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Family Time: Terrible twos, threes and teens

Published:Sunday | March 13, 2016 | 3:01 AMKrysta Anderson

Author Jess Lair once said: "Children are not things to be moulded, but are people to be unfolded." While we all see children as a blessing, many parents struggle when their offspring hit a certain age and start acting out. This is how the famous phrase 'terrible twos' was coined.

And for many parents, there are also 'terrible threes' and 'terrible teens' to contend with as well.

Mother of two, Anne Newman* told Outlook that she went through all three of these stages with her children. "My daughter was responsible for the terrible threes and teens, while my son, brought me to the terrible twos."

Newman said she noticed her son, Kyle* starting to throw temper tantrums at the age of two. "He threw himself on the ground and cried when he didn't get what he wanted. I punished by hitting him and told him that he won't always get what he desires. He tried it on another occasion and I repeated my method. There was never a third time," she said.

Newman said her strategy appeared to work, as Kyle thinks he has never been beaten or punished before.

According to child psychologist, Doneisha Burke: "There is a notion that at the age of two, toddlers begin to display temper outbursts which are sudden, unexpected and usually short in duration."

Parents and guardians, she said, need to recognise that: "At this age, children are in a stage of development that theorist Erik Erikson termed 'autonomy versus shame and doubt'. With that said, a lot of their efforts now are geared towards building and gaining a sense of independence."

Burke continued: "Also, remember that they do not possess the proper language skills to even try to express themselves verbally, so acts like screaming, crying, and throwing themselves on the ground tend to be typical. These tantrums are developmentally normal and tend to gradually subside once motor and language skills are better developed. When a child is experiencing a tantrum, the best response a parent or guardian can have is to remain calm and try not to reinforce the behaviour. Once the tantrum subsides, parents or guardians should be keen on discussing in an age-appropriate manner what just took place, explain that they were just frustrated; basically they should be offering guidance and reassurance."

Terrible threes

A young mother at the time, Newman said she was shocked when the babysitter called her one evening to break the news that her daughter, Kara* was missing. "That's a mother's worst nightmare, to hear that her daughter has gone missing. I headed home immediately. My husband reached shortly after and we called the police. There was no sign of forced entry, so we weren't sure if she was kidnapped or ran away. Our neighbour said her son was also missing, and our suspicions grew. We launched a search throughout the neighbourhood, coming up short at every stop."

Then, she said, a security guard at the fast-food restaurant Mother's, noticed what was happening and asked Newman if she was looking for someone. After giving the guard a description, he led her inside the restaurant to discover her child and the neighbour's son swinging on the chairs and eating a burger. "I was so relieved! I went to the cashier and offered to pay the bill, but they said it was on the house because my daughter was so polite. They also informed me that they gave her the meal because they wanted to keep them there so that they could call the police."

When Newman got home, she didn't punish her daughter. She just wanted to know why she left the house and how she got out. Her daughter told her she wasn't pleased with what the sitter was preparing and she was hungry, so she decided to go get some food on the road.

The little girl took her mother on a journey through a back door left open by the sitter, around a bend to the latched gate four times her size, at the front of the yard. When Newman asked her how she got out of the yard, Kara proceeded to climb up to the top of the gate, pull the latch and push open the gate. Newman explained to her daughter the dangers of going out alone, and asked Kara to promise to never do it again, which she did. Newman quickly got the gate changed to one that would prove harder for a child to breach.

Burke noted: "The toddler is learning how to express frustration. So parents or guardians need to bear those things in mind. Use the opportunity as a teaching moment to talk about different kinds of emotions and transition the toddler into some type of activity to re-engage them. Acting out tends to occur if a child is tired, hungry, or bored. Even so, one would want to try and tend to those needs before a full blown tantrum occurs. All of those things should help with the transitioning."

Terrible teens

Fast forward to a 17-year-old Kara, who decided to test the waters yet again when her parents permitted her to attend a party. "The party was scheduled to end at 2 a.m., after which I would pick her up," Newman said. But instead, her daughter called her and told her that her best friend's father would take her home instead, since he was already there waiting. Little did Newman know that her daughter's best friend had said the same thing to her father, telling him that Kara's mother would take him home. Kara did not get home until close to 7 a.m.

Both sets of parents were awake, in their respective living rooms, waiting for their teens to get home. When they did, they sat with them and had a talk about the dangers of staying out so late and the importance of at least calling home or answering the phone so their parents would know they were OK. The two were grounded and could not get much sleep since they were given extra chores to do.

Burke had this to say about dealing with teens:

"For teens, Erikson stated that the adolescent stage of development is characterised by a need to develop one's sense of identity, and a part of doing so is testing the limits. Often these limits are set by authority figures such as parents and teachers."

She continued: "Their main aim isn't to be rebellious, but they are on a quest to find a sense of identity. They are likely to engage in behaviours that are frowned upon. Again, what parents or guardians should do is keep the lines of communication open. At this stage, unlike when they are toddlers, they have the luxury of discussing pertinent issues with them as their language, decision-making and reasoning skills are far developed. So, use the opportunity to challenge their thinking; have them view situations in a different light. Speak to them about consequences."

And, she said parents should remember that they were once teenagers themselves, so they should be able to start from a place of understanding while fulfilling their parental roles of providing guidance.