About the Author
A thought-leader in the area of guiding parents and children through the tumultuous early years when the foundation for self-esteem, identity, and self-confidence is laid, Tovah P. Klein, PhD, is a child development psychologist and researcher and the Director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in Manhattan. She has appeared on CNN, ABC, CBS, NBC, CNBC, and FOX Business, in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Parents, Slate.com, Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and countless other publications as their go-to toddler expert. In addition, Dr. Klein was a developmental advisor for Sesame Street, and is on the advisory boards for Room to Grow, Rwanda Educational Assistance Project, Per Dev, Ubuntu Education Fund, and LearnNow.org. She consults nationally and internationally to programs for young children and parents. She is the mother of three boys and lives with her family in New York City. Visit her at HowToddlersThrive.com.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
How Toddlers Thrive chapter one
Setting Up Toddlers to Thrive
Self-Regulation and the Key to True Success
Why do toddlers drive parents crazy?
Maya, having just turned three, reported to her mom that she was a big girl now. She was fully toilet trained and recently moved out of the crib into her “big girl bed.” The Monday after her birthday party, Maya woke up with exuberance and announced, “I can get dressed all by myself!” Unlike past mornings when she battled to get dressed or simply to pick out clothes, today she was ready to be on her own. “Go away, mommy, and I’ll surprise you.” Maya picked out her full outfit and got dressed—shirt, pants, socks, and even hair clips. She proudly announced this success to her family and sat down to eat breakfast, without the usual morning battle.
Her mother was thrilled and sure they had gotten past the worst of her toddler behavior. Maya chatted away, and then put some toys in her backpack, ready to head off to her toddler preschool. But it wasn’t time to leave yet. Her mother suggested they read a book. Maya happily picked out a book and plopped down on her mom’s lap to read. It was a calm and affectionate moment. While reading the book, they turned the page to a drawing of the book character eating pink ice cream. The mother read the words to accompany it.
As happy as ever, Maya jumped up. “I want ice cream, too!” she announced and marched toward the kitchen. Her mother kindly explained that they didn’t eat ice cream in the morning, and besides, they did not have any. In mere seconds, Maya crumpled to the floor, insistent on the ice cream, now screaming and yelling, devastated that there was no pink ice cream for her.
Her mother again explained that they did not have it, but she would buy chocolate ice cream (Maya’s favorite) at the store while Maya was at school.
“Nooooooo!” screamed Maya. “I need pink ice cream. Pink ice cream now!” Her mother felt helpless and frustrated as she struggled to get Maya, still flailing on the floor, in her coat and out the door for school.
What just happened? her mother wondered. Just five minutes before we were in this lovely moment, she had dressed herself, and now she is back to that irrational, demanding baby again.
· The Toddler Paradox: What’s Going on Inside ·
Toddlers: They love us, they hate us.
They seem carefree and secure one minute, playing with confidence, and afraid of their own shadows the next, fiercely clinging to our leg.
They act and speak rationally one moment and irrationally the next, screaming because we cut their bread the “wrong way.”
They want to stay glued to our sides, seemingly helpless and completely dependent one day, and then push us away in fierce independence the next, yelling, “I can do it myself!”
They act like big kids one moment, feeding and dressing themselves, being polite—and then are helpless babies the next, unable to do anything for themselves.
They are laughing and full of joy one moment, and whining and in a full meltdown the next because of a simple “No.”
You get the picture. Toddler behavior is often paradoxical: they seem to swing between extremes for no apparent reason—or at least, this is the way it looks to us adults. The behavior of toddlers is often mystifying, confusing, and downright challenging. Why do their moods and their actions seem so erratic and hard to predict? How can we love them with all our hearts, but feel so powerless in the face of their crazy-making behavior? The answer to these questions is found when we peek inside their brains and understand what makes toddlers tick.
· · ·
Tanya was a quiet and observant two-year-old. She took her time before deciding which activity to do each day at our center and avoided being near children who were playing in a physical manner. I worked with her parents to help her feel more comfortable with her physical abilities and not be so afraid of physical play. By the end of the year, she was becoming more comfortable.
Her parents returned to see me when she was three and a half. They were confused. They described Tanya as being “a kind and sweet little girl,” but now she was also “rude,” they said. They didn’t understand why. They reported that she had become more confident and outgoing at school and easily made friends. She tried more things on her own. She was less afraid of making mistakes. They were proud of these attributes. Then they described some recent incidents.
