Reframing Toddlerhood - Your child’s brain is yours for the shaping
Have you ever found yourself arguing with a toddler about why they can’t do/ eat/ have that totally illogical thing they want, or witnessed your sweet little 2 year old transform into a scratching and biting animal and wondered What on earth is going on in there?
If you have, you’re not alone.
Although we may think of ourselves as a super evolved species (and indeed we are), the structure of the modern human brain still owes much to our evolutionary ancestors. How well we perform prized human abilities such as communicating, thinking rationally, and remaining composed in the face of frustration depend on a range of factors including the environment we’re in, how we were raised, and most importantly our age. These are all hard-earned skills that we are not born with, they develop over time.
Probably over a lot more time than you would think. In a 2016 study, around half of parents surveyed believed that children had the ability to share and take turns before the age of 2 and the ability to control their impulses before age 3. In fact, most children aren’t able to do these things until ages 3-4.
And why is that? Because the part of the brain that is capable of these sophisticated functions doesn’t really start to come ‘online’ until the toddler stage. At birth, human brains have basic structures and functions that facilitate survival (similar to those of our more primitive evolutionary cousins) but the more complex parts of our brains, such as those that look after emotional processing and communication, are awaiting experience and interaction so that they can be uniquely shaped and adapted to suit the environments and cultures that we’re born into.
This basically means that your child’s brain is yours for the shaping. And shape it you will, because around 90% of brain growth occurs in the first 5 years of life. That’s right, the foundations of almost every part of ourselves, including how we communicate, form relationships, perceive the world to be and our sense of self will all be formed in those first few years, before we can even remember anything. How parents and carers interact with children and respond to their needs will have long lasting impacts on the development of their brains, particularly the emotional parts of the brain. It’s both an amazing and daunting responsibility.
To help you understand how this applies to your tantrum-prone toddler, I’m going to explain a little more about how the brain develops.
The structure of the brain
The human brain is essentially a massive web of electrical and chemical signals, keeping us alive, guiding our behaviour and responses, and making connections every time we experience something new. When a baby is born, it has the most brain cells that we’ll ever have (200 billion) but relatively few connections in the brain. As soon as the baby enters the world the brain starts rapidly making connections based on our experiences with others and the environment around us. The more often we experience a particular thing, the stronger that connection in the brain becomes.
So how does the brain know which connections to make and what skills to develop first? Well, it starts out where you’d probably suspect, at the foundation; beginning with the most essential of functions (survival) and then growing more complex and ‘evolved’ as we get older.
In a mature and well-integrated brain all these parts work together in a coordinated and regulated way. Information and impulses from the lower ‘reptilian ‘and ‘mammalian’ brains is filtered through the logic and and reasoning of the upper, ‘human’ brain, enabling us think through consequences, make good choices and behave in socially acceptable ways e.g. you might want to steal that ice-cream off your friend, or thump that bloke in the office, but your human brain will probably recognise that’s not such a good idea and stop you.
(Side note - while this sensible part of the brain begins to develop in toddlerhood, it’s doesn’t finish developing until we’re in our mid-20s. Yep, that’s right, full mastery of these functions of the human brain, including impulse control and rational thought, is not complete until we are well into young adulthood. But that’s another story for another blog post)
So what does this mean for toddlers?
The toddler years form such a critical part in development of this system as it’s during this time that the ‘human’ brain really starts to come into action. This where little ones start talking, asking ‘why’, planning, problem-solving, wanting to make their own decisions and begin to understand their own thoughts and feelings. This means that some days (or some moments) they might be able to understand and accept that you can’t let them ride the tiger at the zoo, they might be able to express in words what they’re so upset about or they’ll think through the consequences of pouring out a whole bottle of shampoo all over the floor, and they’ll stop themselves. These are moments to celebrate as examples of the hard but unseen work their developing brain is undertaking.
However, the process of the upper, ‘human’ brain learning to regulate and keep the impulses of the lower brains in check, is a lengthy one and not necessarily smooth and linear. It takes time and lots of repetition of experiences of adults helping you and supporting you while you learn those self-regulatory skills, before you can successfully master them on your own.
And in the meantime, there will be days when they just can’t seem to get a handle on that ‘human’ brain. On these days their survival-focused ‘reptilian’ brain might be a easily triggered (being ill, tired, hungry or out of routine can all exacerbate this) or they will be so overwhelmed by strong and confusing feelings - such as anger, fear, disappointment or frustration - that bubble up from their ‘mammalian’ brain, that their ‘human’ brain will be overridden and go ‘offline’. These are the times when you’re faced with the screaming, crying toddler who is so distraught that they seem like they’re not even really there. The lights are on but no-one is home.
