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We call them ‘terrible twos’ (and worse), but toddlers are just learning how to be people

(Washington Post illustration/iStock image)

A scenario familiar to any parent: Dina Badie and her 3-year-old daughter were in the car on the way home from a music class when the toddler asked if she could listen to her favorite song from the “Rapunzel” soundtrack. Badie pulled up the song on her phone, but it took a moment before the sound piped through the car’s speakers.

“By the time I turned it up, the song was, I don’t know, five or six seconds in,” she says. Her daughter was instantly beside herself: “She flipped out.”

This sort of over-the-top reaction is pretty typical for kids her age. Because of that, lots of parents have heard warnings about the infamous “threenager” phase, which of course follows the “terrible twos.” Of the various idioms meant to explain away all manner of toddler outbursts, these are the milder examples.

“I definitely had a moment when I read the term “twouchebag,’ ” says Harmony Johnson, 38, recalling a friend’s Facebook post bemoaning the challenges of toddler mood swings. “I remember I kind of laughed, but then I thought, ‘Well, that’s awful.’ ”

I don’t want to spank my toddler. I don’t want to raise a brat. So what are my options?

“Terrible twos” has been around for generations. “Threenager” started making parenting blog headlines in 2015, an acknowledgment that the challenges of toddlerhood don’t vanish with a poof on a kid’s third birthday. In the social media era, where the highs and lows of parenting are often shared across a multitude of platforms, snarkier labels (such as “twouchebag,” or the “f--- you fours”) keep joining the lexicon.

At first glance, it all seems rather harmless; these terms are usually meant to help a frazzled parent blow off steam or to foster a sense of solidarity among those who understand or just to get a few laughs. But language shapes our understanding of what we’re experiencing — so what does it mean when we use inherently negative words to describe the little ones among us? How does it affect expecting moms and dads, or the parents of kids who are just entering this stage of development, or toddlers themselves?

“I feel that a lot of parents just hear these phrases and instantly think a kid is bad,” says Francesco Scotto di Carlo, a 29-year-old dad of a 2-year-old who only recently started talking and sometimes struggles to express himself: “It’s not that he is bad or acting terrible. He is just frustrated that he can’t communicate to us what he wants or how he is feeling.”

Hearing about the terrible twos and threenagers made Johnson brace for a nightmare. “Starting when you’re pregnant, everybody is full of advice, and for whatever reason, everyone wants to share their horror story,” she says. “It was always like, ‘Oh, just you wait, you have no idea.’ So I think I expected the entire experience of parenting a toddler to be awful.”

But then it wasn’t. Her 2-year-old son has plenty of opinions, she says, and he sometimes pitches a fit when he’s asked to clean up his toys. But: “You also get unprompted ‘I love you’s’ and ‘I want to give mommy a hug,’ ” she says. “I feel like I’m constantly surprised by what he knows, what he remembers. The older my son gets, it does get easier in a lot of ways, and certainly more joyful in a lot of ways.”

Even the most even-keeled toddlers have their moments, which is why these expressions became popular in the first place. “Terrible twos” emerged in the 1950s, when mothers were under a particular cultural pressure to perform their role with elegance and ease: dinner on the table by 5, immaculately well-behaved children, not a stain in sight. How to account, then, for strong-willed toddlers who would not or could not conform to that standard? There had to be a way to deflect the mortification, a universally understood shrug: What can you do? It’s just the terrible twos.

We’re not living in the 1950s anymore, but there are still ways that parenthood can feel performative. When Johnson saw her friend’s joke on Facebook, she noticed the thread of LOLs that unspooled below the post. It didn’t surprise her that a stressed-out parent might seek the comfort of humor, the endorphin rush of seeing their experience validated by an online community.

“I do think this particular stage makes parents feel incompetent; nothing is more embarrassing than a public tantrum,” says child development psychologist and author Tovah Klein, who directs the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. “We feel out of control. . . . You wouldn’t want that kind of behavior long term, but you have to understand it for right now.”

Because right now, she says, it’s what kids are supposed to be doing. Use of the word “no” (even if it’s a “NOOOO!”’) is an important milestone that pediatricians ask about at toddler checkups. Idioms such as “terrible twos” might help parents know that tantrums are normal, but they can also obscure the reasons they’re normal, Klein says: No, your once-sweet baby hasn’t randomly morphed into a monster. Your baby is just in the midst of the astonishingly complex process of becoming a fully realized human.

“These early years are a time of tremendous brain development,” Klein says. “What’s happening in this period is that there’s a burst of emotion — anger, frustration — but also positive things like pride come into play, and so does shame. These are big emotions, and they’re intense emotions, and so all of that, coupled with language development and all this other amazing growth that toddlers do, gets confusing for parents.”

Because toddlers are suddenly expressing a more developed range of opinions and personality traits, parents might start to see them “as mini-adults, and so sometimes they treat them as if they are like us,” Klein says, “but they really, really are not like us.”

Badie, 35, the mom of the 3-year-old girl in Lexington, Ky., says she was surprised by the negativity surrounding toddlerhood in American culture. She was raised in a Middle Eastern family and grew up hearing expressions describing little children — but they translate to something more like “mischievous” rather than “terrible,” she says, and were clearly meant to convey affection.

So when her daughter erupted in the car, Badie didn’t roll her eyes or sigh. “I asked her if she wanted the song to start over, and she said yes, so I did that and the tantrum was over,” she says. “That’s not to say that she never has complete and total meltdowns and I don’t know what to do about it. But I do think that when the tantrum starts, if I can try to figure out what it is that’s bothering her and help her to articulate what’s bothering her, then we can really cut it short.”

In a 2017 interview with the Atlantic for the 25th anniversary of her seminal book “The Emotional Life of the Toddler,” child psychology expert Alicia F. Lieberman explained that she once opened her book talks by addressing the terrible twos but had since stopped referencing the phrase.

“I think the more we move away from that term, the better off we are,” she says. “There is more of an awareness that when we say ‘the terrible twos’ we’re really talking about the adult experience rather than the child’s.”

Bonding over that shared experience can be cathartic for parents, says Rebecca Parlakian, senior program director for Zero to Three, a national nonprofit organization that focuses on the healthy development of infants, toddlers and families. But it’s important for adults to remember that their toddlers are not actually out to get them: “When we assign negative or strategic motivations to a toddler — ‘they’re mouthing off just to get me riled up’ — our response to this child is likely to be more harsh and more punitive,” she says, “versus a parent who is like, ‘I have a threenager because that’s her developmental job right now, to become an individual.’ ”

Children at this age are extremely perceptive, Klein says, and often pick up on subtle negative language or attitudes. Parents having a deeper understanding of why this particular stage is hard might actually make it feel easier for everyone, Klein says. It might help parents feel more resilient and less likely to scold their toddlers for developmentally normal behavior.

“When you understand them more, you feel more in control,” Klein says, “and then you actually enjoy this stage more.”

Johnson wishes more parents would share a complete picture of what the toddler parenting experience is really like, so others won’t have to feel apprehensive like she once did.

“A balanced perspective isn’t going to make a viral BuzzFeed article; when I talk to you about how the joys of these toddler years balance out or even overshadow the lows, I know that’s not as funny of a story,” she says, “but it’s the real story.”

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