Emotional Development of 2 year olds - Part 1

Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old

Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old

Toddler emotional development is a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Since I spent most of my time working in early intervention programs with children, I had to work with a lot of 2 year olds. And despite the popular label of this age group as the “terrible 2s”, I never thought of any of my clients as terrible. In fact, I’ve found 2 to be a fascinating age where children are truly becoming aware of themselves, their wants and needs, and their ability to influence people and situations.

And we’re about to embark on our 2s journey again. My youngest son is only 2 months away from his second birthday. And I’m elated, not fearful.

Even though he’s not quite 2 yet, he’s mastered the word “No”. And thanks to his older brother, he skillfully and frequently uses phrases “I don’t want it” and “I don’t like it” to express his strong feelings to us. There are also lots of tears of disappointment as miscommunications occur on the daily. But there is also so much joy and laughter, as he explores the world around him and makes connections with family and friends. He is a happy and strong boy who is discovering that he is an individual and wants to be treated as such.

Why are 2s such a feared time in toddler emotional development?

So what’s so “terrible” about 2s? Well, for starters, your child is fully mobile and quite agile. They are starting to speak and their favorite word is “No”. They may also have a mean left hook, incredible aim, and pretty sharp teeth. On top of that, they have no concept of shame yet. So falling down on the floor in a crowded grocery store is perfectly fine by them, as long as they get their way. In our adult eyes, that makes them pretty “terrible”.

They are unreasonable, uninhibited, and completely ruled by emotion. It’s kind of scary for adults because we have taken many years to get those parts of us under control. And here are those parts running around and reminding us of everything we’ve subdued over the years. So it’s just easier to label them as “terrible” for our own peace of mind.

But what if I told you that what your child is going through is completely normal and absolutely necessary to become a full fledged human? Would you believe me? Would you believe that without them exercising their independence, expressing their raw emotion and then going through consequences is the only way for them to learn and form connections in their brain? I have a feeling you would. I just need to give you a little background on how our human brain develops as we grow up.

The Brain’s Role in Toddler Emotional Development

The human brain starts forming connections only a few weeks after conception, and hits its peak in the toddler years (around 2-3). Those connections are called synapses. Synapses play a huge role in our ability to learn, form memories, and adapt to the world around us. Because we can’t have unlimited amounts of synapses, ones not in use, get pruned. On the other hand, synapses that are used often are strengthened. If you want to learn in more detail about synapses, look at this article

Our genes and environments play a vital role in synapse development. For example, you might not have too many synapses for how to hunt in the woods, if hunting is not part of your reality. But if your reality revolves around a lot of technology use, you will have many strong synapses that correspond to that. So, keep synapses in mind when you are trying to teach your child the correct and proper way to do something. Repetition allows the synapse to strengthen, thus eventually leading to the performance of the desired behavior.

Which Parts of the Brain are Responsible for Emotional Regulation

Now that we have an idea of how our brain makes connections, let’s talk about which parts of the brain are responsible for emotions and their regulation.

Our brain is the most complex in the animal kingdom. That’s part of the reason why we are so helpless for so long. If we let our brains fully mature in-utero, it would take close to 18 months gestation, and no human female would be able to deliver a baby with such a large head circumference.

Our brain is split into 4 parts (or lobes): frontal lobe, parietal lobe, temporal lobe, and occipital lobe. Each one of the lobes serves a different function.

The lobe that is responsible for emotional regulation is the frontal lobe. And the lobe that is responsible for our emotions is the temporal lobe.

Our temporal lobe has 3 very important parts located in it: the amygdala, hypothalamus, and the hippocampus.

The amygdala is a group of cells that processes the emotional impact of everything happening to us. If it perceives a threat, it sends a message to the hypothalamus.

The hypothalamus in turn sends us into a fight or flight mode.

The hippocampus’ job is to organize memories for the amygdala to interpret the event.

These 3 brain structures are responsible for our emotions. But since they are reactionary, they need help from the frontal lobe to control their responses. Our brains are not only complex but need to function as a team for us to function properly.

So why is it that our 2 year olds have such a problem controlling themselves? It is because they are born with many connections in their temporal lobe but very few in the frontal lobe. The connections in our frontal lobe don’t fully form till our mid 20s. So you can imagine that a 2 year old is just not capable of such control. I want you to keep that in mind when you are dealing with your “terrible” tantrumy toddler.

In Positive Discipline for 2 Year Olds Based on Brain Science, I will discuss more about the toddler’s emotions and how you (the parent) can deal with them in an empathetic and loving way.

Quote of the Day

“Tears come from the heart and not from the brain” – Leonardo da Vinci

Mental Health Tip of the Day

Understanding that your child has limitations based on their brain development is the most important step in being able to parent with empathy. When you’re asking your child to do something that is not developmentally appropriate for them and they fail at that task, don’t get angry. Just change the request into something that better corresponds to their developmental abilities.

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36 thoughts on “Toddler Emotional Development – The Brain of a 2 Year Old”

  1. This is a great reminder that tantrums are a developmental part of life. With my older kids I am constantly reminding myself that the age of cognitive reasoning is 7. Thank you for some an informative and very important post!

  2. I love your outlook on it not being the “terrible twos” and this helps to explain a lot on what’s happening with their brains. My little guy turns 2 in April so we’ll be there soon!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Sara. Yes, there is nothing terrible about 2s, even if it gets hard at times. It’s all normal and we need to remember that.

  3. I needed this! We have two little ones ages 3 and 1. So this will come in handy for our 1 year old about to be 2 soon. Thank you!

  4. Pinned this!! I wish everyone understood the science behind this. I get so irritated with family members who think my 2 year old should be behaving this way or that way…except he’s 2! And he’s wonderful. It’s all part of the learning process. Thanks for putting this in such an understandable way!

    1. Thank you for your comment, Beth. Yes, I have family members that do the same. I think they all simply forget what kids are like at 2 and have unrealistic expectations.

  5. This is such a well written and in depth article on toddlers development! Excellent job. I remember worrying so much with my first, but it gradually dissipated with each child as I could see how the oldest grew out of phases that concerned me.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Cyndi. Yes, I found 2s to be pretty easy. 3s on the other hand are getting the better of us.

  6. Thank you for perfectly communicating what I’ve been trying to share with my family. My son is now 3 and I have concluded way more tempestuous than the notorious twos. I’d go back to that version of my son in a heartbeat. It was also intriguing to get a refresher on the scientific explanation of what is going on in my tiny human’s body. I look forward to the next installment in the series.

    1. Thank you, Kimberlie. I’m in the same boat. My son is 3 and OMG!! 2s are so much better. I am working on the installment of the 3 year old. Because there is a lot going on at that age.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Val. Yes, I can’t agree more. 3s are so much harder. But I know that the “terrible 2s” message is super persistent and wanted to address that.

  7. OMG! This is so true. I am currently losing my brains since my little boy’s favorite word is NO. I am just glad to read your post and learn that I am not alone. Thank you so much for sharing this and I feel better to hear the assurance that it is normal.

    1. Thank you for sharing, Clarice. Yes, a lot of these “misbehaviors” are not only normal, they are crucial to kids’ development. But it’s not helpful when people around you tell you that they shouldn’t behave this way and it’s somehow a reflection of your poor parenting. It’s not and you are not alone.

  8. Great post! I remember the ‘terrible two’s’ vividly! But I have to say, that was my favorite stage – when they’re exploring and learning to communicate. I can do without the left hooks though, lol!

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