What if instead of asking, “What’s wrong with my child?” We asked, “What’s going on with my child?”
Toddlers are one of the most authentic creatures on the planet, and also, arguably, the most misunderstood.
On the surface, we see meltdowns, defiance, and limit testing. We wonder why they are clingy, manipulative, and unmotivated.
But there’s so much more than what meets the eye. This period of life is the most rapid period for brain development with about 700 new neural connections being produced each second. It’s this biology that greatly explains their big emotions and challenging behaviors.
Your Child and Brain Development
It is interesting when you look at other animal species. In comparison, humans are born halfway through gestation, which means, we give birth to babies with immature brains. The human brain is only 25% of its adult size so it has a lot of growing to do.
Children have two neurological growth spurts called critical periods. The first occurs around age two and ends around age seven. The other critical period happens in adolescence.
We think babies come into this world as a blank slate, and in some ways that may be true, but through the lens of neurology, it’s clear that they are much more complex than that!
During these critical periods, the number of connections between brain cells, called neurons, doubles. Two-year-olds have twice as many synapses as adults. By age three, your child has over one thousand trillion synapses!
These synapses are where learning occurs, which means our toddlers are able to learn faster than at any other stage in life.
By the time children reach adolescence, the number of neural synapses decreases from one thousand trillion to five hundred trillion in a process called neural pruning.
Why do we prune? Once the brain forms a synapse, it can be strengthened or weakened depending on how often the synapse is used. It is kind of like survival of the fittest. The synapses that are active are strengthened and those that are less active are discarded so that our brain can remain efficient as we age.
Epigenetics says that while our genetics provides a blueprint for development, it’s actually our environment that greatly influences the build - aka the wiring - of the brain. Each time a pathway is repeated, it is reinforced. In this way, experience over genetics directly influences whether a synapse is active or inactive.
This is one of the reasons Mother Nature gifted us with parents - to provide safety and attachment for their young to keep the cycle of life cycling!
Parents and caregivers strongly influence the agriculture of a child’s developing brain through the environment and experiences they create, and this lays the foundation for all other relationships, emotional regulation, and brain functioning.
Your Child And Attachment
From the moment children are born, they begin to answer one fundamental question, “Am I safe?”
The answer to the question comes from everyday experiences.
Am I comforted when I cry?
Am I fed when I am hungry?
Does my caregiver show me warmth, love, and nurturing?
Are my needs being met?
If the answer to these questions is “no” then the child’s brain adapts to their environment. Their brainstem grows larger and they become more reactive to stress, which results in an uptick in protective responses such as fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Because their environment communicates that they are unsafe, and they have a mission to survive, they will go into high alert, constantly detecting threats and reacting to them.
If the answer to these questions is “yes” then the child’s brain becomes biologically wired to expect this close attachment. Children who feel safe can learn, and imaging shows that children with secure attachments have more energy to grow their prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain for executive functions such as impulse control, problem-solving, and emotional regulation. Studies have shown that children with secure attachments are more likely to venture out into independent tasks, knowing they have a safe harbor - aka you - to return to.
Your Child And Meltdowns
As parents, we tend to see meltdowns as the enemy. We feel we need to shut ‘em down, but in doing so, we are actually hindering another one of Mother Nature’s divine designs. Meltdowns are how children diffuse their stress and overwhelm.
Let me explain:
Children are born with their brainstem fully functioning. That’s that lower part of the brain that is all about getting needs met. If it seems like your child is very self-centric it is because they are, another survival tool.
Add to that, children and teens process information with their amygdala, which is the emotional part. This is because their prefrontal cortex - the logical part - is underdeveloped (and won’t be fully mature until about 25), so it is still very primitive and under heavy construction.
When you think about it, toddlers have toddler brains, young and busy (making neural connections!) and teens have brains that are teens, moody and immature. This is biology, not their preference.
We can’t keep asking our toddlers and teens to be adults, because they don’t have the mature brain structures (yet) to support those skills.
This means that toddlers cannot possibly be manipulating you when they cry because manipulation requires the ability to form strategies and plan - functions of the prefrontal cortex.
This means that teens who bark back or hide out in their room are working really hard to understand their world, feeling more like an adult yet having a brain that feels more than it actually thinks.
Meltdowns And Punishment
So, if their meltdowns aren’t bad, and are actually a sign of a developing brain, then why are we so hot and bothered by them?
Here’s the thing, our kids’ emotions and behaviors trigger parts of us that have been shut down since our own youth, and we begin to hear small whispers (or giant yells) that tell us we aren’t enough, and we better fix our children so that they don’t do that undesirable thing that they do anymore. This is a way our subconscious eases our own discomfort and reinforces our programmed narratives.
When we feel like we’ve lost control of our children, we set ourselves up for frustration, because,
1. We don’t control our children, and when we try, it only leads to lifelong power struggles.
2. We fail to see the goodness that lives inside of our children, and when we convince ourselves that our children are whatever label we have slapped on, our brain begins to look for confirming evidence, which means we bind them into the exact roles we dread.
When parenting becomes a dominance hierarchy, we move away from relationship. Parenting becomes something we do to our children rather than something we have with them. When we begin to leverage our power to prove our rightness or to teach a lesson or regain our reign, we have to keep upping the ante of control in order to maintain the illusion that we have it in the first place. It becomes a connection suck.
Beyond that, punitive measures leave you and your child on opposite ends of the tug of war rope - opponents rather than teammates. And (and!) leaving a child alone in isolation or emotionally or physically shutting them down has been shown to impede brain development.
Spanking, shame, blame, and isolation-based tactics are void of teaching the skills of the prefrontal cortex. What it does teach is some very alarming messages about self-love and self-worth. It also leads to self-abandonment - the process in which our children give up parts of themselves that we deem “too big,” “too much,” or “not enough” in order to meet our expectations, preferences, and demands.
Bottom line: We can’t punish a brain into developing more quickly, but we can guide it to developing optimally.
Meltdowns And Discipline
It is important to remember that while parenting a toddler or teen can feel tricky, our children are whole beings, not just their edges.
This is why I dig discipline over punishment. Punishment says that when our children do bad, they are bad. It defines them. But anyone who has ever looked at a baby knows that there is nothing bad there. Our toddlers and teens are just as much a marvel today as they were the first day we ever held them. And based on what we have learned about brain science, it isn’t that they are doing bad, but that they are feeling bad and really haven’t mastered the ability to manage those feelings … or communicate their wants and needs … or control impulses … or think ahead to consequences.
Discipline guides brain development through connection, shaping many of the above-mentioned skills. The root of discipline is disciple, which means “to teach,” which can be done through these practices:
- Understanding your triggers through a trigger worksheet
- Modeling self-regulation by noticing and managing your emotions before interacting with your child
- Sharing your feelings using “I feel” statements
- Validating your child’s emotions before redirecting their behaviors
- Setting and holding to non-negotiable boundaries while remaining flexible with negotiable limits
- Looking for win-win solutions
Creating daily feeling check-ins in your family’s Calming Corner is another great way to help strengthen those frontal lobe circuits. Studies have shown that putting words to your emotions activates the firing of the cortex and soothes the amygdala. This is huge in paving the way for emotional regulation which directly affects a child’s ability to manage their behavior.
When we understand child psychology and brain development, our children are no longer “terrible twos” and “threenagers” and moody teens. Without those labels in the way, we make room for who our children really are, and they become safe to make mistakes, learn, and grow.