Exploring the Toddler Brain With Tovah P. Klein

How+Toddlers+Thrive+CoverTovah P. Klein, PhD, is a child psychologist and the director of the internationally renowned Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. She spends five days a week pondering, observing, studying, and interacting with 50 individual toddlers (kids ages 2-5) and teaches undergraduate and graduate students at Barnard about tots. Her advice has appeared in The New York Times, Redbook, Parents, and numerous other publications. She’s also a developmental adviser for “Sesame Street,” and the mother of three boys. Her latest book, How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success, explorers and explains the working of the toddler brain.

According to Klein, the toddler years are among the least studied in childhood research, despite the fact that they are some of the most crucial when it comes to cultivating a child’s potential for future success. In the first half of the book, the expert dissects the latest scientific findings in the field to prove that the toddler years are indeed when a child’s neural pathways that are necessary for thriving in life are set. Klein aims to explain the reasoning behind toddlers’ often perplexing behavior, ultimately hoping to arm parents with the ability to view the world from their toddler’s point of view. She tackles topics such as the Toddler Paradox: how toddlers can flip-flop so quickly from wanting to be fiercely independent, to acting like a temperamental, helpless baby. She chiefly stresses the importance of developing skills such as resilience, self-regulation, self-reliance, and empathy.

In its second half, Klein reveals an adaptable set of methods parents can utilize to decipher–and manage–toddler behavior, from how to handle specific challenges such as eating, sleeping, and toilet training, to broader notions like managing change and sharing.

To dig deeper into the world of toddlers, we caught up with Klein about some of the central topics and themes in her most recent book!

In what ways are the toddler years the most crucial time period for developing a child’s ability to thrive and succeed later on in life? What skills are particularly important to develop during this time?

Tova Klein: The toddler years are a time of incredible, rapid change. There is the most rapid brain development happening, a child is acquiring language, physical, and thinking skills and experiencing new, intense emotions. Some of these [first-time] emotions [include] particularly anger but also pride and shame.

The toddler is also moving out in the world and separating from the parent. This means they are developing a sense of who they are. They are curious and eager to discover the world. So all of this exploration, knowing that there is someone close by to turn to if they need help or comfort, or simply a check-in is what gives them a base.

They are developing the sense of self—what they like and dislike, a sense of trust in others and confidence in their own abilities. They are slowly starting to know their emotions and importantly the beginnings of being able to handle those emotions (what we call regulation). The seeds of becoming independent later, of being able to both take care of themselves and be compassionate to others, are being laid down now.

What’s the cause behind the stereotypical “toddler tantrum,” and what can a parent do to tame it –or avoid it altogether?

TK: Tantrums don’t need to be avoided. They happen because sometimes the child is overwhelmed and they don’t have the language to communicate or understand what they are feeling. There is a reason behind a tantrum, even if the adult has no idea what it is. They don’t have the brain development yet to handle the flood of emotion. They meltdown. It is important for parents not see this as being bad and do all they can not to take it personally. Toddlers need us to stay calm when they are this upset. Our emotions affect them.

So often we think our child’s behavior is a sign that we are not good parents, or the child is being disrespectful. That is not the case. If you are in a crowd, or a public place, best to remove the child to a calmer and quieter setting. Sometimes that is going into another room so they can calm down… The most important part is when the child calms. Don’t ever shame them for what they are feeling, no matter how ridiculous you think their reason for the tantrum was. Instead, give them a hug, label the upset as just that, and remind them that you love them.

What’s the greatest common misconception about toddlers?

TK: That they are intentionally out to get the parent. That they are “manipulative”–as in, they are pre-meditating ways to push our buttons. That is not the case. Toddlers are very much about figuring out who they are, and often they see us as standing in their way. They are only focused on their desire of the moment or what they need and will go head first to get that need met.

What’s one thing you think parents do with good intentions that in actuality is harmful to their little ones?

TK: Parents worry that if they don’t show their toddler the right way to do things their child will never learn. But toddlers learn from trying things over and over, struggling through and eventually figuring out. They have incredibly active curiosity and want to learn. Parents can intervene too often and correct their children or show them the “right” way to do things. This can actually make a toddler feel like they can’t do it, they don’t know how. They don’t trust themselves and feel ashamed of what they can’t do. Parents have good intentions but it is better to back off and let toddlers try, stumble and try again. Our role as parents is to help them through the frustration, rather than directing them to believe there is only one right way to do something.

How do you indulge a toddler’s desires without ultimately creating a spoiled, entitled child?

TK: Such a great question and an important one. Nearly every parent worries at some point that their child is becoming a brat. I understand why—toddlers can be very demanding. But recognizing your child’s desires does not mean giving in or meeting them on the spot every time. Empathy and recognition go a long way—everyone wants to be understood in their desire, even if it is not indulged. Toddlers especially need to be understood, and labeling their desire helps them manage it.

This is how we begin to help our children handle disappointment as well (which is part of life forever!). So instead of saying: “How many times have I told you no cookies before dinner?” you can try empathy: “I know how much you love cookies, so I am going to put them on the counter so they are ready for after dinner!” Or: “You really wanted to play more at the playground, so tomorrow we are coming back!” Toddlers live in the moment, and one of our roles is to recognize that and help them move on. In other words, recognize a need or desire, but with limits.