As a mom to two young kids, I am intrigued – yet terrified – when I read research studies on the effects of parenting style on child behavior. What can I do better, and what damage have I unwittingly done to my kids? Thankfully, a lot of a child’s behavior is innate, but parents can still be a positive influence. A recent study by Hughes et al. from the University of Cambridge found that for infants with an easy temperament, parental encouragement of a flexible playstyle can decrease the amount of externalizing behaviors (e.g., tantrums) in young toddlers. Given the notoriety of the “terrible twos”, this provides a small beacon of hope – for some parents.

            What exactly is an “easy” infant? For most parents, this term seems like an oxymoron. However, infants do indeed have a wide range of different temperaments that can predict personality later in life. Infants with easier temperaments do not have long or intense bouts of crying, and adapt easily to varying situations. On the other hand, some infants are highly sensitive, such as my 4-month old daughter, who cries when I sneeze. Others have intense personalities, like my son who easily and loudly voices whenever he is upset.

            As they grow into toddlers, these youngsters get a bad rap, with the so-called “terrible twos” being a pervasive trope. Toddlers this age are often described as having frequent temper tantrums, screaming, mood swings, and lashing out with kicking or biting. Psychologically, toddlers are going through a lot at this age. They are increasingly aware of their emotions, but lack the language skills to express themselves. They want independence, yet struggle with following rules. The frustration that toddlers feel from their own limitations leads to these “terrible” outbursts of emotions. From a neuropsychological standpoint, toddlers have not developed executive function, the skills that allow a person to control their thoughts, behavior, and emotions. For example, this TikTok candy challenge is a test of executive function in kids – those who are able to resist are displaying higher executive function. Kids with low executive function are also more likely to have behavioral disorders such as ADHD. In their study, Hughes et al. sought to determine what comes first – poor executive function, or externalizing behavior like tantrums? Does poor executive function in younger toddlers lead to more intense tantrums later on, or does the emergence of tantrums limit the ability of toddlers to increase their executive functioning skills? For example, parents of tantrum-prone toddlers may avoid taking them to a friend’s house, thus limiting their child from improving their executive function.

            The Hughes et al. study also sought to provide solutions for parents wanting to decrease behavioral problems in their toddlers. They examined the role of flexible play, or what the researchers refer to as autonomy support. In this play style, parents adapt their level of assistance to the toddler’s needs, and support the toddler in making his or her own decisions. In their study, toddlers were given a puzzle game made of wooden animal pieces. Some toddlers found the task too difficult, and would clap the animal puzzle pieces together. Rather than simply completing the puzzle for the child, an autonomy supportive parent could take a flexible approach, such as asking the toddler what sound that animal makes as they clap the pieces together.

By encouraging young toddlers to make their own play making decisions, parents and caregivers can set up their child for a happier toddlerhood.

            The study yielded two major findings. First, young toddlers with high executive function had lower levels of tantrum-like externalizing behavior by age 2, and vice versa. However, this result was unidirectional, meaning that externalizing behavior at 2 years old did not predict earlier levels of executive function at 14 months. This result supports the theory that executive function predicts later behavior – and importantly, that increasing executive function can be a possible early intervention to help more difficult toddlers.

           Secondly, young toddlers (14 months) who had high levels of autonomy support from their parents had a lower level of externalizing behavior at 2 years of age, regardless of their level of executive functioning at 14 months. However, this finding was only significant in children who at 4 months of age had an easy temperament. In short, by playing flexibly with younger toddlers who were easy-going as babies, parents can make the “terrible twos” a lot less terrible. Unfortunately, this only applies to toddlers who were easy-going as infants – those of us with more spirited babies are still in for a rough ride, adaptable play styles or not.

           The results of this study are especially relevant now, as many parents are still struggling with lack of outside support during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For the many parents who are doing the impossible task of juggling working at home with full-time parenting, this study lets us know that by simply letting the child take the reins a bit, everyone will ultimately reap the rewards.

Peer edited by Rita Meganck and Gabrielle Dardis

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