Tantrums of ‘terrible twos’ seen in much older children in pandemic

Researchers say emotional distress of past year could lead to serious mental health problems in later life

Much older children have exhibited the tantrums and acts of defiance associated with the “terrible twos” during the Covid pandemic, according to researchers behind a long-running UK study.

Emotional difficulties usually peak in children around the age of two and decline steeply through primary school years, but experts at the University of Bristol found that during the Covid crisis those as old as eight had shown the sort of difficult behaviour expected of two-year-olds.

The researchers said the emotional distress youngsters have faced throughout the lockdowns could lead to serious mental health problems in later years.

While the rise in emotional problems in teenagers and young adults since the pandemic has already been highlighted, relatively little work has been done on the emotional response of preschool and primary-age children.

Researchers from the highly respected Children of the 90s study, which is celebrating its 30th year, examined the emotional development of more than 700 children during the pandemic. They compared data collected before the Covid crisis with evidence gathered through a questionnaire last summer.

Rebecca Pearson, a senior lecturer in psychiatric epidemiology at the University of Bristol, said: “Emotional problems usually peak around age two and then decline over childhood, but during the pandemic older children had much higher levels of emotional difficulties than would be expected at their age.

“Our findings suggest that primary school children may have emotional difficulties at the level expected during the ‘terrible twos’. This could reflect a delay in emotional development that, if not supported, may far outlive the pandemic and have long-term consequences for this generation of children.”

Helen Bould, a consultant and senior lecturer in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Bristol, said: “This work highlights the negative impact that Covid-19 and the lockdowns are having on the mental health of younger children.”

The Melville family: Caroline, Tommy and their children Arlo, Pippa and Elsie
The Melville family: Caroline, Tommy and their children (from left) Arlo, Pippa and Elsie. Photograph: Supplied

The findings chime with the experiences of the Melville family from Bristol, who are among the almost 30,000 people taking part in the ongoing multi-generational Children of the 90s study.

“We had lots of ups and downs, good times and bad times,” said Caroline Melville, mother to Pippa, seven, Elsie, six, and Arlo, four. “My husband was off work in the first lockdown for five weeks. We all really enjoyed having him at home.”

When he returned to work, Caroline had to try to homeschool the girls while also looking after Arlo and the dog. “It was very hard.” She said her daughters began behaving as though they were much younger. “They would stamp their feet and scream and shout. They wouldn’t get dressed themselves or even brush their teeth, things they are very capable of doing.

“They usually love running around outside and climbing trees. They didn’t want to go out at all. Going back to school was an emotional rollercoaster. It was quite overwhelming to begin with. But they love it now. I feel they have bounced back. I just hope we don’t go back into lockdowns.”

Also known as the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC), Children of the 90s enrolled more than 14,000 pregnant women in 1991 and 1992. It has been following the health and development of the women, their children and grandchildren since.

The “terrible twos” research is preliminary and has not yet been peer-reviewed.


Steven Morris

The GuardianTramp

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