Toddlers: Why their behaviour actually makes perfect sense
This week I had a conversation with a friend that really got me thinking about people’s expectations when it comes to the behaviour of children. Especially toddler behaviour. They weren’t her own expectations we were discussing, but someone else’s (very) unrealistic expectations of her toddler.
And then I started thinking about the many people I’ve spoken to over the years, both professionally and personally, who have had similarly unrealistic expectations when it comes to toddler behaviour. Many of the complaints and concerns that parents have about their children when they come to see me, are actually not reasons for concern at all. They are perfectly acceptable, healthy, expected, and “normal” behaviours for a child. A lot of the time, it is our expectations that need to be changed, not a child’s behaviour.
And why do we need to change our expectations? Because often, children are actually physically incapable of doing the things we expect them to do. Particularly toddlers. Why? Because their brains are still growing. If you’ve been reading this blog, or following me on social media for a while, you’d know that I speak about something called the prefrontal cortex quite a lot. You may be wondering what a prefrontal cortex is. If you are, that’s ok. Lots of people have no idea what I’m talking about when I mention it!
But I want you to know about it. I want everyone to know about it. I think hospitals should give parents crash courses in prefrontal cortex development and toddler behaviour before they can bring their babies home. Because understanding the way your toddlers brain works is a GAME CHANGER. Truly. Once you are able to understand what is going on in that little head of theirs, that strange toddler behaviour, that seemed a total mystery before, actually makes perfect sense!
And once you understand why your toddler is behaving the way they are, you can be more empathetic in the tough moments, align your expectations with their abilities, and begin to give them what they actually need. And that will mean you’re both less frustrated, and more connected. Both good things, as far as I’m concerned.
So. Here’s what you need to know about your toddler’s brain.
Development of the Brain
The brain develops from the bottom up. First comes the brain stem – this is the area of the brain responsible for basic, automatic functions like keeping our heart beating and our lungs breathing. Then comes the limbic system, which you may have heard me refer to as the “emotional brain”. This area of the brain is responsible for emotions, memory and motivation. That means the prefrontal cortex or “thinking brain” is the last area to develop. In fact, this area of the brain is generally not fully developed until around the age of 25. Yes, really!
What does the Prefrontal Cortex do?
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher order thinking, or executive functioning skills. These include:
- Decision making
- Problem solving
- Impulse control
- Self regulation
So what does that mean for your toddler and their behaviour?
Well, think about what toddler behaviour looks like. Think about the last few things you had to discipline your toddler for. And now review the above list for me. Is it becoming clearer? Let’s take a look at why we need to change our expectations around toddler behaviour, and what we can do to help them instead.
1.They cannot regulate their emotions.
Toddlers experience emotions in just the same way as us adults. But emotions are still pretty new to toddlers, and big, strong emotions – particularly negative ones – can easily overwhelm their developing nervous systems. They don’t have the language to express how they feel and they don’t have the ability yet to stop and consider how to respond to emotion. The emotion literally takes over as the amygdala takes control. The prefrontal cortex goes “offline” and they cannot be reasoned with. And so they lash out. Not because they are being naughty, or trying to make your life difficult, but because they’ve literally got no control in that moment.
You can help them by talking about emotions frequently. Label emotions (theirs and yours) and teach them appropriate ways to manage their big feelings (like mindful breathing), once they are calm.
2.You need to tell them the same thing over and over and over and over and…
When you ask your toddler not to do something, say something or touch something, you are asking them to focus their attention, remember your instructions, and control their impulses. All at once!! All these things require executive functioning skills and the development of the prefrontal cortex. And what helps this area of the brain to develop? Repeated experience. Your child needs to build connections between different areas of the brain in order to learn these important skills.
The only way to do this, is to keep doing the same thing repeatedly, so that the connections become strong through repeated firing of neurons inside the brain. So you really DO need to tell your toddler the same thing over and over and over again. It’s how they learn.
3. They cannot see your point of view. Or anyone else’s.
Toddlers are naturally egocentric. They do not understand that other people might have different thoughts, feelings, beliefs or experiences to them. This means they have a hard time with empathy. So when they grab that toy off the baby because it’s “mine” and then don’t seem to care that the baby is wailing, don’t panic. You’re not raising a future sociopath. Toddlers need to be all about “me, me, me” because this is how they get their needs met.
