My three-year-old was in the time-out chair again and had been near-daily as we struggled back and forth for control. After all, isn’t that the message we get about raising children? They’ll try to run the show if you let them. I was being told I’d better “nip it in the bud” and “show him who’s boss” or I’d have a wild child on my hands. I just figured his “terrible twos” stage had arrived a little late, but regardless here it was.
I thought back to that beautiful moment when they placed him in my arms. This little boy wrapped in a blue blanket, with his perfect little lips, was the miracle I’d wanted for so long.
A year later, I cheered him on as he took those wobbly first steps. Standing in front of him, arms outstretched, as he teetered toward me, he was completely trusting that I would catch him if he fell.
Then, suddenly he was two and giggling uncontrollably as he threw the cover off his head in another game of peek-a-boo. We watched a silly video for the third time and danced around together to the music, and he fell asleep with his hand up my shirt sleeve, as he did every night. I was his security blanket, and he was mine because nothing felt more secure than loving and being loved like this.
It had started out so beautifully; what had happened? How did we get to this place where he is confined to a chair, not looking at me, tears streaming down his cheeks? Exasperated and overwhelmed, tears are running down mine, too. Is this really going to be how our story goes? This felt heartbreaking. I could feel the trust slipping away. I could sense our connection was faltering.
We are so accustomed to parenting being a struggle. We expect it. We deal with it. We fight back and forth for control. “Choose your battles” is the mantra we are taught, and this is the mindset we adopt. The warnings never end. “Just wait until she hits the terrible twos.” “Ha! Threes are way worse!” “That’s nothing. Wait until you have a teenager!”
Sadly, we are already poised and ready for battle by the second birthday. But we don’t have to be. We are told to expect defiance very early on, and we prepare for it, but what if there is a different story?
What if I told you that it is not defiance, but development?
If you knew that the part of your toddler’s brain responsible for impulse control, relating cause and effect, problem-solving, and critical thinking is underdeveloped, would it change the way you viewed their behavior? Would it tame your trigger responses and allow you to approach the situation with more understanding, compassion, and positivity?
The Brain Science That Changes Everything
The prefrontal cortex in toddlers is very underdeveloped. In fact, the development and maturation of the prefrontal cortex occurs primarily during adolescence and is fully accomplished by age 25. So, you can imagine all the work that the brain still has to do in a two or three-year-old child. This means that, developmentally, they struggle with executive function - the skills that help us regulate emotions and behaviors, focus, plan, adapt to situations and think critically.
This is the paradigm shift that changes parenting because it takes the information that we have been fed for years, such as the idea that a child who hits is being bad or a toddler having a tantrum is being manipulative, and turns it on its head. It’s simply not true, and with this information, parents can be empowered to help support their child’s brain development rather than simply punishing them for their lack of cognitive abilities.
Johanna Calderon, PhD, in her article in Harvard Health Publishing titled Executive Function in Children: Why It Matters and How to Help, states, “As with other developmental milestones, there is some normal variability in the time at which children reach executive function milestones. In some children, executive function issues present as trouble with impulse control, tantrums, and difficulty in self-regulating emotions. For others, challenges with school organization, time management, and remembering instructions are more visible.”
Calderson explains that, contrary to what we think, executive functioning does not develop in a linear progression but develops at different rates and can be substantially fostered or hindered by environmental factors. Evidence-based interventions have been rigorously studied and have shown that children’s executive functions can be boosted with structured socioemotional, educational, and neuropsychological programs.
Boost Executive Function and Support Brain Growth
While we cannot force maturation, we can facilitate growth in several ways. Here are three:
1. There is strong evidence that educational approaches which focus on teaching self-regulatory and socioemotional skills improve executive function in children. Generation Mindful’s SEL Activities and Lesson Plans teach children how to name, feel, and heal their emotions. Used in conjunction with the Time-In ToolKit, children can playfully grow their social and emotional skills through brain-based exercises.
2. Pretend and dramatic play has also been shown to improve executive function. Stephanie Carleson, PhD has devoted her life to studying executive functioning and finding ways to help kids strengthen these skills. She and her colleagues performed an experiment with 4-year-olds whereby they put a toy in a glass box and gave the kids a set of keys to unlock the box to play with the toy. They offered them a few strategies to use, one was to pretend they were Batman (or Dora the Explorer). They found that children who pretended showed more flexible thinking than those who didn’t. They spent more time trying to open the box and were calmer. She said, “We think it’s because pretending puts ‘psychological distance” between a child and the task at hand. Pretending also uses the same brain networks as real behavior, so if a child practices using pretend play, it’s more likely he’ll use those same brain networks in real situations.” So, using make-believe actually builds key executive function skills.
3. Physical activity, such as aerobic exercises or yoga practices, along with organized sports and martial arts all benefit the development of executive function because they require children to hold rules and strategies in mind, adapt to other’s actions, and monitor their own performance and behavior. MoveMindfully’s signature BREATHE-MOVE-REST practices teach children emotional regulation through movement, combining mindfulness and physical activity.
Children, like us, are generally doing the best they can. They are not always developmentally capable of controlling their impulses, emotions, and behaviors, even when they very much want to. This doesn’t make them naughty; it simply means their brains are immature.
By understanding this crucial information about the brain’s development throughout childhood, we can be both understanding of the cognitive limitations and proactive in providing the best environment for nature to do its job.