Toddlers are brilliant. Aren’t they?
They live in the present moment.
They’re capable and innocent.
And perhaps my favourite trait – they’re authentic. They’re unfiltered. They’re among the most honest humans on the planet. They’re unapologetically themselves.
But, perhaps they’re also the most misunderstood humans on the planet.
We, adults, have forgotten what it’s like to be a toddler. To be small and dependent. To be constantly learning. To feel only one (strong) emotion at a time, yet not have the tools to regulate that emotion. To experience the most rapid brain development of one’s life.
Instead, what our culture chooses to see are toddlers ‘throwing’ tantrums. Pushing our buttons. Testing our limits. Acting clingy, uncivilized and impolite.
This perspective can make us feel as though we’ve lost control. As if we’re ‘bad’ parents. As if we’re failing.
And so, we’re encouraged to control our children; to leverage our size and power.
Mainstream parenting focuses on modifying superficial behaviour and resorting to tactics like punishments, time-outs, threats, bribes and rewards under the justification that perpetuating a dominance hierarchy is somehow serving the greater good.
And when these scare tactics don’t work…we escalate the punishment.
But, what if, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with our children? Nothing to be fixed. What if the problem is a lack of knowledge, understanding, and empathy within our society? And what if these techniques threaten to erode the ONLY influence you truly have with your child – your relationship.
Western society expects a parenting approach based on an adult’s wants rather than a child’s needs. But, what if, through our relationship, an understanding of child psychology and brain development, and a shift in perspective, we could find a way to be in harmony with our young children and grow alongside them? Becoming better people ourselves.
So, let’s dig a little deeper into the science of growing up. Let’s seek to understand WHY young children behave the way they do so that we can feel confidence and gratitude as we stand beside them, guiding them with patience and compassion on this adventure called toddlerhood.
When does the brain grow up?
As humans evolved to walk on two legs rather than four, the size of the pelvis needed to shrink considerably. For women, childbirth became more challenging; we evolved to give birth to our babies at a much earlier stage of development so that a newborn’s head could safely pass through the narrower birth canal. Some say, compared to other mammals, humans are born only half way through gestation; similar to baby kangaroos.
The biological tradeoff? Undeveloped brain = immature, helpless, dependent baby.
Compared to other mammals, the human brain is tiny at birth; a mere 25% of its ultimate adult size. Animals born into hostile environments tend to have larger infant brains to help them survive. Zebras, for example, need to be able to run with the herd just hours after birth – their relatively mature brains help them run and respond appropriately when a lion appears.
But, mother nature always has a survival strategy in place. So, what is the survival strategy for human babies with such tiny brains? Easy. Mum and Dad. Babies (and toddlers) are designed to keep us close most, if not all the time in order to protect them.
We’re designed to form secure attachments for a reason – in order for our species to survive and thrive.
John Bowlby, British psychoanalyst and Founder of Attachment Theory, hypothesized that healthy attachment is crucial to promote emotional regulation and is vital for optimal brain development. Our interactions with our children, whether positive or negative, affect the way their brains grow.
The National Institute of Mental Health suggests the brain doesn’t fully mature until our mid-late twenties. The frontal lobe, responsible for judgment, planning, assessing risks, and decision-making is the last region to complete development around age 30. So, what does this mean for us, as parents?
It means we need to be patient and compassionate with our kids. It means children are often incapable of the unrealistic expectations we place on them. It means that no matter how smart we think our three-year-old is, no matter how much we wish he could rationalise and reason, he simply doesn’t have the brain of an adult. We may hope kids will behave with self-discipline and self-control, but until their brains mature, it is our responsibility to guide them (and ‘lend’ them our prefrontal cortex until theirs matures).
How positive parenting encourages healthy brain development
Albert Einstein once said the most important question for us to answer is, “Is this a friendly universe?” Infancy and childhood are when we begin to answer that question. As a species, we are adaptable precisely because we are unfinished at birth. Children “build” a brain, that’s best suited to the environment they experience. A staggering seven hundred new neural connections (synapses) are formed in the brain every single second, equating to over one thousand trillion synapses by a child’s third birthday.
But the process of brain development doesn’t end at age three; by the time children reach their teenage years the number of neural synapses actually halves from one thousand trillion to five hundred trillion in a process called neural pruning.
So why would the brain create more synapses than it needs, only to discard the extras?
The answer lies in the interplay of genetic and environmental factors. While genetics provides a blueprint, it’s a child’s environment and their experiences that carry out the construction, forming the essential wiring of the brain. Repeated use of particular pathways strengthens individual connections.
Synapse strength is vital in developing emotional regulation abilities. This is why it’s critical that we provide our children with experiences that contribute to healthy brain development. For example, a child who experiences excessive stress will develop a larger brainstem – the part of the brain responsible for the fight, flight, freeze response. These children are more likely to become adults who are overly reactive to stress. Why? Because their early experiences suggest that they need to be on high alert. That their environment is unsafe (and so are they).
On the flip side, a child who experiences nurturing and responsiveness is able to devote their energy to growing a larger prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation. These children are more likely to become adults who are calm and emotionally stable. Why? Because their early experiences of interdependence and responsiveness suggest that their world is safe and that they can rely on those around them.