They will eventually learn how to be more empathetic, they’ll just need a little bit of assistance from you along the way. Help them by pointing out how other people are feeling. Identifying emotions in others and in themselves will help with the development of empathy.
4. They cannot wait.
Toddlers still have not developed impulse control. They also have no concept of time. So when they want something, they want it now. They are not being bratty. They just have no ability to wait. Five minutes literally seems like an eternity to a 2 year old. Their inability to understand time is also why they may have a complete meltdown when you tell them you’re going to their friends birthday party next week. They don’t know how far away next week is…they think they are missing the super fun party that’s happening right now!
Try telling them about the activity or event a little closer to the starting time! This will ease everyone’s frustration.
5. It’s hard for them to stop what they are doing.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for attention. So for toddlers, switching their attention from one thing to another can be difficult. Particularly if they’re really engrossed in an activity, or they cannot see value in what you’re asking them to do. So if you’re asking them to stop playing a game, or turn off their favourite tv show, so they can come and have a bath, or brush their teeth, you’re going to be met with resistance. It’s just hard for their brain to do.
Try waiting until they are finished their activity, or make sure you have their attention by making eye contact before you give your instruction and asking them to repeat it back to you.
6. They can’t remember all of your instructions.
I see this a lot. Parents questioning why their child isn’t following instructions. Often, it’s because you’re giving them too many at once. A young child can only focus on so much information at once. Too many instructions or multiple part instructions, just overload their system – they can’t hold it all in their working memory for long enough to action each instruction. So they may give up and do nothing instead.
Keep it simple for them and get them to do one thing at a time, giving them a new instruction each time they return to you.
7. They’re not sure what you just asked them.
When you tell a toddler to “Stop running” or “Don’t touch”, they become confused. These kind of instructions have to be processed twice. First they have to work out what you asked them to do. Then they need to work out what you want them to do differently. What you may get is a child who thinks you asked them to run, or encouraged them to touch, because this was the only part of your instruction that was clear to them.
Don’t assume your child knows what you want them to do, and don’t overcomplicate your language. They’re still learning, after all. Keep it simple and tell them what you want them to do: We walk inside, we look with our eyes only, chairs are for sitting.
8. Your logic is wasted on them.
Toddlers engage in “magical thinking” a lot. This means that they may have trouble distinguishing between reality and their imagination. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for helping them understand logic and reason. So, if they are afraid that there’s a monster under their bed, it may be easier to spray some “Monster Spray” to get rid of the monster than to try to explain to them that monsters don’t exist. It’s also the reason why they may insist on having rice bubbles for breakfast even when you’ve told them 15 times that you don’t actually have any – they think that because they wish it to be true, it must be!
9. They did it because they wanted to.
Have you ever said, “Why did you do that?!” to your toddler? I have. And the answer is actually very simple: because they wanted to. Again, toddlers lack impulse control. This kind of regulation is the job of the prefrontal cortex. They want to do something, so they do it. They don’t yet have the skills to consider the consequences of their behaviour, weigh up the cost vs benefits, think about how it will affect others, or stop themselves from acting. They just do it. They are not being intentionally defiant. They are just learning about their world.
Now I hear a lot of people say, “But they know not to do it!” And yes, you’re probably right. But that doesn’t mean they can control their behaviour just yet. So if you don’t want them to draw on the couch or touch your expensive vase, your best bet is to simply keep temptation out of reach. At least for now.
10. Change is scary.
The big wide world can be a scary place for your toddler. There is so much information. So much to learn. So many people and places and things. It can all feel overwhelming to a small person who is still pretty new to the world. It’s also overwhelming for a still developing brain to process so much sensory input. So when they insist on drinking only from the green cup, or wearing their Spiderman costume to bed for the 5th night in a row, they are not trying to be difficult. They are just trying to stick with what they know is familiar and safe. They feel comforted by these things.
If you can allow them to have some control, and make some small decisions in their life, let them. They will feel accomplished and they will feel safe, secure and in control. And when they feel like this, they are able to learn and grow and develop. They’ll build those connections in the prefrontal cortex so it can grow strong and help them succeed later in life.
So there you have it. I told you toddler behaviour was not such a huge mystery, didn’t I? It really does make perfect sense.
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.