Dad matters: 'Terrible twos' is a testing time for all

Suddenly a toddler turns into a seething bundle of passions, with emotions are as taut as a tripwire. Split seconds stand between placid contentment and a floor-writhing tantrum.

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Astrid has suddenly become a seething bundle of passions. Her emotions are as taut as a tripwire. Split seconds stand between placid contentment and a floor-writhing tantrum. At first, I thought this dramatic change in character could have something to do with me. Had I started to nag excessively? Had I become the kind of overbearing parent who inevitably provokes rebellion? It turns out this altered behaviour has nothing to do with my actions. It is an ordinary developmental stage known as "the terrible twos" or, perhaps even more appropriately, "first adolescence".

This era scars the reputation of young children in general in the minds of childless folk. During the halcyon, pre-Astrid days, the sight of toddlers stamping their feet, throwing toys, yelling, crying and refusing to co-operate made me glad I didn't have children. If I do become a parent, I remember thinking, my children will not behave in such a manner. I will love them, nurture them and provide for them. As a result, these fits of rage will become redundant. It was a naïve and incorrect assumption. Frequent ventings of spleen at this age are, it turns out, as inevitable as the seasons.

Astrid's sense of self is developing rapidly. This awareness of identity manifests itself in interesting ways. It can be as straightforward as looking at photographs, picking herself out and pointing at herself to indicate it is the same person. But it stretches well beyond this simple act of identification and in to more complicated, abstract forms of association. When she looks through books she points to the different characters and picks out their correspondences in the real world. First, she points at a drawing of a little girl and then taps herself on the chest. Then she picks out the man in the book - children's books often revolve around the family milieu - and jabs my arm repeatedly with her index finger. Then she finds the woman in the book and points in the direction of her mummy. Finally, she picks out the cat, dog or other animal and points out of the window. It is an impressive imaginative feat, a kind of transmutation that grounds the book in her own reality, while simultaneously transporting us into the realm of the book.

This burgeoning self-awareness brings with it a growing appreciation of choice and a clearer grasp of preferences. That's when the trouble begins. When she hurls her bowl of cereal on the floor during breakfast, Astrid is at once making a decision not to eat breakfast and expressing her frustration at her lack of control over her choice about breakfast in the first place. That's what I've read, at least.

These tiny riots can be vexing. No doubt it is difficult to remain calm in the face of such bouts of irrational exuberance. Yet remaining unruffled is important. How I respond to these outbursts will help Astrid to learn about making decisions and controlling her feelings about those choices. It is my job to help her navigate these tricky moments. Giving in to petulant demands is a bad idea. It simply encourages tantrums by demonstrating that they yield results. Stern, heavy-handed discipline is not good either because it indicates that you don't understand what she is going through. All in all, it is a testing time.

At least this phase is temporary. Presumably it will start to fade in a few months, at least until the second adolescence in 10 to 15 years time.