Rockpool Publishing

Do the Terrible Two's really exist?

Do “the terrible twos” really exist?

Around the age of two children begin to express a new kind of longing - a desire for greater autonomy and they search for an independence from parents. In the US this period is often referred to as "The Troublemaker Twos" in Australia we know it as “The Terrible Twos.” This labeling probably stems from some adults’ need to explain any conflict that might occur by tracing it back to something that takes place within the child. However, it is not that simple. Many factors come to play, such as: The child's development during their first two years, the parents' ability and willingness to adjust, and the quality of the interaction between parent and child.

The child develops a desire to try out lots of things: Brushing of teeth, tying shoelaces, putting the gumboots on, getting food out of the refrigerator, getting dressed, etc.

This development is actually completely natural to them. It is, in fact, the adults who might find it difficult to cope with that transition. For the child’s first two years the parents have done everything. This is an important responsibility and gives the them an overwhelming sense of value - they know everything and are absolutely indispensable. For some parents “the terrible twos” come as a relief and for others it is difficult to let go of the total power.

What happens between the child and parents depends on the parents' ability to adapt. If they reluctantly let go of the total control and are not able to appreciate the child's desire to fend for themselves, power struggle will develop:

“I want to pour the milk!”
“You can’t do that. You will spill on the table, let me do it!”
“I want to!!!”
“I’ll do it... Ooops! Look, you made me spill. You are too young, I told you!”

The parent’s assessment is most likely spot on. There is at least 50% chance that the child is not able to pour the milk properly and will spill. However, the interaction between parent and child is not about who is right or wrong. It is about creating space for the child and supporting the process of learning. So parents need to allow the child to do things he/she cannot master yet, and not help until the child asks for it.

Children are small geniuses when it comes to learning things. They will continually try out things, which are just a little bit more difficult than they can cope with. Years later they will be able to acknowledge, accept and respect their personal limitations - but by then they will have left home.

When a child suddenly tell you that they want to do something by themselves you will be wise to support them and offer your assistance - should they ask for it.

“I want to pour my own milk!”
“Fine! It’ll be interesting to see how you go.”
When the child spills:
“Ooops! You almost made it. Would you like some help?”
“No, I can do it!”
“Sure, I can see you are learning how to do it.”

When it comes to getting dressed before leaving the house many parents justify their “helpfulness” by explaining why there is no time to experiment. “We have to catch the bus.” or “Dad has to get to work on time.”

I am sorry to say that this is a very bad excuse. If you do not have enough time to let your child develop then you need to take more time.

Think about a similar situation when the child is eight and struggling with homework.

“I don’t want to do maths! I can’t work it out.”
“Of course you can work it out. It just takes time to learn something new. Just be patient - otherwise you’ll never learn anything.”

It is a good idea to listen to your own advice much earlier.

We cannot prevent the fact that there will be times when things do not go according to plan and you do have to hurry. What do you do then? You acknowledge the child’s desire to learn and then you apologize for being in a hurry.

“I know that you want to do it yourself, and I am pleased about that... but today I am so busy that you must allow me to do it for you. Is that all right?”

Nine times out of ten the answer will be an compliant: "Alright then!" You will have to live with that tone and attitude because you have just deprived another person their independence and interrupted an important learning processes.

Parents will lose neither their power nor importance in the child’s life by creating space for this vital learning. In the long run they will, however, gain a little more time and space for themselves and each other.

By Jesper Juul (English adaptation by Hayes van der Meer, FamilyLab ANZ)

Jesper Juul

Jesper Juul is a family therapist and the founder of FamilyLab International. He is a renowned author and sought-after international speaker. Jesper Juul’s international best-seller and must-have book for parents and educators is now available in an Australian/New Zealand edition: “Raising competent children”. Published by

Die ZEIT: Jesper Juul is one of the twelve leading enlighteners, thinkers and visionaries.
Der SPIEGEL: Jesper Juul is an “icon of modern pedagogics.”

For more information about Jesper Juul and FamilyLab please visit


Jesper Juul – 01 July, 2012