Labels are for tins. Not children.
It strikes me that, when our children do not conform to some imagined set of behaviours or abilities people are quick to label them – the Terrible Twos are just one example of this. But are we right to fear the tempers of our toddlers? And what should we do when faced with them?
What do we expect from our two year olds?
The psychologist, Watson, in the 1920s stated that we should expect our children to behave thus-
[a well behaved child is one who] who never cries unless actually struck by a pin, – who loses himself in work and play- who quickly learns to overcome the small difficulties in his environment without running to mother, father, nurse or other adult – who soon builds up a wealth of habits that tides him over dark and rainy days – who puts on such habits of politeness and neatness and cleanliness that adults are willing to be around him at least part of the day; (he is) a child who is willing to be around adults without fighting incessantly for notice -who eats what is placed before him and ‘asks no questions for conscience sake’ – who sleeps and rests when put to bed for sleep and rest
(Watson, 1928, p. 9-10)
Is this really how you want your toddler to behave? This stepford toddler would concern me, frankly. But in order to label a child as not behaving the way we want them to, we must be holding an idea of what we want them to look like. In some cultures difference and independence are highly valued. In others everyone is expected to conform. What do we want from our children?
Watson, in the 1920s, equated happiness with self-reliance, productivity and an absence of emotion. In the 2010s it is hard to be sure exactly how our children are expected to behave. I have certainly heard parents and media label Toddlers’ behaviour as “naughty” – and there is an emphasis on stopping “bad” behaviour. But possibly not a lot of thought put into telling people (both big and small) what it is we want them to do.
What are the Terrible Twos?
In the 1930s. Goodenough talked about an increase in aggression in the 2 year old age group. Move into the 1940s and people start talking about the Terrible Twos. The Yale Child Development Centre noted that behaviour around the 18 month to 2 year mark started to become difficult, with children being less adaptive and flexible at this age. I don’t think it is coincidence that the labelling of these difficult years was 1940s and 1950s America when conformity was the watchword and widely accepted standards of dress and consumerism of mass produced goods ensured that the status quo was held on to. Having a difficult toddler, screaming and shouting “No!” was re-labelled, not as rebellion but as conformity to the behaviour expected of his age group – the Terrible Twos.
However, this is not to say that an increase in “difficult” behaviour and “non-compliance” doesn’t increase from two years old or so. Observation studies have shown that noncompliance does increase during the toddler years, which may be because autonomous thought and expression are emerging (Kalb & Loeber, 2003).
Why do toddlers tantrum?
Well, my guess is for exactly the same reasons adults do. Frustration, boredom, to get someone to pay attention to what you want, being fed up of being told what to do… The list is endless. We are suddenly faced with little people who are learning to talk (but don’t yet have all the words they need), who are gaining a sense of their own independence (but don’t yet have the motor skills and/or the trust of those around them to let them do everything they want to do independently), who have a sense of “me” and “mine (but so do their playmates, and they have yet to learn to share). And so we see explosions of temper as they try and negotiate the minefield of emotions they find themselves confronted with.
If you really are at a loss as to why your toddler is pitching a fit, Applied Behavioural Analysis may help you throw some light on the whole thing. Looking at the antecedents (what comes before) and the consequences (what comes after) can show us why people do what they do.
So keeping a diary, writing down what the behaviour was, what was going on when it happened, and what happened afterwards, gives you something to look through at the end of the day – perhaps you will genuinely find no reasons – sometimes toddlers just feel overwhelmed and grizzle and cry or there is an internal reason (cold, bored, headachy) that we can’t see and we will not be able to establish why. Or perhaps a light will come on “oh, he threw his toys after playing quietly for an hour. It was 12 o’clock and we ate soon after, so either he was hungry and couldn’t explain it (or didn’t understand how he felt) or he had got bored and didn’t know how to move on to another task”. So you then make sure that food is offered earlier and see if this reduces the behaviour, or keep an eye out for signs a toy is getting dull and help your child to transition to another game. If you can’t write it down in a diary, at least you can use these techniques to have a think once the tidal wave of emotions has calmed to figure out what was going on.