The mother explained, “When we get into the elevator at our apartment, Tanya is sometimes approached by a woman who asks her what her name is. Instead of answering, Tanya hides behind my leg and very loudly yells, ‘I don’t like you. Be quiet!’ Now if we get in the elevator and she sees this woman, she does not wait for her to say anything. She just screams at her, ‘I don’t like you!’ I am so embarrassed.”
Sound like a rude behavior? From an adult point of view it is, but Tanya does not mean to be rude. More than likely, Tanya behaved the way she did because she felt like a small person in a crowded elevator. Maybe she is frightened by the woman she hardly knows, or unsure of herself, or put on the spot. All could explain her desire to not interact and instead close down the situation.
· · ·
What I’ve observed again and again in these paradoxes is that our children often trigger well-meaning parents to try to control or fix their kids’ “bad” behavior, without seeing the underlying need behind the behavior. I understand why this happens. A child’s actual need can be hard to decipher. Toddlers often do not communicate in straightforward ways.
What children are expressing through this chaotic, turbulent way of acting is actually fairly transparent: sometimes they feel in control of the big world they have just become a part of and are eager to explore and get to know, and sometimes they are completely overwhelmed by this same world, which can lead to feelings of anger, worry, fear, or a need for comfort. Sometimes they are able to brush their teeth and get into bed like mom or dad has requested; other times, this request to leave their toys or the family room where mom and dad have just been sitting around the television feels like being excommunicated from the family. Go to bed and be left all alone in that dark, scary bedroom without you? Are you kidding me?
Children are not mini adults. They don’t think like we do. They don’t see the world like we see it. Toddlers are not thinking ahead of themselves. They cannot. They are beings tied amazingly to the present tense, thinking only about themselves and wanting to feel safe, loved, taken care of, and yet independent all at once.
And this is true even when toddlers seem to be acting in ways that feel adult-like: When they talk back rudely. When they walk away callously or suddenly have very specific opinions about food they will eat or clothes they will wear. Again, this behavior may confuse parents. They try to meet the child’s “expressed” need or demand, but what is expressed may not really be what the child needs deeper down. And that’s what we are going to do: learn to decipher toddler behavior so that you can help your child learn to manage the world on his or her own—and not through controlling their behavior but by guiding them.
Many parents who come to see me start the conversation with some variation of this question: “What happened to my darling little baby?”
So what is going on during the transition from being a baby to being a toddler?
As children transition from infancy to toddlerhood, they are now moving around on their own, they are talking and talking back, they suddenly have opinions, and they can refuse food, naps, and baths. They have their own desires, and when they want something, they want it now! Our wonderful, lovely, dependent babies vanish overnight and in their place are sometimes whiny, demanding, still-adorable imposters. Who are these little rascals who are still so cute and yet so monstrous? Who need us but don’t want us? Who seem driven not by distraction but by an unstoppable inner desire to explore the world and all that is around them with their eyes, feet, hands, noses, ears, and yes, even their tongues?
When they don’t behave, or they act out, or they seem to ignore our directions, we resort to certain tactics: We want them to follow our rules, be good, and behave. We cajole, beg, and bribe them with rewards. We pray and hope that by example they will model themselves after us and our good behavior. Sometimes we resort to threatening them. Or yelling at them. If we’re lucky, when our toddler is really working our last nerve we can pass a child off to a babysitter or to a teacher or to a spouse and just walk away. Then, of course, our willful, strong-natured toddlers who just a minute ago didn’t seem to care for us at all are suddenly blue in the face with anger and frustration. They want us! They need us! Come baaaack!
These scenarios probably seem familiar. Parenting a toddler sometimes feels like a battle that can’t be won. Most of us have felt totally helpless in the face of our toddler at one time or another. Or maybe even many times. But it doesn’t have to be like this. It may be hard to believe, but life with our toddlers can actually be calm, fun, and enjoyable. The problem is that helping our children become happy and well-adjusted in their lives does not happen because we wish it so. Nor does it happen if we try to mold them or force them into being that person we desire them to be. There is no magic trick to force kids into becoming happy, successful adults. But when we learn to accept the good and bad of what our kids express—and start to understand why the furious development, emerging sense of self, and growth in their brains are actually what’s driving these dramatic swings in behavior—it all starts to make a lot more sense. You’ll be able to move away from immediate judgments of the actual behavior, and instead finally be able to understand what your child is really trying to tell you. And when you know what they are communicating, the response becomes much more clear.
