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Terrible Twos Due More To Parenting Than To Child

Penn State

"Terrible Twos" Due To More To Parenting Than To Child

"Terrible Twos" Due More To Parenting Than To Child

University Park, Pa. -- The "Terrible Twos" have a lot more to do with how parents manage their children's emerging quest for individuality and autonomy than with the inborn temperament of the child, say Penn State child development researchers.

Dr. Jay Belsky, distinguished professor of human development and family studies, Dr. Sharon Woodworth, postdoctoral fellow, and Dr. Keith Crnic, professor of psychology, draw that conclusion from their study of 69 central Pa. families rearing first born sons.

The study, which is continuing as the children approach school age, suggests that how parents manage the period of budding individuality during years two and three makes a difference in how easy or difficult these children turn out to be later on.

Mothers, fathers and children in the study were observed interacting in their homes during two separate visits when the boys were 15, 21, 27 and 33 months old. The researchers looked for specific infant, parent and family characteristics or attributes to try to determine why some families had trouble during the second and third year of a child's life while others do not.

They found that children's own temperaments were not reliable predictors of troubled interactions. For example, babies who were negative and cried more often at one year of age did not more frequently turn into Terrible Twos.

More than 20 hours of daycare in the first year of life, however, were found to increase the probability that a vulnerable family, would have trouble managing their toddler. Daycare was not found to be troubling in families that had few vulnerabilities in terms of infant, parent and family attributes.

Only a small subset of the 69 families were observed to be having trouble managing their child at all of the visits. Belsky notes, "I really think that the Terrible Twos is a case of a few bad apples giving the barrel a bad name. Most two and three year olds are not 'terrible' in the popular sense of the term."

In the families experiencing negative behavior from the child, Belsky says, "the family processes seemed to be driven less by the kind of baby the child was temperamentally and more by the kind of parenting strategies the parents adopted and the stresses and strains the parents were under."

For example, the mothers and fathers in families experiencing trouble were most often people who were prone to negative emotions outside the family as well as inside. The fathers, especially, had less social support and more occupational stress. The more troubled families had less income. However, Belsky cautions, none of these factors was distinctively important in its own right. What mattered most was the cumulative effect.

"If the family had a negatively emotional Dad, for example, and that was it, then the effect wasn't problematical. However, if you had a negatively emotional Dad, plus a not very agreeable mother, plus social isolation, plus lack of economic support, all of these things thrown together create a context in which parent-child interactions go awry and the toddler starts to earn the reputation of a Terrible Two," Belsky says.

Mothers and fathers in troubled families were also found to use an authoritarian, demanding style of parenting. They used language that expressed control rather than control-with-guidance. For example, they were more prone to yell, "Stop that," or "Get away from there" rather than to say, "Leave the tablecloth alone. You'll pull down the plates and hurt yourself."

Belsky says, "At the core of control-with-guidance, is showing respect for the emerging autonomy of the child and recognition that he is an individual who has his own will, desire and needs."

Parents in troubled families also tended not to work as a team. For example, if one parent said, "It's time to go to the potty," the other parent might respond, "He just went an hour ago."

"That sends a message to the child," says, Belsky, "which is, don't pay attention to that first parent."

Children who were showing the most problem behavior at age three came from families in which problematic child/parent interactions were observed most frequently. Parents and child care workers described those children as hostile, disobedient and easily frustrated at their third birthday.

Belsky says "There is good evidence showing that those children that are having more difficulty and more problems at three years are more likely to have such problems as they get into elementary school as well. This leads us to suspect that the origins of problems in the school years can be traced back, at least in part, to the toddler years."

The group's findings on the second and third years of life have been detailed in two separate publications, "Three Questions About Family Interactions," Child Development, Vol. 67, p 555-578, 1996, and "Troubled Family Interaction During Toddlerhood", Development and Psychopathology, Vol. 8, p. 477-495, which is scheduled to appear on July 26. The study, which is scheduled to continue until the children are 5 years old, is funded, in part, by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health.

EDITORS: Dr. Belsky is at (814) 865-1447 or e-mail via

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