“I feel as though I have lost my sweet, good little boy,” a teary eyed mother said to me recently referring to her two year old. In one sense, she had, although that was not what she was ready to hear at that moment. Her upset was a response to a change in his behavior. Having been an easy-going, easy to manage child, his behavior had changed. He was striking out at other children, refusing to go along with requests made of him and having meltdowns when he wasn’t given what he wanted.
Many parents have experienced feelings about children in the same age range as this child similar to the one this mother was expressing. What is this about? Does some wicked witch descend during the night casting spells on good little boys? It often can feel just that way to a parent encountering what may seem like a bewildering transformation.
In this situation, it was the mother herself who was feeling like the wicked witch. There was a new baby brother a few months old, dad was temporarily working out of the state, and at the same time the child had started attending a nursery group. His mother recognized that he was reacting to all these changes and felt responsible for the fact that he was facing so much that was hard for him at the same time. At the same time she was feeling a sense of loss for the little boy he had been before.
Although in part, this child’s behavior was clearly the expression of his feelings about the new baby, his father’s absence and separating from mom to go to school, it was likely that the changes in him were more than just a reaction to those external changes. Often when changes in a child occur, we look for something in his or her life that will explain it. We forget that in addition to getting older, bigger and stronger, internal growth and change are also taking place.
One of these changes is the drive toward autonomy. A major transformation occurs with physical mobility. The ability to walk means you can move around on your own – even away from mom or dad. You can often see a child running down the street with an adult in fast pursuit, running to catch a toddler who cannot yet stop on his own when you call out to him. In fact, this is actually a developmental stage that children go through – as though testing out the possibility of going off on your own while turning to make sure mom is still there behind you; a first step in the process of later separation.
Mobility can make a child feel quite powerful – the ability to run, climb and explore part of the discovery that you are a separate person from mom, one with a mind and wishes of your own. Except reality bites and the fact is that despite feelings of power a child is not big enough, strong enough, old enough or grown up enough to have his own way or get what he wants all the time – as children imagine grownups do. This realization can be painful and upsetting.
This early stage of separation is often a hard time, as children deal with conflicting feelings – the wish to be free of a parents constraints while still feeling dependent both on a parent’s care and a parent’s approval. These are feelings that are expressed in behavior that parents find upsetting and bewildering – behavior reflecting children’s own upset and bewilderment at the state of affairs in which they find themselves.
It is behavior that leads parents to speak of the “terrible twos” because of the difficulty of responding in ways that are effective. Children can be loving and affectionate one minute, angry and defiant the next. Often it seems that nothing you do can please them – cutting a sandwich the “wrong” way at lunchtime can lead to a meltdown. The truth is that nothing you do will please them at that moment because the problem is not what you do, it is what they feel.
In the situation described earlier there were many difficult realities confronting this child in his two year old developmental stage with its conflicting emotions. The reality factors were compounding his dilemma, not causing it as his mother feared. Of course, this did not make the behavior less difficult to live with but perhaps it could help the mother to know that she was not its cause. Also, he did not love her any less – it was just harder to show it at this particular time.
The transition from cuddly, sweet babyhood to assertive and at times defiant behavior sometimes comes as a shock, leading parents to worry that something has gone wrong. It is important to remember that we parents are not the cause of everything a child does. He is becoming his own person, someone whose behavior we like some times better than others. That’s also how they feel about us.