The so-called "terrible twos" is a developmental stage many parents dread - and for good reason. Characterised by tantrums, frustration and defiance, it's a challenging time for mums, dads and little ones trying to assert their independence as they grow from babies into "big kids". According to a new study however, behavioural problems in toddlers don't have to be a given.
The research, published in the journal Developmental Science, found that parents who take a more flexible approach to their child's learning can minimise those tantrums during toddlerhood - with one important caveat. The team found this was only the case with toddlers who were also "easy babies."
"If you're blessed with a happy baby, then you can get them through the 'terrible twos' without things getting too bad or lasting too long, by being flexible about the way you play with your child between the age of 14 and 24 months," said lead author Professor Claire Hughes. "A puzzle game, for example, can turn into quite a different game if you allow your child to take the lead."
A group of 400 expectant couples from East of England, New York State and the Netherlands.took part in the study. Each couple was visited when their bub was four months old, 12 months old and two years old and filmed interacting with their little ones while doing a range of tasks. The team rated the level of parental support shown in each interaction while parents recalled their child's temperament as a baby and reported behavioural problems at age 14 months and two years.
According to the authors, simple tasks were used including giving children puzzle pieces to fit onto a board. "Some of the parents appeared quite anxious for their child to put the pieces in the right places, and gave them a lot of help" the authors note, while others worked out it was too hard for their child and let them take the lead.
"We had some children who took two animal pieces from a wooden farm puzzle and started clapping them together, and making a game out of the fact that they made a clapping noise," said co-author Rory Devine. "Here, parents might respond by encouraging the child to make animal noises that match the animals being clapped together," said Devine. "Autonomy supportive parenting is about being flexible, following a child's lead, and providing just the right amount of challenge."
According to Professor Hughes, it's not about doing everything for your little one, or telling them what to do. "It's more of a to-and-fro between parent and child."
The researchers do acknowledge, however, that it's easier said than done.
"Parents who do best at this can sit back and watch when they see their child succeeding with something, but increase support or adapt the task when they see the child struggling," Hughes says. "Rather than trying to make a child achieve a rigidly defined task, autonomy support is more of a playful interaction. It promotes the child's problem solving and their ability to learn, by letting games or tasks evolve into experiences that engage them."