Toddlers are endlessly fascinating little creatures. One minute they're calmly and rationally offering to share their toy with a friend; the next, they're hoarding every available plaything in the corner and screaming like a demon at any kid who comes within two feet of them. Toddler behavior can be perplexing, to say the least, but when you have a better idea about the biology behind it, those quirks start to make more sense. So what are some things that are happening in your toddler's brain?
"Parents need to understand what kids don't understand," Dr. Laura A. Jana, pediatrician and award winning author of The Toddler Brain: Nurture the Skills Today That Will Shape Your Child's Tomorrow, tells Romper.
It's all about having realistic expectations regarding what your toddler is capable of based on her level of cognitive and emotional development, and knowing that some parts of her brain — which relate to different types of skills — grow and mature at correspondingly different rates. Jana uses the following example to illustrate how moms and dads sometimes don't quite get it: A parent wouldn't yell at a 2-year-old for not knowing how to tie his shoes, because no one expects a 2-year-old to know how to tie his shoes. A parent might yell at a 2-year-old for biting his friend, however, thinking that he should know better — but in reality, he doesn't. Your 2-year-old doesn't know that biting is wrong, just like he doesn't know how to tie a bow.
Once you know what's really happening in your little one's head, it makes responding to behavior that might have baffled you otherwise that much easier. And just because we're talking about science doesn't mean you need a degree in biology to wrap your own head around this stuff: In fact, there are some simple parallels that can be drawn between your toddler's brain and other things in life that are way less mystifying.
1. Your Toddler's Brain Is Like A Game Of Ping Pong
Since your toddler was born, you've probably tried to spend as much quality time playing, talking, and interacting in general as possible. You're just acting on instinct, but all this back-and-forth (a concept known as "serve and return" to experts) is incredibly important, Dr. Jana explains.
"Serve and return has been tied to literally connecting neurons and pathways in the developing brain," she says.
It works like this: When a baby or toddler cries, "talks," or otherwise tries to communicate and a caring adult responds in an appropriate manner, neural connections are formed in the child’s brain that help to build social (and other) skills. The more you interact with your child, the stronger these connections get, Dr. Jana says.
For a visual demonstration of how "serve and return" shapes brain circuitry, check out this short video from Harvard University's Center on the Developing Child.
2. Your Toddler's Brain Is Like A Mirror
There's a reason why your toddler seems to mimic everything you do: That's a sign his brain is developing properly, and it all has to do with what are known as "mirror neurons," Dr. Jana says.
Research on mirror neurons has shown that when we watch someone doing something, the same neurons that fire in their brain fire in our brains, too. Simply by watching them, we end up feeling the same thing they're feeling. So for kids, who spend most of their time mirroring the people closest to them (usually their parents), it's not about what parents say, but the feelings their brains project. As a study conducted by the Society for Neuroscience revealed, some scientists theorize that this mirroring system forms the basis for everything from the development of social skills to language to empathy and understanding.
3. Your Toddler's Brain Is Like Play-Doh
You've probably heard kid's brains compared to sponges, but perhaps a more apt comparison would be Play-Doh — because while these organs are incredibly malleable at first, they get less pliable and harder to shape over time, as Dr. Jana explains. (Kind of like Play-Doh after you leave it out too long.)
"External experiences help to shape the architecture of the developing brain," she says. And while it's never too late to teach the brain new tricks, you can make a dramatically bigger difference in the early years of your child's life.
"In the first five years, for the least amount of effort you get the biggest return," she says.
That's why all that "serve and return" is so crucial, whether you're playing peekaboo or reading books or singing songs.
"All the stuff that's cute and warm and fuzzy and nice to do with young children has more meaning and impact than people realize," says Dr. Jana, and studies have shown that a "caring, responsive adult" is the "single most important factor" in a child's development.
Getting back to the slowly-stiffening Play-Doh metaphor, you might be wondering if, after the age of 5, your kid's brain is too tough to shape. Dr. Jana puts it this way:
"I always tell my patients, the last time I checked it's possible to rewire a 100-year-old house, it's just going to cost a lot more, take a lot longer, and not be as good as if you'd done it right in the first place."
4. Your Toddler's Brain Is Like A Weekend In Vegas
Even adults sometimes struggle with impulse control (hence the "weekend in Vegas" comparison), but toddlers have a biologically legitimate excuse for being so impetuous: The pre-frontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for "executive function" skills (impulse control, aggression, self regulation, reasoning), is still developing in kids under 5, Dr. Jana says. (In fact, experts now believe the pre-frontal cortex doesn't reach maturity until around age 25, which explains a lot!)
Still, the most rapid rate of development happens between the ages of 3 and 5, days Dr. Jana. So even though sometimes it might seem like your toddler is capable of making a sound decision, that's no guarantee he won't be doing the preschooler-equivalent of dropping everything and heading off to blow his savings at the casino the next minute. So the next time you're fed up because your tot did some crazy thing out of the blue, take a deep breath and remember that his brain literally isn't capable of consistent good judgment yet!
5. Your Toddler's Brain Is Like A Caveperson
There's a reason why you can't rationalize with your toddler when he's melting down over a terrifying spider on the sidewalk: Because the amygdala (the part of his brain that controls the "fight or flight" response) isn't fully developed yet, he can't tell the difference between a real threat and a perceived one.
As Dr. Jana explains it, back in early human times, this was the evolutionary response that told us to run if a saber tooth tiger showed up, not hang out and wonder if the tiger was hungry or not. In other words, that's why you'll find yourself explaining "It's just a little spider, it can't hurt you" over and over again — because your toddler's brain is telling him to head for the hills!
Even armed with all the scientific knowledge in the world, you'll most likely still find your toddler's actions mind-boggling from time to time. But at least a better working knowledge of what's going on in his head can guide your own responses (and help to keep you a little more sane!).
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.