YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


You Can't Blame Those Temper Tantrums on the Terrible Twos Anymore

Researchers Find That Parents' Personalities Have Much More to Do With Temperamental Toddlers Than a Growing Phase Does


The "terrible twos" are not a developmental symptom or an outgrowth of temperament. Rather, the transformation from angel to Attila--the rap long associated with toddlerhood--may be caused by the parents.

Jay Belsky, distinguished professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University, conducted a longitudinal study examining 69 families' interactions with their children that restores the sullied reputation of 2-year-olds everywhere. Only boys were studied because they are more aggressive and less cooperative than girls.

Belsky and colleagues concluded in the study published last month that parents' personality traits, economic resources, levels of stress, and social support and disciplinary tactics better predicted which toddlers turned temperamental.

"For most families, the 'terrible twos' is a misnomer, more myth than reality," Belsky says.

"An 8-year-old won't clean his room and you don't lay blame at the doorstep of a developmental period. You say, 'He is having a bad day.' Only 20% of families we studied--a substantial minority but no place near the majority--were chronically troubled by their toddler's behavior."

Researchers observed parents attempting to control their children eight times for 90 minutes between the ages of 15 and 33 months, documenting the chain reaction between the child's response and the parents' reactions. Parents plagued by badly behaved toddlers had personalities characterized as "anxious, depressed, hostile, unsociable and disagreeable." Carrying work stress home and home stress to work, they proved to be "unskilled" in their "frequent" and persistent efforts to dissuade their children from certain behavior.

"The people who can't handle the developmental curve ball of toddlerhood are those who are all stressed out," Belsky says. "What is considered toddler normal behavior, acting difficult at times or refusing to do something, gets mismanaged and out of control."

Without offering explanations and guidance, Belsky says, these stressed parents' attempts to manage a toddler results in an escalation of "negative interaction," fostering bad behavior.

"There is your toddler going after the dishwasher," he explains. "You say, 'Get away . . . leave it alone.' It escalates. You get angry, the kids get angry and upset, you get angrier. What you want to do is say 'Yes, the dishwasher is interesting but come do this instead.' "

Belsky and colleagues are now assessing the children at 5 years to determine if the origins of later behavior problems begin in parenting mistakes made in the early years. "If a kid is caught up in a negative escalation, it is difficult to stop," he says. "It is like a rolling stone gathering moss."

Los Angeles Times Articles