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Your Toddler Month by Month : 2–3 Years - Your Toddler’s Brain

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This period sees a slight plateau in the speed of development of your child’s movement skills, while his brain diverts its attention to another major priority: the development of the frontal lobes. This part of the brain plays an important part in developing rational thought, emotions, attention, and memory.

“Emily loves to help me make cakes, but she gets easily distracted. She loves the mixing and decorating, but we take short breaks, too, so that she doesn’t become frustrated and have a tantrum.”

—“Emily loves to help me make cakes, but she gets easily distracted. She loves the mixing and decorating, but we take short breaks, too, so that she doesn’t become frustrated and have a tantrum.”

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Closely linked to the improvement in your child’s communication skills that occurs during this year, and the emergence of imagination and developing personality, the frontal lobes of the brain (see diagram) contribute a great deal to the characteristics that make us human. Both sides of the frontal lobes are inter-connected, with thinking and reasoning skills based in one area and emotional and social behavior in the other. Together they are the driving force behind our ability to understand and reason, plan, and organize. They regulate our emotions and responses, and keep our impulses in check. The role of the frontal lobes is to direct the overall activity of the brain as a whole. Like the chief executive of a huge organization, they decide which ideas to run with, what your priority is at this very moment, and oversee the functioning of all the other areas of the brain. They give us the go-ahead to act, react, or not act at all.

The thinking and reasoning area tells us:

  • Where we should be concentrating our attention.

  • What we should remember.

  • When and when not to act.

The social and emotional area:

  • Oversees our emotions.

  • Regulates our feelings and puts them into context.

  • Helps govern our responses, while keeping a check on impulsive actions.

The frontal lobes continue to develop throughout your child’s early years, fully maturing in adolescence and giving him the ability to deal with more complex skills, such as flexibility and multitasking, by the age of fifteen. They play a vital part in developing your toddler’s behavioral control and his personality.

Greater understanding

The frontal lobe area is marked by the darker line. The two areas within this start to mature and influence your child’s under-standing of his world.

Choosing the right response

The frontal lobes play an important role in reasoning and problem-solving. They help us decide what to pay attention to in any given moment and respond in the way that seems best. It is easiest to think of them as the part of the brain that puts things into context. It is where thoughts about our inner world—our memories, movement, emotions, and so on—link up with thoughts about our outer world—where you are, who else is there. By taking all this information into account the frontal lobes can decide what behavior or action is most appropriate to take.

In the case of your toddler, for example, this could mean him understanding and choosing to respond either to hunger or excitement: “Which is more important to me right now: the awareness that I am hungry [his inner world] or the excitement I feel because Mom has just bought me a really exciting new toy [his outer world]?” In responding, he needs to decide which to attend to and how he should behave.

Thinking and reasoning

The thinking and reasoning part of the frontal lobes drives the development of our planning and reasoning skills, as well as our ability to resist the thoughts and responses that might take us off course. As the frontal lobes of your toddler’s brain develop, you will notice a real increase in his planning and reasoning ability. For example, “If I drag a chair here and climb on it, I can reach the candy on the table.” He will also be able to concentrate better and to tune in to the messages that will help him get what he wants. While he is learning self-control your toddler is developing the skills he will need to succeed in the future, both academically and socially. Once he has the experience to remember to sit and pay attention, take the feelings of others into account, and stop himself from reacting impulsively, he can begin to guide his future behavior and actions.

Attention span

Before he is able to learn to reason and plan effectively, your toddler first needs to be able to concentrate. His ability to focus completely on a task, game, or conversation will develop gradually through different stages and levels of attention, throughout the toddler years. As he develops he will become more focused on his own needs, wants, and goals (which is not always a blessing!) and will become less easily distracted. There are three different types of attention that develop over time:

Selective attention

This is the basic ability to choose to pay attention to what is relevant and ignore other cues. Toddlers need to have this ability before they can begin to store information in their working memory. Young babies start to develop this ability, but are easily distracted.

Divided attention

When we pay attention to more than one thing at a time we are dividing our attention. This is a challenge for toddlers. Whereas an adult can listen to the radio while completing a crossword, or have a chat while planning dinner, toddlers find it difficult to do more than one thing at a time. This is why, if you want your child to focus on a task, such as eating, it is best to remove toys from the table to minimize distractions.

Sustained attention

Maintaining attention over a period of time is a developing skill. Your toddler is able to stay focused for only a few minutes at a time. Typically, children can concentrate for only short periods on activities such as drawing or looking at a book, although concentration spans can vary between genders. At 24 months, this time span can be as short as seven minutes, increasing to nine minutes by the age of three, 13 minutes by age four, and 15 minutes by age five. Not until the age of six or seven will a child be able to concentrate for as long as one hour. Your two-year-old may do some coloring for seven minutes, pause to pet the cat, take a sip from a cup, wander around the room and go back to coloring for seven more minutes. Toddlers need to take frequent breaks from things, so you should not be concerned.

How the memory works

When the brain receives an instruction, two different types of memory work together to follow it. The short-term memory recalls and stores the information (“I need to get my coat”); while the working memory helps to put the instruction into operation, very fast and stage by stage. (“I need to reach the coat peg; I am stretching my muscles; I am going onto my tiptoes, I am reaching for my coat”). The working memory holds small chunks of information for just long enough to tell us what we need to do to achieve our goal right now. Once your toddler has his coat, he can still remember that he wanted it (using his short-term memory), but his working memory has dropped all the stages. By now his working memory is helping him put one foot in front of the other to walk out the door, or to pick up a toy, or to go and find his sister.

