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Gaining insight into the “terrible twos”



Deborah Laible

Any parent can attest to the trying nature of a child during the “terrible twos.” But new research, led by Lehigh University assistant professor of psychology Deborah Laible, is starting to shed light on why conflicts arise between mothers and their toddlers.

It turns out that there are multiple factors that may play a role in creating these conflicts. According to the study, the quality of children’s relationships with their mothers and children’s personality types shape the frequency and nature of conflict between mothers and their children at age two.

For Laible, whose research focuses primarily on how mother-child communication influences early social, emotional and moral development, working with children in the “terrible twos” was a natural fit. “The peak of parent-child conflict is between 24 and 36 months,” says Laible, noting that the next peak typically doesn’t arise until early adolescence.

Along with researchers at the University of California-Davis, Laible observed 60 mothers and their children in two sessions: one 50-minute lab visit when the children were 30 months old, and one 90-minute home visit when the children were 36 months. Researchers observed the conflict, and examined whether they contained compromise, justification, or aggravation by mothers and children, as well as if the conflict was resolved.

The study found that conflicts arose frequently between the mothers and their children, on average about 20 times an hour. It also appears that the children’s temperament was related to both the frequency and the quality of conflict. Mothers provided information about the children’s temperament and attachment security, or the degree of trust that children have in their mothers’ responsiveness and availability.

“Children with difficult temperaments tend to have more frequent and less constructive conflict with mothers,” said Laible, who also worked on the research with Lehigh psychology graduate student Tia Panfile. “High-quality relationships between mothers and children were associated with more constructive conflict between mothers and children. In secure relationships, both mothers and children seem committed to maintaining relational harmony by resolving conflict, compromising, and justifying their side of an argument.”

But Laible is quick to point out that while the mother-toddler conflicts that arise are typically viewed as negative they actually offer some valuable lessons in child development.

“These conflicts may have some positive connections that come into play in peer relationships,” says Laible. “These children learn to negotiate their side of the argument and observe emotional understanding, which is important in moral development.”

The research was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The findings are published in the March/April 2008 issue of the journal Child Development, published by the Society for Research in Child Development.

--Tricia Long


Posted on Friday, April 18, 2008

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