Toddlers are incredibly fun, cute and energetic. But as any parent will tell you, they can also be very unpredictable. Tantrums, emotional meltdowns and pushing boundaries are all part of this somewhat volatile age range, but why exactly do toddlers act like this?
In just a short few years, your baby has grown into a walking, talking mini person with their own wants, needs and thoughts. And often, this presents a series of challenges for parents and carers as children struggle to find their place in the world. Learning about the psychology of children helps us to understand why toddlers act and react in often unreasonable ways, and empowers us to be better equipped to handle such situations. Let’s delve into how your toddler’s mind works.
Teaching self regulation
Young children naturally have very immature emotional regulation systems, which means that they struggle to self-regulate and think rationally when they experience strong emotions. As adults, we tend to use logic to try and reason with children when they misbehave or show strong signs of frustration, anger or upset. But the trouble is that when a toddler is overrun with emotion, they simply cannot listen to logical explanations.
This is because the right side of the brain, which largely controls our emotions, is leading them in such a strong way that the child is unable to access the left, logical, side of their brain. To help them learn complex thinking strategies, such as thinking logically when full of emotion, it’s important to connect to them frequently on an emotional level.
Big feelings are overwhelming and scary, especially for small children. You can help toddlers learn to self-regulate their emotions by naming and validating their feelings, which helps them calm down and be in a better position to understand logic in an emotionally-charged situation. Just as within adults, strong feelings don’t do well being ignored. But once we feel heard, they subside and we can think clearly again.
When you choose to recognise your children’s big feelings and react with empathy, respect and understanding instead of punishing them for their (sometimes extreme) emotions, we teach them these qualities and pave the way for them to develop good emotional intelligence.
Laying the foundations
Children between the ages of 2-7 are undergoing the most rapid period of accelerated growth of their entire lifespan. At this age, the human brain is creating an extortionate amount of neurological connections every day. This is due to the fact that humans have evolved to be born at a stage where only a mere 25% of our brains are built, which gives us the unique ability to adapt to our environments incredibly well as we grow.
However, this also means that toddlers are simply incapable of fully understanding us, and they significantly lack impulse control. Throughout these crucial years, the experiences we have quite literally shape our understanding of the world around us and how we feel, react and engage with everything in it. Children who spend these years feeling safe, loved and able to make mistakes and learn from them grow into confident, mentally healthy adults. On the flip side, children who feel fearful, anxious and unheard during this timeframe are more likely to struggle as adults with both emotional regulation and social relationships.
You can help your toddler to feel safe and loved by allowing them to make mistakes and learn from them. As the synapses connect within their brains, repetition of learnt behaviours and responses shape their understanding. This is why they need to be told the same thing a hundred times, the boundaries you set are like building blocks of a house – each time another brick is placed, and until the house is completed, the concept isn’t yet set in stone within a toddler’s mind.
Healing and evolving
It can be difficult to step away from the often misguided ways in which many of us were raised. Western parenting methods have historically promoted ignoring the emotional needs of children in favour of demanding obedience, and this can make us feel like we have failed as parents or carers when our children act in entirely natural ways. But by understanding how your toddler’s mind works, you can reach for more gentle, empathetic ways to help them grow with confidence and become emotionally mature adults.