Those “terrible two’s” got their name from the emotional extremes of being two. Of course it all starts at 18 months when your child first says “no” and “mine”. And, if the two’s are mild and easy-going, then the three’s come in with even more intensity. There’s just no avoiding the emotional storms of toddlers and preschoolers feeling big feelings and learning how to manage the wilder parts of their developing brains.
Daniel Siegel, in his book The Whole-Brain Child, calls this emotional brain the “downstairs brain.” It’s the limbic, primitive brain that manages the basic functions of the body like breathing and blinking but it’s also the instinctive reactionary brain that shouts out the warning signals to fight or flee based on strong emotions like anger and fear. Toddlers begin their journey towards independence with all the demandingness of me-mine-now. It’s the developmental journey from toddlers to teens to create a sense of self while learning empathy, thoughtfulness, compromise and problem solving. To paraphrase Bette Davis, “fasten your seat belts – it’s going to be a bumpy ride.” Parents are here to keep this roller coaster on the tracks.
Safe Places First
Emotions hijack kids all the time – throw them off course and push them out of their minds. But before “upstairs brain” can begin to do its work, children must get back to their calm, safe place. First, children must quiet the fight or flight impulse. Just as parents can’t stop a child’s tantrum on-demand, children can’t “think” while in an emotional storm, especially young children who are just learning to use cognitive resources to understand and relate to the world. Remember, the “upstairs brain” (of logical thinking, delayed gratification and morality) is “under construction” until the mid-20’s!
Parents help children regain their safe, calm center in a variety of ways:
- Accept that all emotions are safe. Anger, frustration, impatience, confusion, fear, jealousy and all the other big emotions are disorienting and unsettling. Yet, they cannot be dismissed, avoided, ignored or shushed away. When parents allow children to feel their feelings, children learn that feelings are normal. When parents freak out or try to overprotect their children, children come to believe that there’s something wrong with what they are feeling.
- Stay connected. Children can easily get lost or stuck in big emotions. Stay connected by staying present. Relax expectations to move forward quickly. Wait for the emotional storm to pass. Show your child you are available if he needs you. You might even say, “I’m here when you need me.” If it helps, be ready with hugs until your child is able to talk or move on.
- Give your child calming strategy (before or after the emotional explosion or meltdown). For example: deep breaths, belly breathing, blowing out imaginary bubbles, breathing in colors or other calming imagery.
- Stay outside the emotional soup. You are a peaceful place waiting for your child’s return, waiting for the “upstairs brain” to kick back on. Max, the character in Where the Wild Things Are, needed to know his dinner was still hot and waiting for him after he takes a voyage to the wild things. Children must know that your unconditional love is not shaken by gnashing terrible teeth or showing terrible claws.
As children gain more practice using their “upstairs brain”, they become masters of their own emotions. They learn to think and feel, honoring both within themselves. Toddlers and preschoolers, however, build this prefrontal cortex part of the brain in very different ways than older children. The rational brain is still under construction which is why young children can hold contradictory beliefs, still believe in magic and wishful thinking, and sometimes have their own crazy backwards logic.
Parents encourage young children to use their “upstairs brain” in a variety of ways:
- With age-appropriate rules and routines that create structure and predictability
- With songs and stories that facilitate cognitive imagery, patterns and connections to higher order concepts (e.g. feelings, colors, literacy, numeracy, role playing)
- Through pretend play which requires full use of symbolic thinking as well as flexible thinking experimenting with alternative outcomes and perspective taking.
- Through games which requires following directions, delayed gratification, strategic planning, skillfully handling age-appropriate disappointment and frustration.
Children learn executive function and self management in everyday life and through play. And yet, all higher order learning is based on a primitive brain that needs to feel safe and loved. It’s our job to love them through the extremes so they can grow and thrive!