Toddlers get a really bad rap. How would you like it if everyone just chalked your 10 year midlife crisis up to the terrible 40s! Once you look at what is happening with development from one to four years of age, toddlers are actually pretty funny in sort of a sick way. They can’t help it! Sick, because I was usually laughing inside when my children were tantruming, because I knew what was going on and did not take their behavior personally. Children are born uncivilized. Our main job as parents is to civilize them. It takes 18 years, if you are part lucky and part diligent. If you don’t want that responsibility, then you should rethink becoming a parent!
Parent’s get frustrated with their kids the most when they take their children’s behavior personally. Distinguishing developmentally typical behavior that helps children grow, from being “naughty” makes parenting much easier. Knowing a little about development allows parents to take a different perspective about their children’s behavior. If you look at a tantrum as the development of a different type of reasoning, a brain change for the better, you treat your child differently because it is a good sign that your kid is indeed moving in the right direction away from being a lump and toward civilization!
Parents don’t need to know the names or even the time when developmental shifts occur. Anytime behavior changes, for the better or for the worse, the first thing to wonder about is a developmental shift. They happen very rapidly during the toddler years and again during adolescence. Think about it, kids go from pooping themselves to writing their name in a few short years! Likewise, adolescents move from middle school immaturity to leaving home in a similar four year time frame. So, my point is, cut them both some slack. They are not terrible, they are practicing. Practicing what they will need in the next stage of development.
Oh, and by the way, the toddler years become the start of “monkey see monkey do” from now until the rest of their lives. The surest way of having a nice, well adjusted, civilized adult is to be one yourself. It’s an incredible amount of pressure. Don’t be mad at me, I didn’t make up the rule, but more parents need to hear the hardcore truth and follow it. It’s a lot of what is wrong with our world, in my opinion. You are not working to gain a friend at anytime of your child’s first 18 years. You are working for a 25-year-old who tells people what good parents they have!
Bad language, being mean to others, cheating, stealing, substance abuse, loyalty, conflict resolution, remaining calm under pressure, doing the right thing, integrity, charity, and work ethic are just a few of the things children learn overtime by watching their parents not because of some book, movie, discipline practice or lack thereof. I should also add eating habits. I remember my toddler son saying from the back seat, “Mommy, I smell somping” as I was trying to hide the licorice that I was sneaking into my mouth out of the center consul! I’ve never been able to get anything by that kid!
Positive Developmental Changes During the Toddler Years
There are many developmental changes, or tasks, during the toddler years. A few of the most notable are: walking, running, climbing, developing an ever growing vocabulary, grammar, learning how to go pee and poop into a toilet, sleeping and staying in a bed rather than a cage, using eating utensils to feed oneself, writing and coloring, beginning to develop a sense of humor, and entertaining. More abstract areas of development are the development of a sense of self, anxiety, jealousy, longing (they start to miss people, especially those they are attached to). Play changes from what is called parallel play, which is playing alone but alongside a playmate, to social play which is sharing and playing together. I’ll post about several of the tasks of development in separate posts, starting with sleep, in the near future.
All of these changes are positive “side effects,” I guess I’ll call them, of brain changes during the toddler years. It’s how we know if children are developing as we would expect. If you are concerned that your child is not developing any of the tasks listed, talk to your pediatrician. Understand, however, that all children develop at their own rate depending on many factors including: genetics (nature), environment (nurture), temperament, number of siblings, some would argue birth order, and I would argue gender order.
Negative Behavior and Emotions
My kids would suddenly become cranky or “out of sorts” for days or weeks at a time. They often required more sleep and food during those times as well. Children grow when they are sleeping. More than once I went in to get my son when he awoke from a nap, and I could swear he had grown in just a few hours! Again, adolescents go through these same behavior jags.
I have come to see those times when intuitively I felt something just seemed “off” with my kids as the brain reorganizing and the body trying to catch up. It’s not easy for the body to stay caught up during such rapid transformation and it makes kids grouchy, touchy, and hard to deal with. Again, perception is so important during the toddler years. If you think your child is just being “naughty” you will think negatively about them. If you take the approach that your child is probably going through a development spurt, and he/she can’t help it, you look at their behavior differently. It’s much easier to accept that a child has recently grown and has also become clumsy, than it is to realize emotional and behavior changes are happening because of brain changes that you can’t see.
Negative behavior changes can often be attributed to changes in brain development during the toddler years. Most commonly, toddlers start saying “no” to almost everything, a time better known as “the terrible twos.” The idea that if parent’s limit how much they use the word “no” is actually a sound one and goes back to “monkey see monkey do.” That is not to say let them do anything they want, it means that it works better to phrase things differently. It does take a certain amount of creativity, but once you are in the habit of not blurting out “no” every 10 minutes, it’s not so bad.
An example would be walking in and seeing your two-year-old standing on a chair and quickly, but gently, setting them down on the ground while saying, “feet on the floor, please.” My teenagers now have great manners because I always tried to be polite to them! I know it seems very Polyannaish. Notice I said tried. There were many times when I failed, I am not a perfect parent. Parenting is cumulative, and thankfully, my ratio of trying and succeeding is higher than not trying and failing.
Why is a toddler saying “no” to everything a developmental behavior? Because the brain starts changing in a way that makes toddlers notice things and want to explore them. Before, they could only sit and look at them, and often point to things they wanted. Now, they have wheels and children learn best through experience even if it produces negative consequences. They want to do it themselves. Again, another adolescent theme.
Being a toddler is the beginning of the will to be independent. Independence is valued in American culture, often more than in other cultures. Children raised in cultures where conformity and obedience are more important, often more docile. Be happy your child is saying “no” to everything. It means they are developing independence and you are doing a good job as a parent! My definition of toddler is: the development of an aversion to being asked or told what to do or being denied anything.
It’s easier to be understanding and laugh off their behavior when looking at it this way. Otherwise, you think your tantruming child is selfish and just wants their way all the time. I have spoken to many parents who think they are doing something wrong and have “made” their child “this way.” Your children aren’t out to get you! They need to be civilized, remember! It’s so hard, that even now somedays, I want to whine about how hard it is to be a parent. I will guarantee that your children, no matter what age, will never “be the adult” in the situation first. You have to put on your big girl or big boy pants and change your behavior. Only then, will you see different results with your children. Stinks, doesn’t it.
Toddler’s behavior may not be their fault, but it is their responsibility. Toddlers do not know, nor should they know, anything about responsibility. Parenting during the toddler years is so difficult because you’re trying to civilize someone who doesn’t know what being civilized is! It is only through teaching that they will learn how to be civilized and follow through with their responsibility to behave. Contrary to popular belief, the definition of discipline is to teach, not to punish. That is why a good discipline plan should be firmly in place from the beginning. I will post a discipline plan that works as an individual post in the future (so much information, so little time). Research has shown it works, and I have used it my kids entire lives, and it works.
So, basically, from the toddler stage on, the rest of people’s lives are spent trying to control their response to not always being able to get their own way. It’s why one of our standard parenting lines is, “Life’s Not Fair” Toddlers aren’t terrible, their brain is just allowing them to realize that life is not fair for the for the first time, and they don’t like it, either. Just like you and me.