The truth about a prolonged toddlerhood and “temper tantrums”


As I peruse the information and opinions regarding tantrums and appropriate responses that can be readily found via a quick online search, I am struck by one significant idea: the definition of a tantrum is the same for a behavior that is completely developmentally reasonable for an 18-month-old as it for the same behavior that should be different for a 36-month-old. Splitting hairs, you might say. What even is this business of using months instead of years when giving the age of young children? The tantrum definition is commonly the same for a 4 or 5-year-old, if that helps assuage the semantics debate. There IS a reason for using months during the first years instead of a more general (and less math-dependent) 1, 2, or 3 way of viewing the child. If we consider all the physical and developmental milestones and that 80% of synoptic creation within the brain itself is completed by the third year, then it goes without saying that a 1.5-year-old is vastly different than a .8-year-old and a 2.5-year old is not at all in the same stage of growth and development as an 18-month old. Interestingly, physical and motor development occur at a proximal-distal (from the inside to the out) and cephalocaudal (head to tail, or top to bottom) pattern except for the brain: it develops from the inside out and from the bottom (stem) and upwards and outwards. The pre-frontal lobe, the upper and outer 1/3 that is responsible for what we consider “mature” decision making (or executive function) skills; for and integrating emotions/actions, problem-solving and planning and more will not be finished developing for at least two decades…but long as it may take in finishing, it does not wait to begin. That process starts at the beginning, as the brain is always actively taking in each experience, building and rebuilding mostly invisible networks of information during every stage of discovery.
When welcoming a new-born, we are ready to meet the needs of the neonate brain- the stem functions are supremely important and the inherent needs for love and safety and comfort are met with intensity (hopefully). Not enough can be said about how critical this time of connecting is for the new child. Each experience, particularly those that are repeated, engages the developing brain and its growth. Motor development and language centers of the brain are growing exponentially and as the child reaches new stages and milestones, the role of the environment -personal and emotional even more than physical, is essential. In the first year, trust is the defining need of social and emotional development. True to Erik Erikson’s widely accepted and relied upon timeline of psychosocial development, the infant is learning to trust that her physical needs will be met and to feel safe as she grows, learns to move, becomes more mobile and starts to explore her world. The first 18 months of her life are an undertaking of internalizing that trust so that she is ready to step even further into her world and farther from her lifelines-her parents and caregivers.
Now comes the fun part: As any parent of an 18-month-old can tell you, something about a child changes at this point. There are new behaviors and often the child can either be heard or seen (or both at the same time) saying “no”. This is scary for both the parent and the child, who is starting to see herself as an individual. She is not an extension of her caregivers or her immediate environment, she is herself. With that huge epiphany comes the emergent WILL of the child. What does SHE want? What does she like? What if she disagrees with what others want? She’s been learning language long enough to understand the words of direction that she hears, but why do we say them, and do they actually matter, or are they just words?? Because the young toddler is still a very concrete and experience-based learner, she will ask these questions with her actions and it will be the active responses of the adults in her world that help her understand the answers. And although this need to know about her autonomy and her WILL continues to be her social-emotional focus until around her third birthday, the initial entry into this phase will appear to be loud! Enter the tantrums, front and center for many families. Strong feelings of disappointment, anger and fear of the intensity of her own emotions with little frame of reference to help her understand and have a perspective of relativity often result in multiples tantrums a day (and night). With every tantrum though comes an opportunity for the child to learn about her feelings and needs as well as those of others and, ideally, about the limitations of her willpower. As her experiences are repeated in various settings, she will be become more satisfied if her answers are consistently appropriate for her abilities and understanding. A child knows that she is a child and is uncomfortable with powers and responsibilities that she can’t handle. She still has a deep need to trust that her caregivers will keep her safe and healthy- these things cannot be a child’s responsibility. (Just as the neurological and physical development focused on a timeline and produced the necessary components for development- we never stop needed those components). When the question of WILL is not answered to a child’s satisfaction, she will repeat it again and again -especially if the answers are different in different setting or with different caregivers. Along the way, the toddler will also be learning so much more language, gaining a multitude of skills and developing along her physical, neurological and psychosocial timelines. Young children are tenacious learners. By the time her third birthday is near, the child should have asked and had answered her imperative and timely questions about what it means to be a unique part of a group of individuals. She cannot be leader all the time. She can contribute. She can help care for others in her group and she can benefit from others in the group. She can trust those around her, and she can trust her view of herself. When the toddlers need to understand her autonomy and unique wishes as they apply to her life are met, she will be prepared to move on to her next period of developmental focus. Tantrums should be beginning to dwindle in both intensity and quantity as she moves toward her next developmental growth spurt. She’ll continue growing even if the information she receives during this stage, as with any other stage, is less than helpful to her overall psychosocial health and this is what I refer to as a “prolonged toddlerhood”. While her cognitive abilities may be that of an older child, her behavior and tantrums will remain those of a toddler until her understanding changes.
In the same way that physiological development follows an inward to outward pattern, so does psychosocial development. The brainstem gives way to the cerebral cortex. The spinal cord development gives way to musculature and limbs…and in the same way, the previously physically dependent infant is introduced to life in a bigger world. We start as infants, needing to absorb as much love and safety from our world as possible for our internal development and growth and then we begin to move away. Parents and caregivers are typically prepared to meet those initial needs. It feels easy (if not physically tiring) to meet the newborn as he comes to us- it comes naturally to everyone involved. We are physically wired to know what babies need-babies smell good to us, elicit pheromones that reduce adults to goo, cause us to soften and heighten our voices and reach out…. But the change from the first stage to the next is not so innately easy for adults: So often, I hear parents saying “My babbbbbyyy!” when filled with pride and awe of skill that their toddler has worked to achieve. It hard to change our perspective at the exact moment that a child changes her needs and when it comes to a skill that a toddler who should be moving away from this stage, tides have turned. Behaviors that were typically gone by the age of three two or three generations ago are now accepted as appropriate for years beyond that age. We would be worried if our child doesn’t seem to be growing according to the physical stages of development that are expected for their age. We devour information about the milestones for the first years. Parents worry about so much of our children’s development but are we overlooking the importance of meeting appropriate social and emotional milestones?
In much the same way that every other focal period of human development produces a vital component to our overall being, each stage of emotional development comes at a crucial time for the next stage to grow from. We still need our first-built parts. We need our brainstems, our spinal cords, our abilities to control our shoulders so that we can use our fingers. And we will always need to trust, to feel loved, to know that we are accepted, to feel that our work is valuable, to identify ourselves within our groups, to be socially effective, to be proud of what we have done.

