Study: It’s possible to avoid the ‘terrible twos’

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A new study from the University of Cambridge has found that parents who take a more flexible approach to their child’s learning can minimize behavioral issues when they get to the toddler stage.

In essence, the study, which was published in the journal Developmental Science, found that the "terrible twos" can be avoided in children who were considered "easy babies" — those who had a generally happy mood and easily adapted. This was the case when parents used autonomy supportive parenting, which emphasizes the child taking the lead.

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“It’s not about doing everything for your child, or directing their actions. It’s more of a to-and-fro between parent and child,”  said professor Claire Hughes, Deputy Director of the Centre for Family Research at the University of Cambridge in a press release. “Parents who do best at this can sit back and watch when they see their child succeeding with something, but increase support or adapt the task when they see the child struggling.”

The study recruited more than 400 couples expecting babies. The pairs hailed from the East of England, New York State and the Netherlands. For each couple, researchers visited when their baby was 4 months, 14 months and 24 months old.

Researchers filmed couples interacting while their children carried out a variety of particular tasks. The level of parental support for each interaction was rated by the research team. Parents also rated their child’s babyhood temperament and behavioral issues at 14 and 24 months.

“If you’re blessed with a happy baby, then you can get them through the ‘terrible twos’ without things getting too bad or lasting too long, by being flexible about the way you play with your child between the age of 14 and 24 months,” said Hughes, who is a joint first author of the study with Rory Devine Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham’s School of Psychology. “A puzzle game, for example, can turn into quite a different game if you allow your child to take the lead.”

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One task in the study demonstrated just that.

Children were given farm-animal pieces that fit into corresponding cutout holes in a board. Some parents gave their child a lot of help after appearing anxious about their child properly placing the shapes. Others noticed the task was too challenging for their child and they allowed the game to change following their child’s lead.

“We had some children who took two animal pieces from a wooden farm puzzle and started clapping them together, and making a game out of the fact that they made a clapping noise. Here, parents might respond by encouraging the child to make animal noises that match the animals being clapped together,” Devine said.

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“Autonomy supportive parenting is about being flexible, following a child’s lead, and providing just the right amount of challenge,” he continued.

The researchers found the link between executive function — defined by the University of California San Francisco Weill Institute for Neurosciences as "higher-level cognitive skills you use to control and coordinate your other cognitive abilities and behaviors" — at 14 months and reduced behavioral issues at 24 months remained firm. This was also true when controlling factors like a child's language skills and mother-child interaction quality.

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