A lot of the time you may find that the consequence if the behaviour is simply your attention. In which case giving more attention when their behaviour is what you are hoping for and giving positive reinforcement for it “you are playing so well!” is likely to increase positive and reduce negative behaviour. This is often coupled with “ignoring negative behaviour”. There are two problems with this, though. Firstly, ignoring your child is often not possible (if they are placing themselves or others in danger) or desirable (some schools of thought say that it is better to acknowledge how the child feels, validating their emotions and helping them to recover their composure). Also some parents seem to really struggle with the concept of ignoring “bad” behaviour – my husband often recalls seeing a mother of a wailing toddler coming out of a supermarket, with her hands under her armpits, she drew her child up to eye level and yelled in her face “Bad behaviour! I am not paying you any attention!”
Who is really being “terrible”?
In any one day the average parent of the average toddler is likely to have done all or some of these things- shouted, flung things, thumped a table, yelled, ignored, told their little one to go away, taken a toy from their child, and, in far too many instances, hit.
The NSPCC reported that in 2002 over 50% of the public thought it not cruel to smack a toddler. By 2007, however, only 33% of people thought it was OK. Well, that’s progress, I guess. Hitting, spanking and smacking is another article entirely though.
But how can we expect our children not to shout when we shout at them? To share their toys if we take theirs away? Or not to hit if we hit them?
So what should we do?
For fun, let’s check out what Watson suggests-
Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job on a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it
(Watson, 1928, p. 81-82)
Whatever your approach, it seems that consistency is key. An inconsistent style of discipline reinforces the unwanted behaviors in the child and several studies have found an association between inconsistent discipline and child conduct problems (Kolb & Loeber, 2003). So whatever you do, make sure you (and your partner/grandparents etc) stick with it.
Over the last decade or so, it has become fashionable to parade “difficult” children on TV programmes and “fix” them for the entertainment of the masses. Sometimes helpful tips can be picked up, sometimes the “one size fits all” approach leads to the development of portable naughty steps so that you never leave home without one.
So, do naughty steps, time out, or the removal of toys work? These all come under the remit of punishment. Time out originally meant “time out from positive interaction”, however it is seldom used as such and more frequently is used to remove the child from a situation. Time-out procedures have been found to be effective at reducing child noncompliance (Roberts et al. 1981) and evidence suggests that these results can be generalised to other behaviours, such as aggression. However, there is very little evidence to suggest that the benefits that are found in the short-term continue into long term benefits (Houlihan, 1992).
With regards to the sudden increase in the use of punishment and naughty steps for toddlers, I find myself in agreement with Gina Ford (I know. I was shocked too) who said the following:
Put bluntly, these TV programmes promote the idea that children are a different breed who need to be tamed. It’s almost a throwback to Victorian times, and as such it’s terribly worrying.
I’ve regularly seen normal toddler behaviour, such as biting, being demonised in these programmes. The culprits are branded as ‘naughty’ and in need of punishment. So they sit on a step, or whatever, until they submit. Is this really the way we should be raising our children in the 21st century?
Ford eschews the naughty step in favour of “descriptive praise” where you praise a child by telling them exactly what you think they have done well. This positive conditioning approach focuses on good behaviour rather than bad and, as a rule, is known to work well in a variety of settings and is regularly used by psychologists.
But what do you do in the moment, when your child is biting, hitting, screaming, throwing…?
I think the answer to the age old question of how to deal with difficult behaviour, is to try and decide why the temper has flared in the first place. If you then consider how you would like to be treated in similar situations, you would probably be onto something.
When I am frustrated, the worse thing to say to me is “calm down”. If you made me sit on the stairs It would be very unlikely to diffuse my emotions. However, a hug or some understanding that I am cross would probably help. Dr Sears recommends this for frustrated toddlers:
Occasionally, a very strong-willed child will lose control of himself during a tantrum. If often helps to simply hold him firmly, but lovingly, and say, “You’re angry, and you have lost control. I’m holding you because I love you”
Basically a hug, reinforcement of safety and love, and labelling the emotions – this helps the child learn what they are feeling and help them to regulate their emotions and stay safe until it goes away. Of course some children would hate to be hugged when they are angry, in which case I think he would recommend that you don’t – despite what we are led to believe, we as parents usually do know our children better than the authors of books who have never met them.
