Toddlers, Meltdowns and Brain Development: Why Parents Need to Ditch Traditional Discipline

Life

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.

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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.

Join me at the Raising Toddlers Conference, the only free, online conference focusing solely on parenting and caregiving in the toddler years. Hosted by toddler parenting coach, Devon Kuntzman, the Raising Toddlers Conference brings together more than 25 experts in toddler behavior, development, health and parenting. Register now for this FREE, VIRTUAL conference, September 26-30, 2019. Join here: Raising Toddlers Conference 2019

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

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WHERE TO FROM HERE? 

And if you are in the midst of toddlerhood (which isn’t easy!), here are other articles I’ve written that may help: 

Punishments, Time Outs, and Rewards: Why Conditional Parenting Doesn’t Work (And What Does)

Six Tips to Be A Kick-Ass Positive Parent

Four Positive Parenting Secrets to Avoid Using Time Outs

Why I’ll Never Give My Son a Time Out 

If We Want to Hold Our Children Close, We Can’t Push Our Babies Away

Why We Need to Yell Less and Connect More with Our Kids

Why I’ll Never Teach My Son Manners

Five Thoughtful Ways to Raise Respectful Children 

Three Secrets Parents Need to Raise Emotionally Intelligent Kids 

Why Mainstream Parenting Techniques Risk Breaking Our Children’s Spirits

And here are some of my favorite books on the topic of gentle discipline and positive parenting. Read one of them and your parenting will change. Read all of them and your parenting will transform (traditional discipline will no longer be an option):

Dr. Shefali Tsabury, Out of Control: Why Disciplining Your Child Doesn’t Work and What Will

Dr. Laura Markham, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Gentle Discipline: Using Emotional Connection – Not Punishment – to Raise Confident, Capable Kids

Alfie Kohn, Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason

Rebecca Eanes, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide

Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson, The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

 

COMMENTS
  • Avatar
    November 09, 2015

    There is so much here that I love. It’s not easy to be a parent (I have certainly struggled), but if I had known more about the power of positive parenting from the beginning, I would have done some things a bit differently. I completely agree that one generation of loving parents would have a profound impact on the next generation. I hope that’s coming soon. 🙂

    • Avatar
      November 10, 2015
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you Jenna – it’s very encouraging to hear it. And thank you for reading my posts. It’s not easy at all – 10:13pm and my little guy has just gone to sleep for the night….I had to use my positive parenting and patience tonight! 🙂

  • Avatar
    March 14, 2016
    Angela Tymms

    I try to handle tantrums as you’ve suggested in this blog & find it work well. But I don’t know what to say to my 3yr old when he repeatedly says “mummy i’m not happy” there isn’t often an obvious reason that I can say “I understand that you wanted that toy/ice cream etc”. I feel quite lost at times.

    • Avatar
      March 16, 2016
      Tracy Gillett

      Thank you for reading Angela and for your comment. I feel for you and understand – my son is 3 as well and it’s hard when they just don’t understand. I wrote another post which may be helpful, not in the moment necessarily, but mat help in the long term. I’m also planning to update this post with more tips. Find it here. A book I highly recommend is Dr Laura Markham’s, Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids. It’s littered with advice and has age specific sections which is so helpful. Thanks again for reading and welcome to the site.

  • Avatar
    June 24, 2016

    Loving guidance says it all – great choice of words to describe parenting – most valuable work – thank you

  • Avatar
    April 02, 2019

    My son just turned one and a half. My wife and I are on board with the things you often write about. Reading this particular article has illuminated for me a blind spot in the way I sometimes respond to him when I am pressed for time leaving the house and he is crying and wanting to go with me. I now have an idea of how my wife and I together can better remedy his anxiety in these situations. Thank You.

  • Avatar
    April 03, 2019
    Kayleen

    I have an almost 1 year old who is just on the brink of starting tantrums. I’m so happy I read this. My husband and I were just discussing how “out of control” he’s getting and hard to handle. What a relief to know now that it’s not my job to control him. Just sitting with him and waiting out the emotion is so much better for all of us.
    I especially appreciate the part about not abandoning them. Seen this a million times. A toddler being ignored or walked away from while they’re obviously having an extremely difficult moment. How horrible would that be for someone to do to us! Great article!

  • Avatar
    April 03, 2019
    Jennifer Hodge

    I try to stay close to my daughter when she is having a tantrum and help her calm down. Telling her to take deep breaths, I know she is upset… but she starts hitting, scratching, biting. I don’t know how to get her to calm down.

    • Avatar
      July 01, 2019
      Mary

      I try to repeat what they are saying and validate their feelings, for example. “You wanted to stay longer?” “You’re feeling sad that it’s time to go?” “I’m sorry you’re sad.”

  • Avatar
    April 07, 2019
    Claire

    This is well-researched and lovingly-written. It affirms the empathetic approach I want to take with my daughter as she grows, so thank you for the reassurance.

