We say, “Don’t do that,” and they do it anyway. We say, “Stop” and they continue. We say, “Pick that up” and they do so just to throw it back down again.
It looks a lot like defiance, so parents often feel like this is the time to start punishing their toddler’s behavior. However, what’s really going on is more about development than defiance, and once we understand a toddler’s brain, we can approach these situations in a way that both helps our children behave better and honors where they are developmentally.
The prefrontal cortex of a toddler is very underdeveloped. This is the area of the brain responsible for critical thinking, problem-solving, impulse control, understanding cause and effect, etc. Toddler brains are curious. They are driven to learn by exploring everything! So, our attempts to get them to stop making messes or jumping on the bed are often futile because we are going against their very wiring. To parents, it looks like we are being ignored, but even if the child wants to “be good” and stop jumping, his brain is still going to be wired to jump and his impulse control center hasn’t developed yet.
While it may feel like our toddlers are testing our authority and trying our patience, it’s not so. Simply put, her lower and middle brain (basic survival instincts and emotion) is in charge right now, and it doesn’t make sense to punish her for being immature. Of course she’s immature! She hasn’t been here very long, after all.
Instead of punishment, set limits on behavior while honoring her curiosity and developmental stage. For example, if she’s jumping on the bed or climbing on the back of the couch, remove her from those places but give her a safe place to explore jumping. Take her to a trampoline or put the mattress on the floor. Visit the park and let her climb in the toddler area. So, rather than “you’re in trouble for jumping,” it becomes “jumping there isn’t safe; jump here.” You’ve set a limit that will keep her safe while acknowledging her need to jump and climb.
If your toddler is throwing food or tossing his plate onto the floor, you can take the food away and offer something he can safely throw, like a soft ball. You can say, “You can’t throw food, but you can throw this ball! Watch it bounce!” This gives him an acceptable alternative and is a win-win for you both.
Is your toddler heading for the wall with crayons? Tape a giant sheet of drawing paper to the wall. Is she pouring water out of the tub? Head outside with a plastic bin of water and some cups for pouring. Is she refusing to pick up toys? Make it a fun game. In time her upper brain will develop and she’ll learn more self-control. Until then, reduce power struggles and make home happier for both of you by setting the necessary limits while honoring her needs.