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‘Tantrums are Bad’, ‘Sharing is Good’ and Other Common Myths about Toddlers

You shouldn’t believe everything you hear about children’s development, says Sarah Ockwell-Smith…

Sarah Ockwell-Smith
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

There are many erroneously held beliefs about toddler behaviour, and for those caring for children at this age, it’s important to separate fact from fiction.

Let’s start with that common toddler trait, the tantrum. Tantrums are a normal part of toddlerhood and don’t indicate behavioural problems or poor parenting. In fact, a toddler who never tantrums is more concerning to a psychologist than one who does so frequently.

Feelings too big for the brain

While there are infinite reasons why a toddler may tantrum, the underlying cause remains the same: brain development, or rather a lack of it. Connections form constantly in toddlers’ brains, and with them come new skills and thought processes.

The brain tends to form networks in order of importance when it comes to survival. Newborns therefore are born with the parts of their brain necessary for basic functions like temperature and breathing regulation already connected.

The last connections to form sit in the frontal cortex, the parts of the brain responsible for emotion regulation. This leaves toddlers without the brain capacity necessary to regulate their own emotions; when they get angry, scared or upset, they don’t have the emotional ‘self-talk’ necessary to calm themselves down and stop the resulting tantrum.

Tantrums are just feelings that have got too big for toddlers’ brains to handle alone. As adults, the best thing we can do to improve a toddler’s behaviour is to understand this and act in the role of an external regulator.

We must help toddlers to release these ‘big feelings’ as quickly, easily and safely as possible until their brains develop enough for them to take over the task. Coincidentally, research shows that the best way for a child to develop good emotion regulation skills is for adults to nurture them in their early years.

Learning to share

Forcing toddlers to share is another way in which adults highlight a misunderstanding of the developing brain. In order for toddlers to learn to share, they first have to understand the concept.

In order to understand the concept of sharing, they have to consider why they should share – ie consider the feelings of other people. This is commonly known as empathy. The problem is that empathy does not form properly until a child is ready to enter Key Stage 2…

In the toddler years, children believe that everybody views the world in the same way as they do – they cannot understand the thoughts of others and how they differ from their own, so constantly teaching them to share is largely pointless. It may help us as adults to feel better, but it won’t do much else.

The same is true for making toddlers apologise when they have done something wrong. If they don’t understand the feelings of others, this process does nothing more than encourage them to repeat words parrot-style and, effectively, to lie.

Behaviour control

When toddlers misbehave, it is usually a call for help. Hitting, pushing, shoving and biting are all commonly caused by a child feeling overwhelmed for some reason. In all of these cases, a toddler needs more adult attention, not less.

The type of attention matters too. Toddlers need adults to act as external regulators for their emotions, to help them to calm down and make everything okay again – so when they are left in ‘time out’ or sat on a ‘naughty step’, the withdrawal of our attention and compassion often has completely the opposite effect to what’s desired.

In time, toddlers will sit alone quietly, but they will not learn anything positive. Instead, they will have learnt to not share their ‘big feelings’ with you, since they cannot trust you to help them.

What they really need is ‘time in’ – time in a quiet location one-to-one with a practitioner giving them his or her full attention and helping to calm them down.

On the other side of the coin to ‘time outs’ are stickers, reward charts and merit certificates. While many feel that these are a positive way to change behaviour, their effects can be just as damaging – sometimes more so.

Rewarding behaviour relies on extrinsic motivation. That is, give the child a treat and you increase the chance of the act happening again, just like dog training. However, research shows time and again that if the reward is taken away, or not offered at all, then the child is less likely to repeat a task than a child who was never rewarded to begin with.

Working with the child’s intrinsic motivation – their internal drive and desire to ‘want’ to do something because it feels good – is the only motivation that is long-lasting. Relying on extrinsic motivation, such as stickers, runs a real long-term risk of creating demotivated children who will only do things if they are rewarded, or ultimately bribed.

Problem eaters?

Toddlers are born picky eaters. Most have no problem eating foodstuffs that are white, yellow or orange, but turn their noses up at any other food on the colour spectrum, particularly green.

This is not naughty or difficult behaviour; it’s normal toddler behaviour. Toddlers are hard-wired to be neophobic – that is, they are fearful and reluctant to try new foods. This is important from an evolutionary perspective, as it keeps them safe by preventing them from picking wild foodstuffs that may be poisonous.

That’s unlikely to happen in today’s modern supermarkets, but this protective mechanism is one that has prevailed in humans for thousands of years. Foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugars all tend to be safe to consume, and therefore human infants have evolved to have a natural preference for sweet tastes.

In addition, food tastes much stronger to toddlers. They have many more taste buds than adults, with bitter tastes particularly highlighted. This is important to understand, since one of the most bitter tastes that we eat is chlorophyll – the compound that gives vegetables their green colour.

Lastly, it is important to understand that humans are not meant to eat ‘three square meals a day’. We are meant to graze, little and often throughout the day, just as toddlers do. It is us, not them that have ‘eating problems’! Regular ‘picking’ according to our appetite is much healthier for us than regulating our food intake to arbitrary timings according to the clock.

Fact from fiction

Five myth-busting takeaways regarding the toddlers in your care

  1. Toddlers who tantrum are naughty
    A toddler who never tantrums is more concerning to a psychologist than one who does so frequently
  2. Toddlers should be made to share
    This requires empathy, which children don’t develop fully until they are ready to enter Key Stage 2
  3. Time-out is an effective form of behaviour control
    What toddlers need is time spent one-to-one with a practitioner giving them their full attention and helping to calm them down
  4. Stickers and reward charts are an effective form of behaviour control
    Relying on extrinsic motivation can result in demotivated children
  5. Toddlers who are picky eaters are problematic
    Picky eating is normal toddler behaviour; they’re hard-wired that way!

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