Creative Child

3 Toddler Myths We Should Stop Believing

by Rebecca Eanes

Parenting toddlers is a joyous and challenging experience. It’s an interesting stage of development that brings on willfulness, egocentrism, meltdowns, and other developmentally normal behaviors that unfortunately are often misunderstood. We start receiving warning messages as soon as our innocent-just-a-minute-ago babies take their first steps. 

You’ve probably heard these messages: 

  • She’s just trying to push your buttons.
  • He’ll see what he can get away with!
  • Pick your battles!
  • She’ll test your authority.
  • He’ll run the house if you let him!
  • If you let her by with it now, imagine how horrible she’ll be as a teenager.”
  • You’d better show him who’s boss.
  • Just ignore her and she’ll stop throwing a fit.
  • He’s just trying to get attention. 

These negative messages make their way into our psyches, and they cause us to look at our toddlers through a negative lens. This, in turn, causes us to misunderstand their behavior and buy in to certain myths. Here’s why these myths miss the mark.

Myth #1: Toddlers throw tantrums to be naughty.

We have been taught to believe that toddlers have tantrums in a calculative manner with the intent to manipulate us to either give them attention or give them something they want. Our response, we are told, should be to ignore the child when they tantrum so as not to reinforce such “bad behavior,” or to punish them to deter future tantrums.

When we understand how the developing brain of a child works, we can quickly debunk this idea that toddlers are being deliberately manipulative. Willful manipulation requires cognitive skills of the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that is very underdeveloped in toddlers. Rather, true tantrums occur when the limbic system (the emotional center of the brain) becomes overloaded and alarms trigger the lower brain, sending them into a meltdown. When the lower brain is in charge, children have little control over their actions, and screaming, kicking, and crying are a discharge of the overwhelming feeling. 

Rather than manipulation, tantrums are simply an expression of emotion that became too much for the child to bear. No punishment is required. What that child needs is compassion and safe, loving arms to unload in.

As your toddler’s brain develops, they will be able to grasp the skills necessary to regulate their emotions, and meltdowns will decrease and eventually subside. Rather than ignoring or punishing, it’s more helpful to co-regulate with your child (helping them calm down in your loving presence by taking big breaths, coloring, sensory play, etc such as in a calm-down area) as this is the foundation for her being able to self-regulate later. 

Myth #2: Toddlers are selfish and stubborn, also to be naughty.

I know it can certainly feel like they’re pushing ALL your buttons some days, but toddlers aren’t trying to drive you up the wall, honest! According to Piaget’s four stages of development, during the ages of 2-7, children are in the preoperational stage. This means they are egocentric; they have difficulty seeing things from another’s point of view. So, the fact that they only care about their own needs and desires is actually not naughty behavior but is developmentally normal and will subside as their brains mature.

To put a positive spin on this stage of development, you could say that, during this stage they are discovering themselves and learning to love themselves. When you hear “no,” “mine,” and “me” repeatedly, remind yourself of this positive view. Yes, they believe they are the center of the universe, and they act accordingly, but it’s also a sweet stage of childhood. 

While this is developmentally appropriate, it doesn’t mean that poor behavior related to egocentrism should be ignored or that there’s nothing to be done about it. There are ways to nurture your child’s continued development so that they better learn empathy and compassion. You can do this by modeling empathetic and compassionate behaviors yourself as you are your child’s first teacher and model. In addition, setting limits is also important. If your child snatches a toy from another child’s hand, for example, you can intervene with kindness and empathy (to model!) and help him give the toy back and wait his turn. If your child is having a meltdown because she can’t have ice cream for breakfast, you can empathize with her upset while stressing the importance of a healthy breakfast. 

Myth #3 - Toddlers should be sleeping through the night.

You’ve finally made it through those bleary-eyed, sleep-deprived months of infancy, and you’re thinking that, any day now, your toddler will start sleeping through the night. It’s understandable that you’re desperate for a good night’s sleep, but you may have to wait a little longer. 

Lots of factors lead to sleep disruptions for toddlers. One is the natural cycles of sleep. Young children have more sleep cycles than adults, meaning they are likely to wake more often. In addition, they have more REM cycles, which means they have more dream time. This, of course, could mean that your child has frequent nightmares. Their sleep may also be disrupted by teething, separation anxiety, fears, or big transitions such as potty training, transition to a toddler bed, welcoming a sibling, etc. 

The best course of action is to stay as consistent as possible with a nap and bedtime schedule, develop a good, soothing routine, and try to help bridge the gap for toddlers who suffer from separation anxiety. Bridging the gap means that you find ways to help them feel close to you during this separation and always make a connection to the next time you’ll see them. For example, you might give your child a special item to sleep with, such as your tee shirt, and say “I look forward to seeing you in the morning. I will stop by and check on you in 10 minutes.” You might leave a paper heart each time you check on her, and once she falls asleep, leave a handful of paper hearts by her bed so that she’ll know you’ve been close when she wakes.

The toddler years are a precious time in childhood. We do it an injustice by preparing ourselves to “battle” with our babies. No one benefits from power struggles, and negative assumptions about behavior weaken our relationships with our children. By understanding developmental stages, we can see the best in our kids and come alongside them to guide them through these years with love and compassion.

Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of multiple books including Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Gift of a Happy Mother. She is the grateful mom of two boys. 


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