Two Year Olds: In Search of Identity and Independence

About the Author - Karen Stephens is director of Illinois State University Child Care Centre and instructor in child development for the ISU Family and Consumer Sciences Department. 

I have a battle-weary friend who is living through her two-year-old son’s defiant stage. His behaviour is typical with moods frequently fluctuating between terrific and trying.  She says, “let’s go” he says “not now”.  She says “yes” and he says “no”.  She says, “good morning” and he says “go away” – getting the picture.

Yes, she knows this is normal.  And yes, she has heard the two-year olds’ rap sheet: stubborn, volatile, unreasonable, dogmatic, and exasperating. Despite the warnings, she asks why the road to age three has to be so rocky.

The answer is rooted in basic human development. Infants are born completely vulnerable and therefore dependent on parents. Children need parents for food, mobility, emotional warmth, and social interactions and because of that dependence, infants perceive themselves as extensions of parents rather than separate, individual entities.

Two-year olds are at a turning point in life. Either they remain immature and dependent, or they embark on the road toward separation and independence. There is no way around it. To become mentally healthy adults, toddlers must distinguish themselves from others, but especially from Mum and Dad.  Therefore, children rarely challenge others as much as they do their parents. It makes sense that a child will be a more argumentative and contrary with parents. How can he be his own person if he doesn’t try out being different from Mum and Dad?  It is different with caregivers, grandparents, and family friends because children already feel a separate identity from them. So, ironic as it sounds, kids typically rebel against those to whom they feel closest, Mum and Dad.

In their struggle for autonomy, two-year olds are eager to assert a mind of their own, to have their own say.  They yearn to be individuals, not just clones of their parents and this is a great step toward self-esteem so while the terrible twos may not feel like cause for celebration, it really is a sign of psychological growth and personality development.

Certainly, the struggle for independence begins before the age of two. Parents trigger separation when they wean children from breastfeeding and when they encourage children to crawl and walk, however, a toddler’s step toward independence has a very different feel.  This is because a child initiates the separation, not the parent which is why all the power struggles and acts of defiance take place.  When children sound their siren, they’re giving us notice that they are growing up and, in some ways, away from us which makes us feel deflated because we are no longer in sole control of the balance of power between parent and child.  There are many ways two-year olds force separation. They try to be everything we’re not and refuse to do anything we want them to do. They say no to our yes, and yes to our no. They really like to make parents look ineffectual in front of grandparents.  

Life is tumultuous for twos.  They intensely feel frustration and anger.  They are just learning to use language to express strong feelings, so they reveal them through their actions. Parents see a surge in annoying, exasperating, and confusing behaviours, such as crying, temper tantrums, and biting but we can make the road through toddlerhood less bumpy for children and for themselves, if we encourage and allow age appropriate decisions.

Unfortunately, some parents get so exhausted from power struggles that they give up and hand over inappropriate decisions to children. Children end up calling all the shots, whining until they get what they want.  It is these times that parents have to be especially strong, otherwise they abdicate parental responsibility. Giving into children firstly conveys an uncaring attitude, secondly, it gives children a false sense of superiority and lastly it is lousy role modelling.

If children are to become autonomous and competent adults, they must develop a clear sense of self.  The foundation is laid during their toddler years. Only then can children develop traits such as self-motivation, pride, self-respect, and accountability.

The search for identity is a recurrent theme throughout life, but to give you fair warning, expect your child’s next critical crescendo during adolescence.