Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Inside the 'Terrible Twos'

Do you love it when your toddler says “No” to you? When your 2-year-old child who has only recently begun to walk and to speak in words is rejecting your guidance and replying “No” to you over and over again, you understand why it is called the ‘terrible twos.’ It’s terrible for you and it’s so easy to get frustrated and lose your cool, especially when you didn’t get enough sleep and you are trying to do all the many things on your to-do list. 
“No Mommy No!” 
“Daddy, NO!” 
“No, no nooooooo.”
Maybe there is a way to increase your patience and even find a way to rejoice in this stage of your child’s development. Maybe understanding the child’s experience of being two can help you enjoy this phase of development. Maybe you can even discover a way to enjoy the experience.

When a baby is born, the whole world is new for him. The world reveals itself in colors, sounds, shapes, textures, brightness, warmth and more. The baby is awash in a sea of sensory experiences. It is hard for an adult to imagine the infant’s experience because adults live in a world of intellect and ideas. We categorize our sense perceptions and relate them to other sense impressions. We adults connect our perceptions to concepts. We are thinking most of the time and in the center of our thought is our very own self. The sense of self is something that develops over time in each individual. The two-year-old is just beginning to wake up to a sense of self.

For the infant, there is just perception - no concepts, no intellect, and no sense of self yet. It is hard to imagine this state of being since you who are reading this has an intellect and knows your ‘self’ in relation to others and the world around you. A newborn does not have a sense of self. His world IS his sense experiences. Already at birth, his senses are active and ‘transmitting information’ to the brain. The organs for sight, hearing, taste, warmth, touch and smell are functional at birth, and the nerves that carry the information to the brain are present. The sensory information is received but is processed quite differently than an adult.

One way to describe the situation is that an infant is at one with their perceptions. They do not separate what they are perceiving from self (the one who is perceiving). The infant does not have the experience of ‘this is me, and that is not me.’ Looking at the world in terms of self and other is not the infant’s experience. So at this age, the child is truly one with the parents. It is a crucial part of individual development to separate from your parents to become your own individual self. The child must push away from the parents in his own unique style in various ways at different stages of development. 

The sense of self is a significant aspect of the human experience. We rely on it to guide us in social settings. It is our compass for personal space and boundaries. It is the core by which we process all of our experiences. And like many other human capacities and qualities, it only gradually awakens. Developing into ‘the one who is sensing,’ the self that is experiencing, takes a long time to fully develop. Infants are like enlightened beings - they are literally at one with everything. A fully developed sense of self can finally arise in early adulthood, it’s continuous small steps until then.

When the baby starts to sit up, stand and then walk, it indicates significant development on the road to discovery of self. A walking toddler, walking away from mommy and daddy, is trying to find himself. When he switches from speaking in the third person to first person, he is moving along that road. From “Billy want more” to “Me want more” or “I want,” we can see something new coming into being.

When your 2-year-old is saying “No” to you remember that his sense of self is waking up. He may be experiencing something like this: “No to this, no to that, no to all that is not me. Yes to me. No to you. That is not me. Yes to me. Yes. Yes. Yes. No to what is not me...”

An additional feature of the 2-year-old is that he is at a stage of vastly increased self-mobility. He is drawn to explore and discover - and is now mobile. This exploration is natural and an important mechanism to be able to begin to grasp the world. We adults are concerned about safety, and perhaps neatness, so we try and set boundaries for our young children. Our boundaries. And our boundaries meet the newly arising sense of self. That is the conundrum of the 2-year-old. 

So try and rejoice when he is saying “No” to dinner time, “No” to washing hands, “No” to you. He is growing in an important realm - self is waking up. Hooray. It is the beginning of many years of tension between his awakening sense of self and your creating limits that satisfy your needs for safety, cleanliness and efficiency. The ‘terrible twos’ is a practice ground for the next many years. If you start out with the understanding that the developing sense of self must reject what is not itself, then perhaps your understanding can better carry you through the challenge. If you remember while your child is rejecting what you request and demand, that to your child’s awakening sense of self you are becoming other and this is a necessary element in human development.

“No, no, no....” for the two-year-old means “Yes” to himself. Hooray for development. Your child is two now. This stage too WILL pass. And then the challenges will be different, and harder, and easier.

Start now to develop the patience and ability to respond to your child. Your buttons don’t need to be pushed by your child’s “challenging your authority.” It is not about you. It is about the natural processes of developing a sense of self. It is inevitable. Maybe you can find some humor in it. Maybe when he is two you can develop tools for connecting with your child that will serve you for the many years to come. Start now. “Yes. Yes. Yes!”

P.S. I would love to hear about your experiences and challenges with your young children. Please share this with your friends who have young children.
And for some tips on keeping the stress levels down here is an article from Dr. Rick Hanson http://www.rickhanson.net/just-one-thing/lower-stress


  1. Don't you think its possible that chidren at the age of two are also mimicking what they are hearing from adults. If you as a parent are saying no all day long to your child to meet your need for saftey and setting limits, then it seem pretty logical and natural for a child to start reflecting back that input. It can be very helpful for a parent to learn to say yes and to learn a new way of parenting that unfortunately wasn't passed on to many of us by our elders. A new paradigm of parenting partnership can be embraced and the number of no's that we and our children have to endure can be lessened dramatically!