Short-term memory has a very small capacity and the ability to remember is still in development in young children. This is why toddlers find complex instructions hard to follow and may get frustrated. Your toddler may need to be given instructions in two, three, or more small chunks. (Even an adult can hold only about seven chunks of information in mind at a time.) So instead of saying: “Get undressed and washed, and then brush your teeth, and then you can say goodnight,” break the information down into smaller tasks. “Let’s get you undressed” (wait until task is complete); “Now we will get you washed” (do this and wait), “Now brush your teeth” (wait until finished) “And now you can say goodnight.”

Planning and achieving

The frontal lobes of the brain play an important part in enabling us to decide what we want and then plan how to get it. They also enable us to overcome obstacles and distractions to achieve our goals.

Tina has decided that she wants to play with her red ball. First she must think: “I want the red ball.” She then uses her working memory to hold on to the thought while she reasons how to get the red ball: “I will walk to the toy box and find it.” Next she puts her thoughts into action, and moves toward the toy box. Looking inside, Tina spots her blue ball instead: “That’s a nice blue ball…” Instead of getting distracted, the frontal lobes in her brain help her to switch off the “blue ball” message and focus back on the “red ball” message—“…but I want my red one—and it’s not here!” She realizes that what she is doing now won’t help her, and decides, “It might be in the yard…” Off she toddles.

If she were younger, Tina would probably forget about the red ball entirely and play happily with other toys; but because Tina is now 30 months old, she not only wants the red ball, she remembers how and where to find it. Her working memory helps her stay on a task long enough to achieve her goal.

Your Anxious Toddler

Anxiety is a natural part of growing up. Your toddler’s imagination and reasoning skills will develop to a point where he understands dangers and that things can go wrong. You have a positive role to play in helping your child to cope with extreme feelings.

Feelings of anxiety are a sign that we feel frightened or threatened, from something physical (such as being attacked), environmental (such as a tornado), or psychological (such as being criticized).

During the toddler years these “dangers” may include, for example, being left to cry for long periods, picking up on parental tension or unhappiness, and being yelled at. Anxiety triggers a powerful and automatic reaction within the most primitive part of the brain that drives our instinct for survival. When we experience intense emotions, such as anger, fear, and even excitement, the brain tells the body to release stress hormones that will either make us challenge the situation (fight), or run away from it (flight). These “fight or flight” hormones, especially adrenaline and cortisol, then block the production of “feel good” hormones, such as oxytocin .

Learning to climb

It is natural to feel anxious as your toddler tries new things, but resist telling him to “be careful” when he’s doing just fine.

Learning to cope

Everyone experiences anxiety, but some people deal with these feelings better than others. We now know that our ability to cope has its roots in our childhood experiences. During the toddler years, a child relies almost totally on caring adults to help him to manage his “big” feelings.

When a child is anxious, if Mommy or Daddy is on hand to soothe him, his body will learn to produce “feel good” hormones as he calms down. On the other hand, a toddler who is not comforted will become increasingly anxious and will produce even higher levels of stress hormones. His brain is becoming wired for anxiety rather than calm.

By the age of 2–3, your toddler’s anxiety about being separated from you is gradually diminishing, only to be replaced by a range of fears stimulated by his developing imagination and awareness of the wider world. It is natural for toddlers to be scared of new experiences at this age, but their anxiety will usually pass if it is carefully handled.

Signs of anxiety

Children show anxiety in a variety of ways. Some cry, others may become very quiet, clingy, or whiny. Nervous tics are also quite common at this age—that is, involuntary muscle spasms that children cannot control—such as rapid blinking or twitching; but most disappear of their own accord.

Whatever the signs, your child needs to be reassured. Each time you hug him and help him to cope, you are increasing his chances of being able to manage his feelings and deal with stress as he grows up. Children who are reprimanded rather than comforted will worry and become more anxious more often. They are also more likely to develop later behavioral problems such as phobias, bed-wetting, or soiling.

Helping your child

Your toddler learns from your example, so start by learning to manage your own strong feelings and showing him that yelling or crying are not the only ways to respond.

  • Stay calm, smile warmly, and speak to him in a gentle tone.

  • Hug him or show him affection to soothe his fears.

  • Never reprimand him for feeling anxious; instead encourage him gently to try new things and praise him every time he deals with a fear.

  • Use distraction techniques, such as singing, to help reduce your child’s fear while you help him to address whatever has caused the anxiety.

  • Never call a child by derogatory names, such as “stupid,” “clumsy,” or “hopeless,” or label him as “a cry baby,” not even in jest. He needs to know that he can rely on you for consistent love, care, and support. If your response pushes him away or scares him, his anxiety will increase even further.

Managing your own anxieties

If you find it hard to manage your own stressful feelings, you may also find it hard to tolerate extreme feelings in your toddler. If you were constantly yelled at, overly controlled, or criticized when you were a child, your brain is likely to release very high levels of cortisol when you are anxious, and you are likely to pass your feelings of stress on to your child.

  • Make time for activities that makes you feel calm and relaxed.

  • Make sure you have a social network that offers you warmth and support when you need it.

  • If you have had relationship problems, a bereavement, or any other life-altering challenge to deal with, consider getting professional help to dissipate your anxiety. It will be impossible for you to protect your child from your feelings, and his emotions may intensify in response to your own.

  • Avoid smoking, drinking to excess, and consuming high levels of caffeine from tea, coffee, colas, or chocolate.

  • Parenting a toddler is stressful on occasion and it is natural to feel anxious; don’t be too hard on yourself and do try to keep things in proportion.

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