I still remember when the warning messages started flowing in. Those same people who had spent months gushing over my “precious” baby who was “such a blessing” were telling me it was about time to go to war.
Apparently in the span of a few short months on earth, my innocent blessing was going to turn into a little tyrannical monster, and I had darn well better be ready to stand my ground, they said. Otherwise, he’d run right over me, overthrow my home, and rule the kingdom from his toddler bed.
I know it sounds silly when I put it like that, and, well, it is silly. The myths we buy into about our young kids are very foolish, but we believe them anyway because they are culturally accepted and we are conditioned to believe them.
And I fell right into that trap! Though a bit confused how my sweet pumpkin was going to go Mr. Hyde on me so quickly, I prepared for battle, armed to the teeth with behavior charts, time-out chairs, and “magical” counting methods.
No way was I about to let this 30-pound dictator rule my house. I was queen around here.
Did you hear these messages too?
- He’s just trying to push your buttons.
- She’ll try to be the boss!
- He’ll see what he can get away with!
- Pick your battles!
- She’ll test your authority.
- He’ll run the house if you let him!
- If you let her by with bad behavior now, imagine how horrible she’ll be as a teenager.”
- You’d better show him who’s boss.
- Just ignore her and she’ll stop throwing a fit.
- He’s just trying to get attention.
- Give an inch, they’ll take a mile!
I heard these messages so much, I started to believe them, and can you guess what happened by the time my kiddo turned two? I saw exactly what I was looking for. Trouble.
Funny thing about perspective. If you expect the twos to be terrible, they probably will be. If you’re convinced that three will be worse, you’re likely right. Know those fours will be fearsome? You got it! Because the lens we are looking through is distorted. We can’t see clearly because all of those negative messages are fogging up our view.
Don’t get me wrong, I adored him to bits, but if I’m honest, I fully expected him to terrorize the place, and so when he displayed certain behaviors, I thought “Aha! I knew it!” Here was the manipulation I’d been warned about. Here’s him vying for power. This was the beginning of the battle, and so I chose my first weapon - the time-out chair.
Fast forward a few months and it was crystal clear that nobody was winning. That’s when I discovered Positive Parenting and completely changed my approach. Fourteen years later, I’d like to share with you what I wish someone had told me all those years ago. I want to bust those myths so that you can see your baby clearly, because there’s no little monster there at all.
Myth #1: Toddlers are selfish
I know that some days it really does feel like your child is intentionally pushing your buttons. How do they even know which ones to push? They seem to know all your triggers! Your toddler isn’t trying to drive you up the wall, though. Honest! Children this age are naturally egocentric. They have difficulty seeing things from another’s point of view. So, the fact that they only care about their own needs and desires isn’t indicative of a naughty or selfish child, but that your kiddo is developing normally! According to Piaget’s four stages of development, this is the preoperational stage, and will last until around age seven. After that, they’ll be able to take others into consideration and see from a different perspective, but for now, your kid is perfectly normal.
Let’s look through a positive lens at this stage. They are learning to love themselves right now, and that’s an important thing that more of us need to hold on to, isn’t it? So, when you hear “no!” or “mine!” remind yourself that she’s discovering who she is and loving herself enough to speak up. It’s really kind of sweet and beautiful.
While you can rest assured that this is all developmentally appropriate, it doesn’t mean you have to look the other way when her behavior is causing an issue. There are ways you can nurture your little one’s development so that, as her brain matures, she’ll better understand empathy and compassion. One way to do this is by modeling empathetic and compassionate behavior yourself. Those mirror neurons will be firing, so she’ll start copying you. Later, she’ll put it together and understand why it’s important to be compassionate like you. In addition, it’s good to still set limits around behaviors. For example, if your child snatches his sister’s Lego rocket, you can intervene with kindness and firmness (to model) and help him give the rocket back to her and wait his turn.
Myth #2: Meltdowns are manipulative, naughty behavior
Everybody you have ever met will come out of the woodworks to tell you how to deal with toddler meltdowns.
We have all been told that toddlers have meltdowns on purpose in a diabolical scheme to get you to give in to their demands. They’ll tell you that you have two options: Ignore or punish. If we ignore the child, they say, we won’t accidentally reinforce this “bad behavior” by giving them the attention they’re seeking. Punishment, of course, will nip this right in the bud, we’re told.
A little research into basic brain development debunks this myth rather quickly. Willful manipulation is a function of the prefrontal cortex, and this area of the brain is extremely underdeveloped in toddlers. They simply do not have the cognitive skills to plan this sort of attack.
What is actually happening is the emotional center of your child’s brain becomes overloaded. Alarms then trigger the lower brain, sending your child into a meltdown. When the lower brain is running the show, children have little control over their actions. Kicking, screaming, and crying are ways to discharge those overwhelming emotions. It is not calculated, and it’s not a pleasant feeling that toddlers enjoy having.
As your toddler’s brain develops, they will gain the skills necessary to regulate their emotions, and meltdowns will decrease. Rather than ignoring or punishing, it’s more helpful to co-regulate with your child by helping them calm down. You can lay the foundation for her being able to self-regulate later by using a calming corner with the Time-In ToolKit or SnuggleBuddies plush, reading Heart’s Treasure Hunt, and teaching her mindful movements.
Myth #3: They should start potty training by 18 months old
The average age for potty training is actually around 27 months, but take the word “average” lightly. There are lots of factors involved that could speed up or delay potty learning. My first son was entirely trained at age two. My second was nearly five. Both were “normal,” but I spent so much time fretting over my second because I thought he was behind.
My advice is don’t stress over it too much. Watch for cues that your child is ready to learn, such as waking up from naps dry, showing interest in learning, and the ability to follow simple instructions, and then just support your child through the learning process.
Myth #4: Your toddler should be sleeping through the night
I know you’ve been waiting for this - sweet sleep! You’ve finally made it through those sleep-deprived months of infancy, and you just know that any day now, your toddler will start sleeping through the night. Believe me, I understand your desperation, but you may have to wait a little longer.
Your toddler’s sleep could be disrupted for several reasons. One is simply natural sleep cycles. Young children have more sleep cycles per night than adults, meaning they are likely to wake more often. In addition, they have more REM cycles, which means they have more dream time. More dreams could possibly mean more nightmares. Your toddler might also wake due to separation anxiety, fears, or big transitions like potty learning, transition to a toddler bed, welcoming a sibling, etc.
For toddlers who have separation anxiety, try “bridging the gap,” meaning that you find ways to help them feel close to you during the separation of sleep. An example of this is saying, “I look forward to seeing you first thing tomorrow! I’ll check on you in 15 minutes.” This way, he can look forward to that next connection point as he drifts off to sleep. Otherwise, a soothing routine and consistent sleep and nap schedule is your best bet to help you through until the next developmental milestone is reached.
Myth #5: Toddlers should share
The concept of sharing is too complex for toddlers to really understand. Remember, they are still in the egocentric phase developmentally, and it’s difficult for them to see this from the other child’s point of view.
Forcing your toddler to share won’t teach him social skills or make him a more empathetic person. It’ll likely just piss him off. Forced sharing actually heats up competition between kids, fuels sibling rivalry, and disempowers both children.
They’ll begin to grasp this concept around age four or five and will better understand it by age seven, roughly. Until then, you can offer encouragement to take turns when he’s ready or help him to wait patiently.
Toddlerhood is a precious time. We do our kids and ourselves a great injustice by “choosing our battles” and assigning negative intent to their developmentally normal behaviors. Instead of going to war, let’s spend these quickly-passing years seeking to understand our little ones and guiding them with gentleness and love.*Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother.