toddler boy face closeup

It’s completely natural for parents to lose patience with emotionally erratic toddlers. However, according to this ZERO TO THREE National Parent Survey, parental frustration during this phase can stem from significantly overestimating the age at which children master skills of self-control, creating what is called an “expectation gap.

According to the survey:

  • 56 percent of parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3, and 36 percent believe that children under age 2 have this kind of self-control. However, brain research shows that these skills start developing between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently.
  • 43 percent of parents think children can share and take turns with other children before age 2, but the reality is that this skill develops between ages 3 to 4.
  • 24 percent of all parents believe that children are able to control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at 1 year or younger, while 42 percent believe children have this ability by 2 years. Research shows this type of self-control is also just starting to develop between 3.5 and 4 years.

Closing the expectation gap.

At GetzWell, we believe that the key to parenting toddlers is to form realistic expectations around their development, and that begins with understanding the WHY behind the behavior.

As primary care pediatricians, we’ll help you navigate this exciting (and unpredictable!) adventure through toddlerhood with a breakdown of what’s going on developmentally with your kiddo, what behaviors to expect, and tips that have helped our San Francisco families manage life with a toddler.

But first, what are some typical toddler traits/behaviors?

  • Tantrums from an inability to communicate anger, sadness, shame, etc.
  • A tendency to assert independence in many situations while also wanting to be catered to
  • A will to take control of their environment and to test boundaries
  • Possible development of fears and phobias
  • Fickle behavior – your toddler may like something one day and dislike it the next
  • Might confuse reality and make believe
  • A reluctance to share

Why is self-control difficult for toddlers?

Toddlers lack the communication skills and emotional maturity to recognize and manage their feelings. They act out their bodily sensations by screaming, laughing, hitting and crying, among others. One minute they can be happily playing and laughing and the next writhing on the floor in a fit of rage.

Why is this so? A toddler’s ability to control emotions/behavior can be influenced by any number of unpredictable factors at any given moment, such as:

  • Rapid brain growth with neural circuits in flux
  • Sleepiness
  • Hunger (fluctuating blood sugar levels)
  • A subconscious sense of safety—which can depend on their environment and relationships
  • Body states including pain from teething, an incubating virus, or over reactivity to sounds or other sensory input
  • The usual ups and downs of social and emotional growth

See? Toddlers are complex creatures experiencing a range of intense emotions (sometimes called “big feelings”) amid varying bodily states — without the skillset to control any of it.

Remember: toddlers are not little adults. Meet your tots where they are developmentally, not where you think they should be. Here’s how you can do just that…

  1. Guide in place of punish. Try your best not to punish or correct your toddler’s behavior, but instead guide them. If you maintain realistic expectations about your child’s capabilities, you can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways.
  2. Talk them through the emotion. You can help build your toddler’s emotional intelligence by explaining IN SIMPLE TERMS the range of feelings he or she is experiencing. For example, “I see you’re frustrated because your friend wants your toy.” Or, “You were so happy when that that nice lady let you pet her puppy!” In time, your kiddo will be able to express emotions using their words rather than showing you through tantruming. Do your best to stay calm and be gentle through this process, as challenging as it may be.
  3. Use distraction. Toddlers live completely in the present, which is something you can leverage to distract from challenging behavior and use positive reinforcement for good behavior. Example: When your toddler’s emotions start to rise, call their attention elsewhere toward something positive, e.g. “Look at the beautiful clouds in the sky! Let’s count them.”
  4. Set a few simple rules to follow. Be sure you’re comfortable with these rules because you don’t want to undermine your parenting authority by inconsistently reinforcing them. Be consistent, be repetitive, and be patient. You may feel like you’re starting to sound like a broken record but trust yourself and your commitment to consistency ­– it will help your child feel safe and will make a big difference.
  5. Use “no” sparingly. It’s okay to say “no” but do so kindly and sparingly. You want to encourage, not discourage, your toddler’s innate appetite for exploration. And if you use “no” too much, it loses its oomph.
  6. Give your toddler simple choices. To nurture your child’s growing need for independence, give him simple choices to make throughout the day, i.e. does he want to wear the blue or green pajamas, to have broccoli or cauliflower for dinner, to read 1 or 2 books at bedtime, etc.

Let GetzWell guide you.

At GetzWell, we know that parenting a toddler can feel overwhelming and at times frustrating. But please know that you’re not alone! Our primary care pediatricians are here to guide and educate you through every age and stage of your child’s development. To learn more, please call us at our San Francisco offices at (415) 826-1701.