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2/12/22 years old: Challenging Ages of Childhood Development

2/12/22 years old: Challenging Ages of Childhood Development

Written by Kelsie Goller, MA, LPC-S, RPT

Clinical Director, KPS


As a child therapist, I have frequently told parents that some of the emotional turmoil that kids experience around 2 years of age is surprisingly similar to what they experience around 12 years of age.  At 2 years of age, children are experiencing so much growth cognitively and physically; additionally, they are in the psychosocial stage of “Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt”, meaning that they want to do things on their own, but may not have the capability of doing all of the things on their own.  At the same time, they are mastering some important communication skills and are not able to fully express all that they feel or want.  This leads to some big frustration, often expressed in wailing, throwing themselves to the ground, and other recognizable toddler behavior.  


At 12 years of age, children are entering adolescence.  Once again, they are experiencing a burst of cognitive and physical changes.  Their bodies are flooded with hormones as they approach puberty.  Hence, entering adolescence is a time when there may once more be big emotions, difficulty putting words to new experiences, and lots of tears.  The child enters the psychosocial stage of “Identity vs. Role Confusion”, which brings many searching questions such as “Who am I?  Who do I want to be?  What are my goals, values, and beliefs?”  


Both 2 year olds and 12 year olds require a greater level of co-regulation with parents (and parents being grounded in their own sense of calm so that they don’t ride the emotional roller coaster with their kid!)  As L.R. Knost says, “When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”  I also add in 22 years old as a time when parents need to lean in to providing calm and stability for their young-adult children.  This is actually closer to 18-22 years old, rather than strictly 22 years old, as it represents the time when young adults are launching from the home, ending their education, entering the workplace, and learning to take on adult responsibilities.  For those who have pursued college, this may be at 22 years old.  For those who are ending their formal education with high school, it may be 18 years old.  (For many, as we enter a time when economic realities are affecting job availability and ability to move out of parents’ homes, it may be even later in the 20s; “extended adolescence” is a newer concept recognizing that adolescence may extend to 25 years old, with the stage of young adulthood beginning after that.)  Whenever the launch into young adulthood comes, it brings with it the psychosocial stage of “Intimacy vs. Isolation”.  Young adults, who have always had a natural group of belonging in the form of classmates or family of origin now face the question of “Who are my people?  Who will I love and be loved by?  Where will I find relationship?” 


I think of the 2/12/22 year old crises as the “rule of twos” (to be distinguished from the “rule of twos” used for controlling asthma or for how many Star Wars’ Sith lords there can be at any given time.)  Now, to be fair, there is a window of time when these changes normally happen; some two-year-olds don’t exhibit any out-of-the-ordinary behavior, and then at three years old turn to hysterical sobbing when they did not get the right color of spoon with their breakfast.  The “2/12/22 years old” is actually just an approximation of when the challenging time periods may occur.  Also, innate temperament tends to play a role in how challenging these times are.  Children with temperaments that adapt easily to change, with low reactivity to stress, may not exhibit a very noticeable change.  However, highly sensitive children who are generally very attuned to their internal states, or children who have difficulty with adapting to change with high reactivity to stress will certainly notice and be upset by the many changes that they are experiencing in their brains and bodies.  


This is also not an exhaustive list of challenging times that occur across the lifespan.  Most people are aware that there are also hormonal mood swings that occur at other predictable times of life; in pregnancy, hormones like estrogen and progesterone can cause mood swings as they affect other neurotransmitters that regulate mood, like dopamine and serotonin.  Estrogen and serotonin fluctuate during the menstrual cycle, also causing mood swings. Declining estrogen during menopause once again causes mood swings, irritability, sadness, anxiety, and fatigue.  


There is another lesser-known time that hormones may contribute to mood swings.  About two years prior to the start of puberty is a stage called Adrenarche.  Technically, this is when the child’s adrenal glands start producing more of a hormone called dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA), which will eventually be converted into other hormones like testosterone and estrogen.  There are few or no immediately apparent signs that adrenarche has started (as it is a preparatory stage for the certainly apparent signs of puberty.)  However, adrenarche is primarily a time of psychological and emotional development, affected by the hormones that are present at around 6 to 8 years of age.  Due to the hormonal changes, children may have mood swings, irritability, and tearfulness.  


Being aware of these periods of critical development may not make these times easier, but it may help you as a parent to set realistic expectations and extend more grace to yourself and your child by recognizing the need for co-regulation.  It may also help you as an individual to extend kindness to yourself if you recognize that you yourself are in a period of critical change, allowing you to reflect on the experience of growth throughout the lifetime. 


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