Inside: Toddler and preschool years are chock-full of social and emotional development. Knowing our child’s brain is ‘under construction’ allows us to put frustrating behaviors into context and to respond effectively.
Last week, my 3-year-old and I ran into a close family friend at the grocery store. It was a dear friend who I don’t run into often so I greeted her enthusiastically with a hug and warm “HI!!!”
I knew exactly what would happen next.
Being the warm and kind person that she is, she turned to my 3-year-old son (currently power slamming a granola bar) and offered him an enthusiastic “hey there buddy!”.
Just as predicted, he unabashedly flashed the ‘death scowl’ at her, complete with bared teeth and a growl for good measure.
Ah, good times.
The wiggly path of child development
I knew my friends greeting would elicit the reaction of a rabies-infested raccoon because it had been one of those days. One of the days where our laid back, soft spoken and sweet as can be 3-year-old wakes up on the wrong side of his bed (brain) and is impulsive, grumpy and extra emotional all the live long day.
The science of child development tells us that there is a lot of cognitive growth occurring during the toddler/preschool years, much of which is occurring in the frontal lobe where the tasks related to reasoning and logic are housed.
This prolific brain growth has been especially apparent in our even-keeled little boy, as the differences in his personality on these days of ‘brain construction’ are like day and night.
In that moment at the grocery store, I knew his reasoning brain (pre-frontal cortex) was off limits, forcing him to operate out of his emotional brain and hijacking his sweet little personality.
As adults who can form a proper understanding of what’s happening during these formative years, it is up to us to put childhood behavior in its proper context. While our toddler and pre-school aged children aren’t cognitively able to verbalize their experience, if they could, I think they would want us to remember these five important ideas about this challenging period of development.
5 Things your toddler or preschooler wants you to know
1.Please don’t take my behavior personally. This is a period of enormous brain growth for me and my frontal lobe is under serious construction. I know living with me feels like an emotional rollercoaster at times, but you may be surprised to know that it’s not easy for me to ride this neurological roller coaster either.
When I’ve taken a left turn down cray avenue, I’m counting on you to gently guide me back toward logic lane. When I see you stay calm and rational not only does it help to calm me, but it also gives me a model of what regulating my emotions looks like. Please don’t personalize my big emotions and reactions and consider the needs behind them. I am always doing the best that I can.
2. Don’t flip out over my regressions. I know I’ve been acting like your clingy boyfriend from sophomore year of high school as of late, but there’s been some cognitive shifting going on in my brain and all of a sudden I am very aware of the fact that you and I are separate individuals. I know it sounds strange, but before it was almost as if I was an extension of you, so I took little things like going to Grandma’s for granted.
Now I wonder if while I’m playing with my Mega Blocks you may decide to binge-watch Netflix and leave me there forever, so I panic (I also panic when I’m sleeping and wake up to make sure you’re still there). Please trust in me and my wobbly development (development doesn’t happen in a straight line) and know that most of my challenging habits won’t hang around forever if you don’t give them a lot of negative energy.
3. I will push you away and act like I know everything. Please don’t take my newfound independence to mean I no longer desperately need your connection, affection, and guidance in the form of limits and boundaries. I’m having a flood of my own thoughts and ideas and feel compelled to put them out into the world with strong conviction. If you can let me have my moments to feel significant, and re-direct me when health or safety is at hand, we can both feel good about what we’re putting out into the world.
4. Don’t act surprised when I Hulk-out on you. My emotions come fast and big these days, and if my thinking brain (pre-frontal cortex) is offline due to developmental growth, my emotion brain acts as the dictator of my body leading me to get physical.
I feel sad and embarrassed after I lose control and behave negatively, but I don’t have the cognitive ability to stop and think before I act yet. Please model good coping skills for me and don’t accept my invitation to ‘freak out party of one’ (which will only serve to set off the dictator even more). Teaching me other safe ways to let my feelings out (after I’ve calmed down) will be your best bet.
5. Enjoy the amazing person and mystery that I am. Please see the true me throughout and between my tricky and frustrating behaviors. Right before I threw my train track because you said it was naptime, I engaged in imaginary play for 15 minutes while you picked up (there are some benefits to this brain growth)!
It’s easy to let the challenging stuff get you down, but don’t forget to look for the good stuff every day and take it all in! My budding personality and sense of humor will make appearances often during these years and I wouldn’t want you to miss these things which are truly awesome to watch unfold. I am a person just like you and want to feel appreciated and respected.
Rise above the behavior
As the science of child development makes it’s way around the headlines, people are slowly becoming more aware that a child’s behaviors have a purpose or need behind them, and that purpose is not to be rude, inconvenient or even utterly mortifying.
My parenting ego let out a sigh of relief when my friend reassured me at our departure “Don’t worry, I won’t take it personally”. Even when you know your child’s working hard to grow, growing pains can hurt (and be super embarrassing).
Terrible two’s and three-nager three’s can be better understood as ‘caution, brain under construction’ years. When we know how hard our little people are working to grow we can adequately support them, protect our own sanity and the best of all, fully enjoy this remarkable time in our child’s life, bared teeth and all.
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