Parental Stress and Autism: Pre and Post Diagnosis? Parenting can be stressful. Any child can throw a loving adult a curve ball, even a succession of curve balls that leave everyone a bit disoriented. For parents of children with ASD, the stress has been shown to be significantly increased. The reasons for this increase might […]

via Parents, ASD and Stress — Bricks and Bridges

Parents, ASD and Stress

Parental Stress and Autism: Pre and Post Diagnosis?

Parenting can be stressful. Any child can throw a loving adult a curve ball, even a succession of curve balls that leave everyone a bit disoriented. For parents of children with ASD, the stress has been shown to be significantly increased. The reasons for this increase might seem obvious: autism can be difficult to navigate. The reality, though, is that there are a small number of major contributors. Some of them are beyond the control of the parent and some are, indeed, not.
Contributor 1: Challenging Behaviors
The behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorders can be quite stressful to witness-living with them day and night in and out is another beast altogether. Aside from tantrums and spiraling there are also often sleep and eating-related issues, leaving both children and parents feeling physically depleted.
Contributor 2: Financial
A diagnosis can be road paved with fees and for parents seeking therapies or routes (particularly alternative non-drug programs such as Brain Balance) without a diagnosis or insurance to help, the load is heavy.
Contributor 3: Stigma, Shame and Guilt
There is no lack of for a fear of labels and judgement. The behavior and situations that the simplest of everyday interactions can lead to is endless. There is just no way control appearances when parenting a ASD child. That is, perhaps, the beauty and the ugly truth.
As research begins to delve into the importance of addressing the parental stress associated with a developmental diagnosis, some key things are becoming clear. Support or turning away from a clear inability to support as well as a lacking concern about stigma are invaluable tools for families. As we learn more, it is becoming evident that losing the need to control appearances and instead advocate for our families is healthy not only for children but for grown-ups, too.
My question for parents of ASD children: Do you feel that your stress level was higher pre-or post-diagnosis?

“What Happened To My Baby? Parenting the One-Year Old”…(Excerpts and outline from a recent parent talk)


IMG_3250So, you are now parenting a one year old…A curious, mobile, emotional, willful, energetic (what other words describe your?)….toddler:

•Who is developing her senses of self, will and identity within her groups…

>And what, exactly, is a sense of “will”?

>And how does a young child begin to learn how to incorporate her will into a group, be it large (group care) or small (family size)?

>And why does it matter in the grand scheme of life?

•Who is also becoming more skilled and courageous and experimental physically…

•Who also loves and wants to help and participate in her daily processes (ie: self-care, caring for her environment, helping with daily activities)…

•Who is also learning many languages: verbal, implied, body….

•Who will be moving through some developmental shifts through the year that may be difficult to decode and hard to watch…

•Who is also learning to take pride in her choices and abilities….

>Not from praise, not from rewards. From the sense of having succeeded or contributed. Toddlers, even the brand new ones, are supreme “sensers”.


        What should you do now? 

•Be ready to adapt to these changing needs of your toddler. 


•Be ready to change how you view your child

>Becoming a parent is one of the most impactful changes adults go through. We are amazed and in love with the beautiful new baby that has come into our lives… But for children, this time is different. They are changing quickly and often and aren’t spending much time dwelling on who they were a lifetime ago for them.

