Time outs, naughty steps and reward charts, popularised by shows such as Supernanny dominate discussions of toddler behaviour , despite a lack of evidence that they are effective over time. In contrast, the fascinating contribution neuroscience has made to our understanding of toddlers over the past decade has failed to make its way into the public knowledge.
The 'terrible two's' has its roots in toddler brain chemistry. The prefrontal cortex, the control centre of the brain, is the last area to develop and is remarkably immature in toddlers. Immaturity in the prefrontal cortex can lead to some behaviours that are very familiar to any parent with a young child:
Inflexible thinking (having to have the blue cup, no other cup will do)
Difficulties managing emotions (throwing themselves on the supermarket floor, terrifying rages over lack of Cheerio's, biting any other toddler who dares to even look at their favourite monkey, the list goes on)
Impulsivity/difficulty inhibiting behaviour (grabbing their friends favourite toy, despite the fact you told them not to just 5 seconds ago)
The good news is the Prefrontal Cortex is one of the area's of the brain most sensitive to parental interaction. Below we have compiled our top five games to help build your child's brain and develop their emotional regulation skills.
Developing Self Control
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for inhibiting behaviours, which in layman's terms is what we think of as self control. Poor impulse control is at the root of many toddlers behaviours including a difficulty sharing, hitting and biting. The more your toddler can practice using self control, the easier it will become. The best way to practice is through play.
1) Puppet Says
Get a puppet (or teddy, dolly or stuffed animal) and get it to give your child an instruction (clap your hands, tap your nose, spin around etc), but they must wait for 'Go' before following the instruction. Make this game harder by adding in two instructions e.g First touch your ears, then jump.....Go!).
2) Exploding volcano!
Crouch down on the floor with your child and count down from 5, when you get to 0 jump up into the air like an exploding volcano. For older children count down from 10 or even 20, or vary the game by pretending you are a space rocket about to burst into space.
Developing Emotional Regulation
The most effective way of reducing negative behaviour in children is the simple act of labelling and discussing emotions. In the past year alone, numerous studies have documented the widespread benefits of talking about emotions, from improvements to behaviour, social skills and even memory. fMRI studies have found that individuals who labelled their feelings show a less intense response in their amygdala, the fight or flight part of their brain and an increased response in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for emotional control. By encouraging children to label their emotions, parents are less likely to encounter the primal tantrums toddlers are famous for.
3) Teddy's Feelings
Get a Teddy or Dolly and put them in a scenario. For example oh no someone has pushed teddy over! Encourage your child to think about how Teddy is feeling and act out that emotion too. Encourage them to give an appropriate response e.g hugging Teddy or asking if he is okay. Don't be afraid to touch on a wide range of emotions including anger, jealousy and loneliness. Children shouldn't be expected to manage these emotions alone and need the opportunity to learn and work through a range of emotions with a supportive adult.
4) Guess how they feel
Simple but effective; when reading through books make a habit of encouraging children to guess how others are feeling and why.
Physical games that use touch can have a positive effect on children's behaviour and support bonding and connection. Scientists have found that warm relationships between parents and children promote the development of a more richly connected and well developed prefrontal cortex.
5) Tickle Monster
Tickle monster is a simple game with no props required. Sit in the middle of the room and shout 'The Tickle monster is coming' and count down from 5. Chase your toddler around the room and make them laugh and giggle as much as possible. There are many different variations of tickle games and you only need to play for a few minutes a day to see a benefit.
Check out our Teddy Time Classes for more information on developing Emotional Learning in toddlers and preschoolers