It’s uncanny. Your beautiful, calm, obedient and well-mannered just-turned-two child blows out the candles on his birthday cake and – snap! – becomes toddler Godzilla. He’s refusing to do everything, kissing the floor at every shopping mall, and scaring the elderly with hysterical screams whenever he does not get what he wants. What happened? Dr Chan Poh Chong, Head of Division of Ambulatory and Adolescent Paediatrics at the University Children’s Medical Institute, National University Hospital, sheds some light.
‘Terrible Twos and Terrorist Threes’ – fact or myth?
These are terms used by mothers when children turn from being the obedient and lovable babies into toddlers who start exerting their independence and exploring the world around them.
When children reach the age of two to three, they will start asking plenty of questions (eg. why?). They develop a strong sense of self and relationships, and may be persistent in saying “no!”.
They may have separation anxiety and stick to someone they are comfortable with. They are also very curious about how things work, and may imitate or follow the adults’ actions.
Their full use of their different senses and their higher cognitive function enable them to speak more freely and sometimes defiantly. They are curious to try out every new experience, and can now link ideas, making them more difficult to handle.
Why did my toddler turn into a monster at this age?
The fact that toddlers may not be able to express themselves fully could be a cause of their frustrations due to their limited vocabulary and “no” becomes the only response to any request from the guardians.
There are no proven abnormal levels of their brain chemicals or alteration in their physiological make-up at this stage, but their development tends to change them into beings who now question every command and constantly challenges every rule, thus frustrating their parents.
How can I tell if my child is simply whining or if something really is wrong?
If a child is refused food, toys, or an activity, he or she may start a tantrum by whining. This is likely a response to an event in which the child does not get his way. Depending on his temperament and his past experience with tantrums, this may only last for a while, or it can build up to a big fight or creates a scene.
Parents need to be able to handle tantrums firmly and consistently, to ensure that there is a boundary that the child has to follow.
Is there something wrong with my child if the ‘terrible twos or threes’ never materialise?
Absolutely not! Every child is different and the degree of their response to ‘unfavourable situations’ is also different. Your child may have an easy temperament, or it could be that you have set your boundaries early in life and your child is aware of what is permissible and what is not, without having to turn to tantrums.
How to handle your Jekyll-Hyde toddler
• Keep Calm & Carry On
Be calm and patient when faced with a tantrum, as an aggravated response to tantrums may escalate the situation. Eg. Do not shout or use physical force when handling a crying toddler who does not want to go home from the shopping mall. Calmly tell him why daddy/mummy needs to go home and that you will come back again. Offer him his favourite activity or food when you get home.
• Develop A Routine
Having a routine is important for a young toddler who has no sense of time. Mealtimes, bathtimes and bedtimes should be regular so that the child will not question or resist when they happen.
Set rules and guidelines early on and stick to them as far as you can. Eg. If you are going to the shopping centre for a meal only, make sure that this is communicated to your child, and that she knows that there will be no detours to any toy stores. Make it clear to her that throwing a tantrum outdoors will only result in time-outs or restriction of activities.
• Give Them Choice
Offer appropriate alternatives, as children usually prefer to be given a choice rather than being told what they should or should not do. For instance, instead of telling him “eat all the vegetables on your plate”, try “would you prefer the green vegetables or the orange carrots?”. Of course, both alternatives should be things that you agree with!
• Keep Talking
Maintain constant communication with your little one, and allow her opportunities to improve her expressive skills. This will lead to a better understanding of her behaviour, and, armed with this knowledge, you’ll be able to anticipate and plan ahead to deal with any potential outbursts.