If your child is putting themselves or someone else in danger or is hurting someone, the Sears approach is to intervene and firmly remove them from the situation:
Biting hurts, and it’s wrong to hurt. You are going to sit by me.” Usually by two years of age the child can make the connection between being aggressive and the consequences. Encourage your child to say “I’m sorry.” If he’s not angry anymore, he might want to give a kiss or hug
Others disagree with making a child apologise unless they are old enough to understand and really mean it.
But the biggest weapon in Sears’ arsenal is to prevent the set up in the first place. Decide where you want to draw the line and which battles you chose to fight – carseats are non-negotiable, for example. In our house transitioning from pyjamas to clothes is often a fight waiting to happen. So when X doesn’t need to get dressed, he doesn’t, but when we need to go out he can have some limited choice about getting dressed – “these trousers or these ones? Wellies or shoes?” etc. that way he has some control over what happens to him rather than always being told what to do and when to do it. Getting down to his level helps too, rather than standing above him.
There is a balance, says Liedloff, author of the Contiuum Concept. If we placate our toddler by giving them what they want whenever they tantrum, they won’t experience the boundaries that help them to feel safe. They feel anxious and confused if the boundaries are not clear or fall down with the slightest push. We can, states Leidloff, be too child-centred.
Non compliance has to be one of the most difficult tantrum starters. That non-negotiable car seat, for example. How do people cope? Here are some ideas-
1. Make it a game. Distract your toddler with toys, singing, anything that takes their mind off the fact that they do not want to do what they are being told to do.
2. Positive reinforcement for carrying out the behaviour. You call it bribery. I call it reinforcement. “I really want to give you these raisins, but you need to be sitting in your car seat” or “when you get into your car seat we can play your favourite CD/go to the park/see if we can find any tractors while we drive to…”
I think we often have to change our approach too, these toddlers keep us on our toes! X hates to clean his teeth. For a while it was non negotiable and resulted in a nightly tussle. Then singing worked, but then it didn’t. Then an electric toothbrush worked for a few weeks. Then it didn’t. Then modelling work, then stopped. We moved onto a toothbrush with a dragon head cover which he gets to hold, then the dragon checks his teeth. When this doesn’t work we brush his teddy’s teeth at the same time and X “shows him how”. For now, these two approaches are working. My, you have to be creative in this game!
The latter approach described is similar to the technique known as “Playful Parenting”. A clever, (but possibly exhausting) approach to your children where you say yes as often as possible (by trying to avoid situations where you are likely to have to say no) and approaching times when you would normally find yourself nagging, exasperated, with humour and games. Thinking about it, perhaps this is not as exhausting as constant battles, frustration and yelling. And the author acknowledge that the idea may seem too much for a tired parent “when we are exhausted or when we are at the end of our rope, we tend to think that play will just be more of an energy drain. But when we engage playfully with our children, we find that suddenly we do have energy, both for fun and finding solutions to thorny problems” (pg. 14).
Being clear about what you want your toddler to do will often prevent tantrums in the first place. There is strong evidence to suggest that little ones are less likely to comply with a task if they are given complicated instructions those that are aversive or vague increase child-ignoring behavior (Dumas & Lechowicz, 1989). This highlights the importance of making requests to children which are clear and age appropriate and which also take into account other factors (such as how tired or hungry the child may be).
So, do the Terrible Twos exist?
Well, in so far as your child is two. And their emotional reactions can be terrible. There are times when the label “Terrible Twos” may feel very apt. But I do hate the term.
This is a time when our toddlers are learning a lot about themselves, their environment, control and power. They are developing speech, an understanding of a range of emotions, cognitive and physical skills… The changes are huge and out of their control. Every day they are told when to get up, dress, eat, sleep…. It is hardly surprising that they want to have their say.
I know, too, that as parents we had kind of got used to being able to generally get our babies to do what we want them to. So this is a bit of a shock to our system too.
Labelling an entire year of a child’s life as “terrible” is very sad. It ignore the amazing things you learn and discover at this age, and the wonders of each little change and growth that we witness as parents.
And when we try and use a “one size fits all” approach and don’t respect our toddlers as little human beings, with the right to have a say in their lives and a right to show us how they feel, what are we modelling?
We have to balance parental control and responsibility with a healthy dose of understanding and respect.
As Dr Suess would say:
“A person’s a person. No matter how small“