Taming the Terrible Twos

Parents often view the deviant behavior associated with the ‘terrible twos’ as an inevitable part of their child’s transition from infancy to toddlerhood. However, according to a study published in May by researchers at the University of Cambridge, making adjustments to your parenting style during early toddlerhood may help reduce the negative behaviors at age two.

The study found that infants who have an easy-going, happy temperament were less likely to display difficult behavior at age two when parents adopted a less rigid parenting style called autonomy support between the ages of 14 months to 24 months.

Researchers gathered data by observing the kids in the study and how they interacted with their parents at age 4 months, 14 months and 24 months. Parents also contributed information regarding their child’s temperament as an infant and described any behavioral issues at the ages of 14 months and 24 months.

What is autonomy support and why does it help? This strategy encourages parents to step back and let their toddler guide the flow of play, instead of trying to force them to complete rigidly pre-defined games or tasks. The use of this strategy helps toddlers develop important executive function skills such as decision-making and self-control. The researchers found that their data reinforces results of previous studies that discovered a link between good executive function skills and a decrease in toddler behavioral issues.

Incorporating autonomy support into your toddler’s playtime. When interacting with your toddler during playtime, let him take the lead and make some decisions, but continue to challenge him as the play evolves. For example, if you are working with your toddler on a numbers puzzle and he is only interested in clapping the pieces together to make noise, you could say a number and ask him to clap the pieces together that many times, instead of trying to force him to complete the puzzle. A playful, two-way interaction that encourages your child to explore and learn in a way that is interesting to him is the goal of an autonomy support approach.

According to the study, toddlers who had an irritable disposition as infants may display difficult behavior during the ‘terrible twos’ even when parents use autonomy support. However, using this strategy may reduce the intensity of their toddler’s frustration.