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 “Emotional Development of 2 year olds – Part 2”, 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.