When this level of dys-regulation happens, they haven’t got access to all those ‘human’ brain functions. They are, effectively, an animal, which means they
Probably can’t understand you
Can’t think rationally or logically
Can’t “just stop crying”
Can’t make good choices
Can’t calm themselves down
Probably won’t understand or remember quite what happened after they’ve recovered
It’s important to remember when these moments happen, that tantrums are a totally normal and they’re not doing it on purpose. They’re not trying to annoy you or ruin your day or embarrass you in public (in fact, the overstimulating and stressful nature of public places can mean that your child may be more likely to become dysregulated than in calm or familiar environments). Toddler tantrums are your child’s way of expressing “Aarrgghh I’m feeling all these big feelings that I don’t understand and I don’t know what to do and I need help!”.
How to handle toddler tantrums
When thinking about how to help your toddler calm down during these moments or stay calm if you see one approaching, it’s important to work from the bottom up. This means meeting their ‘reptilian’ brain’s need for safety, followed by the ‘mammalian’ brain’s need connection, and finally the ‘human; brain’s need for communication and understanding
Step 1. Take some deep breaths
You need to be calm to be able to help your child to calm down. Emotional dysregulation often triggers dysregulation in other people. If you can feel your grip on your own rational ‘human’ brain slipping, step away and take some deep breaths until you feel ready to move onto step 2.
Step 2. Get low, slow and quiet
We’re much more likely to become or remain dysregulated (yes, even us adults) when we’re scared, stressed or otherwise feel under threat. This is why shouting at a toddler in melt down rarely helps them to recover - it simply further triggers those ingrained fight-flight-freeze responses and you can end up with a child who is kicking, running, hiding or completely zoned out. By lowering yourself to your child’s level, moving and speaking slowly and quietly, you’ll be reducing any risk of triggering them further.
Step 3. Offer some comfort, if you can
Use a few empathetic words, to let them know you’re there to help them and that you’re trying to understand what they’re feeling in that moment (e.g. frustration, anger, disappointment) and then stop speaking. In the midst of a tantrum your child isn’t going to be able to handle too many words, so wait for the emotional storm to calm before you try to talk about what’s going on. Offer them a hug or try to make another physical connection if you can. Comforting your child is really important in helping them to emotionally re-regulate.
If your child is having an aggressive reaction to their emotional distress or pushing you away, give them space, but stay nearby. If they’re directing their aggression at you, set boundaries and redirect that aggression towards something that’s safe. You could say something like: “I can see that you’re so angry you want to hit something, but I am not for hitting. If you need to, you can hit that cushion over there.”
Step 4. Empathise and help them to understand
Once you can see that they’re starting to calm down and re-regulate, you can begin to use words to empathise with the child and understand what happened. Even if you’re not quite sure what set things off, you can help them make sense of the situation by telling the story of what happened, in a non-judgemental way, starting with what you saw e.g. “you were playing with the blocks and then the next thing I heard a crashing sound and you became really upset”. Leave space for your child to contribute their experience or correct your guesses about what they’re feeling.
This doesn’t have to go for a long time, but helping children to understand what led to the dysregulation will help them to make sense of the situation and their own feelings, which will help them to feel less overwhelmed and more able to stay in control the next time they are in that position.
Step 5. Talk about behaviour
If you want to talk about appropriate behaviour or consequences, only do this once your child is calm and feeling like they’ve been understood. It’s only once their human brain is fully back online that they’ll be able to understand and learn from the situation. If your child is still being very defensive at this point, it’s probably because they feel they haven’t been heard and understood. Remember they won’t be able to listen to you until they feel listened to first.
Once all the defensiveness has dropped, it’s a great time to discuss what can be done differently in the future and to make any apologies that might need to be made, including from adults. It’s not unusual that a tantrum can erupt from our insensitivity or misunderstanding of what our little ones are trying to communicate with us. It’s important for adults to model apologising when we’re in the wrong.
Step 6. Always end with a hug
Dysregulation can be scary and leave your child (and maybe even you too) with quite a nasty emotional hangover. It’s important that children know that you accept them and you’re there for them, especially when they’re struggling the most.
Although it may seem like a lot of steps, over time and with practice helping your child to emotionally re-regulate will become easier and faster. Remember, learning and development occur through the repetition of experiences and interactions. Everytime we help our little ones to correctly identify their feelings and re-engage their ‘human’ brains in the face of emotional turmoil, we are helping them to develop their own emotional literacy and self-regulation abilities. In time you may even find that a moment of connection and a few words of empathy is all that’s needed to keep them on track and avoid dysregulation altogether.
If you’ve found this helpful, feel free to check out the videos below for more information.
If you want to know more about the brain and how it influences your child’s behavior (and your own) I heartily recommend ‘The Whole Brain Child’ by Dr Dan Siegel and Dr Tina Payne Bryson.
For more information specifically focused on infant development, one of my favourites is ‘What every Parent Needs to Know’ by Margot Sunderland.