By Megan Stonelake
The “terrible twos” is a ubiquitous phrase to describe toddlerhood, where many parents find themselves in a world of contradictions. Toddlers still need their parents’ near constant attention, even while they are eager to assert their independence.
Toddlers are emotional, irrational, and relentless. Yet when we better understand this phase of our children’s lives, we may actually begin to savor this stage of curiosity and wonder. Here are some ways to keep our expectations of our toddlers developmentally appropriate.
Toddlers Are Doing the Best They Can with the Skills They Have
Prior to the age of three, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is notably immature. This area of the brain is important for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and solving problems. In this and myriad other ways, children are not tiny adults. They can’t reason like adults and they can’t make educated, calculated decisions like adults. No amount of punishment will speed up the process of brain development.
Given that toddlers have limited skills, we can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re doing the best they can in a given situation, and it’s with our coaching and guidance that they will acquire new skills. As Dr. Shefali Tsabary explains, “we help [our children] most not when we try to banish their emotions, but when we equip them to navigate such emotions.”
Meltdowns Call for Empathy, Not Punishment
Tantrums aren’t necessarily pleasant, but they are inevitable. Toddlers are continuously learning what to do with overwhelming emotions in situations where they have very little control. This morning my son and I met some close friends at the park. My son wanted to swing but our friends reached the swings first, and he quickly realized he would need to wait his turn.
He became very upset because he didn’t know how long he would need to wait, and he had no control over when he could swing. He threw himself to the ground and began to wail. Something seemingly trivial felt very upsetting to him, and he expressed strong feelings about his predicament.
Treating him punitively or ignoring him would have only escalated the situation and ruined our morning at the park before it had even begun. Besides, expecting him to react with skills far beyond his years is unfair. Instead, I validated his frustration, empathized with him, and when he calmed down I suggested ways we could pass the time until his turn on the swing. As L.R. Knost reminds us, “…caring about the little things that matter to little people creates big connections.”