If you have a toddler, you know how this goes: you’re bumping along happily, plugging octagons through a shape sorter or stacking and demolishing Tupperware towers. Your chubby, wobbly friend is all smiles – things are so smooth and easy.
And then, tragically, the plastic triangle won’t fit through the square hole, the tower won’t cooperate, or a curious friend picks off the top container and suddenly your child has dissolved into frustration, despair, pure agony! From the looks of your tear-drenched, back-arched little creature, the world is coming to a calamitous end.
You masterfully distract with a bowl of raspberries. The moment passes. A goofy, ecstatic grin spreads across his wet face.
This is the burgeoning emotional life of a toddler. And when I say burgeoning I mean that this is just the beginning of a long, turbulent, endlessly entertaining, amazing, and brow-furrowing ride. As babyhood fades and the preschool years near, low tolerance for frustration and meltdowns over malfunctioning toys give way to ever more complex negotiating, stalling tactics, stubbornness, and even more intense explosions of joy and misery.
In other words, it’s not going to get easier for a while.
The good news is that understanding why it’s happening helps you tap into patience and empathy for your toddler and perhaps some calm for yourself amidst the storm.
Consider this simple principle: A toddler’s brain has fully-functioning, rapid-firing emotional hardware (actually he’s had it since birth) but just the smallest inkling of conscious awareness, control, and understanding about what to do with those emotions.
The brain’s raw emotional centers – including the amygdala and lower limbic structures – are all wired up and switched on in a newborn. But the sophisticated conscious circuits that make a child aware of this raw information and how to sort it out – the limbic cortex and areas of the evolutionarily newer prefrontal cortex, to name a few – show almost no activity in a baby. The cells are there, but they aren’t well connected yet.
That starts to change at around eight months; you can tell when you make eye contact with a baby that age that the lights of consciousness are coming on, can’t you? Signals to higher brain regions are weak but forming at a breakneck pace: At the peak of this process during the first two years of life, millions of synapses – the connections between brain cells – form every second.
But growing brain connections is not really the key to emotional maturity. The heavy lifting comes as a child’s brain begins to prune – the most important and repeated connections get stronger and the unused “extra” ones die off. This task of cutting back certain pathways in the brain’s emotional control centers and strengthening others really starts after your toddler’s second birthday.
It’s not a smooth process. You may think your toddler has turned a pleasant corner one week, only to see him become completely unhinged over parsley sprinkled on his pasta or you trying to de-koala him from your hip. His maturity level doesn’t follow a straight line; some brain connections are made and others broken in overlapping fits and spurts. For example, scientists know that the left side of the brain generally processes more positive emotion than the right, while the right side has more negative emotional texture. Left and right don’t always grow at the same rate, though, hence some of the flip-flopping you may see in your house.
Just how bumpy a road your little one’s emotional development is depends a lot on her temperament. The key is to accept her emotional sensitivity and know that it’s not your job to fix it – it’s just your job to see it. When something tough comes around, it’s helpful to narrate the scene for your blubbering mess: I saw that – you’re frustrated that the piece won’t fit. Jack took the block off and you’re upset. You wanted to be held but mommy put you down. That way you send the message that her little feelings, good or bad, are okay and most importantly, you can tolerate them. When you take this quick step, it helps her strengthen those higher-order emotional brain connections.
Next, troubleshoot a little: How about that square piece? Let’s talk to Jack about the blocks. Why don’t we practice holding hands while we walk together. And thankfully, your creature-of-the-moment can still be swept away by distraction. So after you’ve seen his feelings, a good old-fashioned “Hey, I hear a garbage truck outside!,” funny face, or fruit bowl diversion may just work wonders.