Wholeness Healing Today

The Terrible Twos – or is it “The Terrific Twos?”

“No”. “I will do it.” These are the words that start echoing in a home with toddlers as they move into their second developmental stage between 18 months and three years of age. This is a time that parents often wonder how they are going to handle their child’s temper tantrums as they seem to spiral out of control. It is helpful to understand that there is some reason for the madness. Erik Erickson called this the stage of Autonomy versus Shame stage. Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development is one of the best known theories. He believed that personality develops in a series of stages. He has organized life stages into eight parts that start from birth and cover the life span until death.

In a previous newsletter I covered Erikson’s first stage of Trust versus Mistrust. I also elaborated on this first stage as it is foundational in setting up attachment with your child, which impacts your child’s ability to have good relationships for the rest of his life. This foundation continues to develop as the child works through the second stage of development. This is the stage when ego development begins. Ego development is the conscious sense of self and is developed through social interaction. Erikson also believed that a sense of competence also motivates behaviors and actions. If this stage is handled well, the child will feel a sense of mastery and competence. If it is not handled well, the child will develop a sense of inadequacy.

Perhaps the best way to think about this stage is that it is what we call the “terrible twos” or shall we call it the “terrific two” stage. This is the time in development when the child learns the powerful word, “No” and the child often will respond dramatically when he isn’t given what he wants. This is the stage when the toddler begins to realize that he is a separate person from his mother and father. The toddler starts to venture off more and more from mom and dad. This is seen in more time and more space away from the parent, often risking more.

In the first stage the separation times were small. The toddler would touch mom’s knee and then go explore in the area where mom was. He would need to use mom or dad more as a touchstone to come back and check that all was safe. In this new stage, the child, hopefully, has learned to trust that all is safe (learned during the first stage of development). Now he begins to learn about having his own desires and the ability to get what he wants. The declaration of independence begins and the child’s favorite words, along with, “no” are, “I will do it myself.” The child is working on separating from his parents and bidding for more choices and more independence.

The important event that happens during this stage is toilet training. This skill plays a major role in the child’s development as he learns that he has control over his body functions and this leads to a feeling of control in his life and that sense of “being a big boy or girl”. Other choices (or demands) will be over picking the toy they want to play with and making decisions about what they like to wear or eat. If parents encourage and support the children in their increased independence, they will become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world. A child learns to feel as if he can handle situations and consequently will venture out more in new situations. This allowance of venturing out needs to be done with balance.

Children who are not allowed some flexibility in making their decisions, or are overly criticized, controlled, or not given the chance to assert their own decisions, may begin to develop feelings that they are inadequate and unable to survive in the world. They don’t realize they can accomplish tasks and fail to develop self assurance that they can handle their environment. These children may become overly dependent upon others, lack self-esteem, and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their own abilities. These children may become clingy to their parents, showing an anxious attachment. They may have troubles being left at daycare or preschool. They may not try to do new tasks and give up before they hardly start due to a lack of confidence. Later on they may have low self-esteem and become defiant.

The other side of this coin is that along with this, children still need to navigate their choices and their independence within the rules that are set up for them. Just because your child decides he wants a toy at the store, or wants only dessert for dinner doesn’t mean that is what is allowed. Boundaries and rules are still needed to teach and keep the child safe. Healthy nutrition, appropriate manners, and following rules are all tasks the parent needs to instill in the child as he develops. However, you may give the child a choice of drinking milk or water for dinner, and drinking it out of the green sippy cup or the purple glass. You might give children the choice of watching his one TV show after lunch or before bedtime.

These choices can be given as you teach the child to follow directions. When he is done playing with his toys, it is then time for him to pick up his toys. If it is his choice not to pick up the toys, then logical consequences can be set up where he doesn’t get to watch TV until his toys are picked up, or he does a time-out and then picks up the toys. Teaching him to accomplish this task (eventually on his own) will build that sense of autonomy and self-confidence. He begins to understand that he is part of the family and contributes to the family rules. He is a significant family member doing what everyone does in the family.

A child learning how to master his environment in all these different ways will build autonomy. It is here that you begin to really appreciate the stage of development your child has accomplished and may see some “terrific two” moments of development. A child who is allowed to say “no” and have this be the final answer will not learn how to master his environment. He merely learns how to control things and people.

Children who successfully accomplish this stage in their development will feel secure and confident. Those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt. This will lead to feeling insecure and unsafe in his environment and ultimately not trusting that he/she is safe.

Erikson’s philosophy is that failure to resolve these developmental stages as children move through them is cumulative and that it is critical to resolve each developmental stage so that later stages can be negotiated. Each stage becomes the building block for the next stage. Therefore, it is critical that the early building blocks are set into place. This theory outlines the stages in a linear fashion with the idea that one stage is accomplished and resolved before the child can move on to the next stage. People with difficult circumstances in early development may have more difficult time negotiating later stages.

There is also the theory that people, in their resilience, can overcome difficult challenges. I think it is good to realize what we are helping our children work through, developmentally setting the foundation up as best we can in their early lives. It is also important to realize and work towards healing anything that didn’t get resolved during these early developmental stages. So understanding what your child needed to accomplish may give you insight into what your child didn’t succeed in mastering. If you know this, you are then able to go back and start to implement opportunities to master the skills and still work towards stabilizing your child’s developmental foundation. Next we will cover the three to five year old developmental stage called Initiative versus Guilt.

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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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