This is the type of care humans are biologically wired to expect.
Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson proposed that healthy psychological outcomes are dependent on the quality of caregiving. When the balance of care is empathic babies and toddlers grow into children who naturally trust the world. And trusting children feel confident about venturing out and exploring independently. This is how true independence develops.
Why Toddlers Need Meltdowns
Toddlers build up stress hormones as they cope with the challenges of daily life. But the part of the brain, which allows them to express strong emotions verbally, the prefrontal cortex, still isn’t fully developed. This means that toddlers can experience an intense emotion, but they don’t have the ability to verbalise, nor deal with it.
So, mother nature designed toddlers with a foolproof method to release emotional overload: meltdowns (or tantrums).
Toddlers don’t enjoy tantrums. They don’t intentionally “throw” a tantrum to manipulate us. Tantrums are outside a toddler’s conscious control.
When emotions overwhelm a young child, their brain isn’t able to maintain rational control. Their physiology helps restore equilibrium by having a meltdown to release their feelings and frustrations.
Tantrums are an opportunity for us to connect and deepen the trust our children already have in us.
Tantrums are an opportunity to learn as parents.
Tantrums are an opportunity to dig deep, to lean in and to help your child in the way they need.
Tantrums are an opportunity to up your game as a parent.
As unbelievable as it may sound, once I realised this, I can’t say I looked forward to tantrums but I didn’t dread them. I didn’t try to stop them. I didn’t fear them. I started approaching them with curiosity and wonder. I started expecting them, just as I expected my son to be hungry or tired.
So, what’s the best way to deal with a tantrum?
Firstly, remember a tantrum is not a reflection on you. Let’s repeat that; your child’s tantrum is not a reflection on you or your parenting. What is a reflection on you is your response to the tantrum. Can you find the courage to disable generational imprinting and cultural expectations and be the calm in your child’s storm? You cannot control another person, but you can choose your response.
“Release your attachments to how things “ought” to be and instead surrender to how they actually are.” Dr. Shefali Tsabury
So, remember tantrums are normal and healthy.
Take a deep breath. Close your eyes for a moment if you need to. Do whatever you need to do to center yourself. You are your child’s compass. You are their guide; they need to feel the reassurance that you are in charge, that you have their back and that they can rely on you when they feel like they are drowning in a sea of wild and unpredictable emotions.
Sit patiently with your child. Hold her close. Empathize. Observe.
What unmet needs could be underlying her strong emotions?
Say what you see, without judgment.
Give her words so she can understand her emotions. “You are so upset. You seem sad to say good-bye to Daddy. You’re crying…”
Remember, this is not about you.
Do not even attempt to rationalise or use logic – your child’s brain is all emotion right now. Connect on an emotional level first and then once she is calm, you can problem-solve together.
Acknowledge her anger and frustrations, accept her emotions and wait it out.
By doing this (time and again) you’re strengthening your child’s belief that the universe is a safe place. That her parents accept and love her unconditionally. That there is no such thing as “good” or “bad emotions. That you will help her regulate her emotions and explore her feelings no matter how messy they may be.
Why Parents Need to Ditch Traditional Discipline
The mainstream approach may suggest a time out or walking away so that you don’t “reward” the behaviour by acknowledging it. Or threatening or punishing your child in some arbitrary way. But this approach is short-sighted – it may get the parent what they want in the short term, but it is not helping the child.
Because when young children feel abandoned, unheard and invalidated, they become anxious. The tantrum may temporarily stop, but you risk creating deep insecurity. We wouldn’t dream of treating a toddler as a “failure” for stumbling as they learn to walk. So why would we treat them harshly when they stumble through their emotional growth?
Traditional discipline has become synonymous with punishment. The Oxford Dictionary defines discipline as, ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.’ But, the original meaning of the word came from its Latin origins, disciplina, which means ‘instruction’. And disciplina derives from the Latin word discere, which means ‘to learn’. Traditional discipline techniques are, in my view, a lazy way of dealing with misunderstood behaviour, which in most cases derives from a child’s valid and unmet need. They also put the bulk of responsibility on the child and very little on the parent.
“Every day in a hundred ways our children ask, “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Do I matter?” Their behaviour often reflects our response.” L.R.Knost
Compassion and empathetic guidance help toddlers develop a brain that can regulate itself emotionally within a few short years. By around the age of six, a child’s nervous system is almost completely wired. The ability to trust, self-soothe and empathize is established.
Children who’ve had compassionate, responsive and positive parents will come to understand and self-regulate their emotions most of the time. They’ll feel secure. They’ll build neural pathways within the brain to deliver soothing biochemicals that help to regulate emotions like fear and anger. They’ll grow into adults who feel comfortable in their own skin and with other people’s emotions, so they’re able to connect deeply with others.
It may feel overwhelming in the moment with a young child who is melting down, but take solace in the knowledge that the effort and sacrifices you are making are monumentally worthwhile. In years from now, your kids won’t remember what you said, but they’ll remember how you made them feel.
“Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs by filling their cup with love or we spend the time dealing with the behaviours caused from their unmet needs. Either way we spend the time.” Pamela Leo