•Observe both your toddler and yourself as often as possible but especially during “trying periods

•Know that your toddler is always observing you

•Use language that the child understands in all ways (implied vs. verbal especially)

•Be patient and make time in your schedule for mistakes, imperfection, tries and retries, falls, spills, tantrums etc…

>Answer to participant question: Perhaps your dinner menu will change to some things more quickly prepared while your toddler is asking for help regulating behavior…

•Have or find reinforcing support and remember that families are the most important teachers all throughout childhood. It is tempting to let a toddler spend more time at school or with others when they are going through a rough time….

•Decide ahead of time what boundaries are important in your family and why….

*Have fun. What has happened to your baby is that they have grown up a little bit. Celebrate!*

Each of these points can be, should be, have been elaborated upon and are worth taking some time to ponder on our own.




Let Them Be Little Learners

A few months ago, a colleague of mine shared an exchange she had with the mother of a 3-year-old. The mother was complaining about her child’s behavior at home, claiming the child is a “terror at home and only behaves at school”. When my colleague offered “Discipline IS tough at this age”, the mother replied “Oh…I don’t do that. He’s too little.”… End of conversation. While we shared smiles of chagrin, it occurred to me that this was the first time me I’d heard it of it being said out loud, articulated so simply and honestly: the shift in parenting mindset that has happened over the past few years. Anyone who works with families (likely anyone who interacts with families anytime or anywhere) has noticed the trend. We’ve read about it, seen the blogs and heard the song:

“…So let them be little

‘Cause they’re only that way for a while

Give them hope, give them praise,

Give them love every day

Let them cry, let them giggle,

let them  sleep in the middle

Oh, just let them be little”


These are incredibly touching and wise words. And it’s true… childhood IS fleeting. We should cherish as much of it as possible. 

But when did this beautiful notion give way to a movement that calls for a strike on discipline? When did we decide that letting young children experience frustration or anger or sadness and learn to express these feelings appropriately was a terrible thing?  Yes, childhood is a glorious time full of wonder and discovery. But it is also a time for growing, for learning, for taking lessons in as adult selves are being formed. Children require help of varying degrees and forms all along the early years and beyond  (don’t we all still need a little help?) and those times when they are struggling to learn the basics of emotions, intent and discipline are THE times to help them. The times when what they want is not acceptable are the times to teach them that what they feel has a word and a validity and they’ll feel it again, so here are some ways (or here we see inappropriate ways) to handle it. The time is not when they are bigger and older and have learned already that they are more powerful than is reasonable. The time is not when they go to school- if we send our children to school, preschool or group care before they have learned to be PART of, not the center of, a group we are sending them unprepared. Teachers do not have magic. They have an obligation to know a number of personalities that requires them to set expectations that allow for each one of them to thrive. If a child can function at school, they can at home as well. And really, that’s what children want. Not to have every whim answered, every tear saved. Children are social little humans. They WANT to know how to contribute positively to their group, no matter how small it is. They want to know everything. That is what discipline is: derived from the Latin word “discipulus” for pupil, it means “to learn”. Discipline is not about compliance or conformity or spirit breaking at all. It’s the way we help our children learn to regulate themselves so they can achieve and receive more now AND in the future. So the time is now, while they are made for learning. Because as the song also says, they are: 

“So innonencent, a precious soul

You turn around, it’s time

To let them go.”

So yes, let’s let them be little. Let’s let them make messes sometimes, let them make mistakes, let them be silly, let them explore. Let’s savor the cuddles. And let’s help them learn. While they are little.




A Little Salute to Independence

IMG_1755It seems appropriate to think about independence today. For children, it’s a big, long journey full of ebbs and flows, victories and fall backs. They start early in the search for it and change the battle plan regularly. It’s a struggle fought both inwardly and visibly. 

Once a young child understands that she is an individual, separate for her mother and the world around her, the desire to gain and explore independence is born. By the time she’s a toddler, it’s a demand, a crisis, an all-out subconscious battle cry for freedom in any and every form. She searches out allies. Sometimes, she battles them along with her foes. But treaties will be made, lines of power established and the intensity will simmer. For a while. 

I’d like to celebrate the little soldiers of will and the parents who watch them fight. To the grown-up allies who help them know they are capable, beautiful people who are an important part of their world, who help them learn their value as well the value of compromise and discipline, I salute you. 

Trust: The Science of Parenting (Intro)

IMG_2810Such a simple word. Trust. It’s phonetically spelled, easy on the eyes and ears…. It appears straitforward on paper and conceptually. But oh, can it be elusive! 

As parents, having and keeping trust in ourselves and our children can be a task. We compare our successes (large and little) to others, judge our mistakes harshly and maybe have too much varied information at hand. The perfect storm for dismantling trust in ourselves. We often can’t see the behaviors of children as the messages they truly are, we sometimes feel personally thwarted or exhausted or embarrassed by our children or their behaviors and we are busy. We are so very busy. 

But this trust is essential. Growing and protecting it is not difficult but takes practice and intention, especially in this age of easy “information” (read: comparison, confusion…) If you can make impartial observation a part of daily practice, you will find that reasons to trust yourself, your parenting AND your children are there. 

The good old scientific method, revised for parenting outside of a Petri dish: observation+analysis+action=trust. 

To be continued…