  • Avatar
    April 16, 2019
    Chuck

    These types of things are always written for perfect children parented by perfect people. That’s just not reality. Best you can do is adopt the tenor of the method and try to return to is as a baseline after you inevitably deviate from it. Parenting just isn’t perfect, and your children aren’t the children the write about. A lot of good, healthy adults who were spanked or who had time outs or who needed very little guidance from the start. Why? How is it possible? It’s possible because training your child isn’t the only piece to the puzzle, and people (kids included) are quite resilient, as it turns out. We can NEVER be perfect. Luckily kids don’t really need us to be. These conversations are good. We should keep having them and learning. But, they should be without the shaming that always comes implicitly or explicitly with them.

  • Avatar
    April 16, 2019
    Jennifer

    Love this article! Do you have any suggestions, posts, or books you’d recommend regarding parenting reactions to children hitting? My 4 year old has never been spanked but she has started a tendency to smack her sister when she’s excited or experiencing a lot of emotion.

    • Avatar
      April 20, 2019
      Mommy

      Hi, I’m a parent of 2 (6.5 yr old and almost 5 yr old). Kids don’t develope a sense of empathy until the age of 6-7. So a 4 year old won’t feel sorry for hitting (or snatching a toy etc.) they will say sorry if forced by an adult but they won’t actually feel sorry or “mean it”. What the caregiver could do is to physicaly hold their hand and stop the hitting (and say something like “I’m not going to let you hit”, as the 4 year old can’t control their impulse yet) and for the adult to show empathy to the hurt sibling and apologize/comfort/hug. kids will eventually mimic our response and learn how to show empathy.

      • Avatar
        July 11, 2019
        ECMHC

        I loved the article and agree with Tracy, as research indicates “Empathy begins to develop at age 2, when a child tries to console a crying peer, they may bring blankets, a drink or toys – anything that she associates with relieving her own pain” (Dunn and Brown, 1991, Kaiser and Rasminsky, 2007).

  • Avatar
    April 17, 2019
    Karla

    This is a great article with so much information and wisdom. I truly believe becoming a parent has made me better myself so that I can role modal to my child how to regulate and express emotions.

    Thank you for this deep awareness.

  • Avatar
    April 23, 2019
    Savanna

    Standing ovation to you sweet Tracy! This is absolutely beautiful!

  • Avatar
    April 25, 2019
    v.v.hariprasad

    Great article contrary to the beliefs prevailing in India.Traditional wisdom of Indian thinking which has
    to be probed into.

  • Avatar
    June 14, 2019
    Ann

    Interesting article and approach, but would be useful to have more emphasis on what you SHOULD do for e.g when your child is hitting another child, (and continues to do so after you’ve told them to stop..) If you don’t do time out, what do you do instead?? I feel this article is a bit one sided and doesn’t really offer any practical solutions for real life.

    • Avatar
      June 14, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      Hi Ann, thanks for your comments but did you read the whole article? At the bottom of the article I give a list of practical advice for parents so please read in full.

  • Avatar
    June 16, 2019
    Gale Engelman

    I read the whole article and after reading Ann’s comment about practice advice I went back to read the advice you say you gave at end of article. I only see a list of books for purchase. I must say however I enjoyed your peice and learned from it. Sent to my daughter who has a 21 month just starting to show frustrations.. so a good read

    • Avatar
      June 16, 2019
      Tracy Gillett

      Thanks Gale and so happy you found it helpful! I hope your daughter enjoys it too. In addition to books, I also listed nine other articles I’ve written on similar topics – like why not to use time outs and four alternatives to it, tips for respectful parenting, why not to force manners, tips to improve connection and more.

  • Avatar
    June 30, 2019
    Kelly

    I was very lucky to have had the opportunity to hear Gabor Matè speak at a conference I attended for work…this article was a nice reminder of some of the things I learned that day! Thanks 🙂

  • Avatar
    June 30, 2019
    DebbieMorris-Cope

    Thank you for your article on Toddlers, Meltdowns and brain development. As a parent and now grandparent along with my Early years educator role. I love sharing all this rich and nurturing information with my staff,parents as well as my grandchildrens parents. As we need to remind ourselves they are very young babies and children that need all of this nurturing and we need to step back and look at our behaviour and expectations not only for our young children now but how this all shapes their growth and development into adult hood. I love the quote “Either we spend time meeting childrens emotional needs by filling their cup with love or we spend time dealing with the behaviours caused from their unmet needs. Either way we spend time” Thank you once again, D x

  • Avatar
    July 06, 2019
    Tonya

    Great article, Tracy! I wish I had raised my children more like this… truly understanding their needs. I was such a busy parent that I became frustrated at times. Have you heard of Conscious Discipline? Many of the things you talk about sound just like that framework as well.

  • Avatar
    July 09, 2019
    Damaris

    Love this article!!! So true, sent it to all my friends with kids :)) 🙏🏼🙏🏼😃

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