· How the Toddler Brain Grows: Interactive, Dynamic, and Variable ·
As frustrating as this changeability of the toddler may be, these instances actually give us a great opportunity to get inside our kids and figure out what they are thinking and feeling and how their brain is growing at this age. We can learn to use these seemingly contradictory behaviors to understand how our children see and experience the world—and when we see the world from their vantage point, we understand who they are and what they need, putting us in a much better, calmer, and more effective position to guide them.
Indeed, how we interact with our toddlers now plays an enormous role in how they develop later. Set a strong foundation during the toddler years, and ongoing development has a firm base. Weaken that foundation during these crucial years, and the consequences are seen for years to come.
During these years, your child is emerging as her own person, separate from you. This is an emotionally challenging process that makes the toddler years fragile, challenging, and exciting all at once, with tremendous leaps in learning and growth. But as we’ve been seeing, toddler behavior reflects this explosive period of growth and change. Indeed, underneath the behavior is the toddler brain—which is both malleable and vulnerable, dynamic and responsive to outside factors.
The toddler brain is not fixed by some hardwired genetic code that solely determines who children are or how they behave. All aspects of children’s development—physical, emotional, social, and cognitive—are a result of the dynamic interplay between the child’s biology and inherited tendencies (which include temperament) and their individual experiences (including interactions with their parents, teachers, and siblings, as well as their nutrition, opportunities for stimulation, and protection from stress). Just as it’s hard to predict who will grow up to be our next president, Nobel Prize winner, or Olympic athlete, it’s also hard to predict when our children will grow into their best selves. But there is one certainty: The toddler brain cannot grow or develop in the best way possible if a child is under constant stress, if he or she doesn’t feel safe and secure, and if she or he is not given the kind of freedom coupled with support and limits to begin the long process of separation and individuation. Security, comfort, freedom, and limits are essential ingredients for healthy development—of the brain and the person.
Of course, every parent wants their child to grow and develop optimally, which is why psychologists and educators have been peering into the minds of young children, observing their behaviors, and analyzing their similarities and differences for centuries. Based on these scientific studies and observations, theorists have tried to define how most children grow and develop over time—as if there was some average or generalization that could be made. This line of thinking might remind you of the old debates over nature and nurture, and which is more important for development. What I can tell you is that many decades and thousands of studies demonstrate that it is a combination of the two that makes a person who they are. In fact, recent studies of the brain confirm that it’s not nature versus nurture; it’s nature and nurture. Some of what a child does is inborn, including temperament. This refers to how strongly a child reacts emotionally, how sensitive they are to noise or other distractions, how active they tend to be, how focused they can be, and how they approach new people or things. I refer to these inborn qualities as the child’s style or approach in the world. But this is only one piece of the child; by no means does inborn mean destiny. Instead, those inborn qualities or tendencies are then molded and shaped by their interaction with their life experiences.
Nor does every child develop in the same way at the same time. As developmental psychologists have known for a long time, and neuroscientists are now starting to corroborate through brain research, children’s development happens in response to many different factors. If it were simply about genetic makeup and hardwiring, development across children and even within one child would be remarkably consistent. And yet, no two children in a family are the same, as my own boys attest. Each child has unique needs, which in turn require different kinds of responses from us. What they all have in common is a parent who responds to their particular needs, provides ongoing guidance and comforts, and shares in the child’s joys.
In other words, trying to label milestones or skills as “normal” or “typical” is so broad that it becomes useless. Take walking, for example. Pediatricians consider it within normal age range for a baby to begin walking anywhere from nine to sixteen months. That is a wide span for a basic skill. Similarly, “normal” within one child is also variable. A baby who is an early talker, speaking multiple words at ten months and sentences not long after, may not crawl until twelve months, and walk at seventeen months. Variation is the rule, not the exception.
For toddlers, indisputably the most important context for the shaping and molding within the brain is the relationship with the parents or the main caregivers raising them. Brain studies show the lasting effects of positive or negative parental care during infancy affect the offspring into a...
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