task is to develop will. If the little boy of 2 or 3 repeatedly receives criticism and hostility, he may learn that he or his efforts are not worthy or valued. Girls, too, feel this rejection. It is not appropriate for a child to rule the family, but it should be structured so that the child can receive appropriate praise and reward for appropriate behavior. It’s not good to praise a child when he or she does not deserve it because the words will be empty. It is more appropriate to express joy at seeing the child than to say he or she is good. The child may have been terrible, but it's still express OK to love him or her.


Jean Piaget calls this stage the Preoperational Stage. A child’s judgment at this time is intuitive. The little boy must assimilate new information into the set of information he already has. When he adds new stuff, he may have to change the way he thinks things already work. He sees a kite flying, and he knows the wind caused it. He had to fit in new information to realize that the string held it toward the wind. That is accommodation. “Just So Stories” by Rudyard Kipling fit into the intuitive framework the child at this stage understands.


Lawrence Kohlberg dealt with the child’s understanding of moral behavior—right and wrong. Children at this age only know what feels good; if daddy smiled at him, he did a good thing. If mommy frowned, he did a bad thing. He or she may not register responsibility for another person’s pain or hurt feelings. Those things must be explained. Going on and on to produce extreme guilt is overkill. It is appropriate to label a spade a spade—point out that hitting another boy caused him pain and tears and required an apology. The understanding of guilt or wrong-doing is dependent on the response. If the child did something that you don’t want repeated, don’t laugh about it—or, worse yet, brag about it in his presence.


James Fowler’s research focused on faith development. At this age a child will behave like you do. He or she can obey instructions and understand stories. In regard to faith, the 2 year old is in the intuitive- projective stage. He or she will repeat things you teach and will conform behavior to your standards. By the age of four, the child listens to stories and knows what behavior is acceptable, but faith is a very hazy concept to a child at this age.  The child at this age has faith in the parents, and does not conceive of faith much beyond that.


It is important for a child to be affirmed. Parents should find ways to be supportive of the child even when correcting unwanted behavior. Point out to him or her behaviors you want to see repeated—how well he or she behaved in church, how kind he or she was to your relative, and correct but don’t make a big deal about the negatives.

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