Your baby's brain explained | The neurological development responsible for the 'terrible' twos

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"Toddlers, similar to babies are emotionally driven…. They learn though their physical senses and experiences". (Getty Images)
"Toddlers, similar to babies are emotionally driven…. They learn though their physical senses and experiences". (Getty Images)
  • The toddler years are so infamously challenging they've been dubbed the 'terrible' twos.
  • And according to experts, it's children's genetic make-up which drives them "to act independently".
  • Here they share how to navigate life with a busy toddler.

The toddler phase of childhood is infamously regarded as a time of boundless energy, tantrums and questions galore, and it's all thanks to their ever-developing brain, says the University of Witwatersrand's Professor Tamsen Rochat, and Drs, Stephanie Redinger and Sahba Besharati.

Rochat, Redinger and Besharati, Wits experts in cognitive neuroscience and early child development, describe the toddler years as an exciting yet demanding time.

And while challenging, the time you spend with your dynamo toddler is crucial for your child's "brain architecture".

"During the toddler years, brain development is influenced by many factors, including a child's relationships, experiences and environment," the Wits trio told Parent24. They warn that a lack of appropriate interaction and stimulation may "lead to learning and behaviour problems later in life".

"When there is an absence of responsive caregiving, or when a child does not receive appropriate stimulation in their environment or adequate nutrition, the brain may not develop as expected," Rochat, Redinger and Besharati advise.

ALSO READ | A psychotherapist explains how toddlers learn and how to maximise their potential

Find the complete series here: Your baby's brain explained: A Parent24 Series 

The driving force behind their 'intense' behaviour

The first step to understanding your toddler's "ongoing brain and cognitive development," Rochat, Redinger and Besharati say, is recognising the "interplay between biological, psychosocial and environmental factors".

Parents must bear in mind that there is no separating their toddler's social and emotional development from their intellectual and physical development.

And it's actually this development that parents can pinpoint as the driving force behind their "intense" behaviour.

Your impulsive, energetic and emotional toddler

"Toddlers, similar to babies, are emotionally driven… They learn through their physical senses and experiences, which they can do with their ever-developing gross motor skills – walking, climbing and evening running… Their sensory motor areas are also working in overdrive as toddlers crave tactile stimulation and sensation – hugs, tickles, and they touch everything!"

Your toddler will also start using imaginative play and activities like puzzles, stacking and block games come playtime, thanks to increased development in their brain's right hemisphere function, "increased spatial abilities emerge," as well the Wits experts say.

In comparison, increased development in left brain functioning, typically related to language, assist their ability to grasp and express themselves via basic phrases, Rochat, Redinger and Besharati explain. 

Prefrontal areas of the brain however, are still relatively underdeveloped at this stage, "these frontal regions coordinate most behaviour, from regulating emotions to organising memories. It's not to say that frontal mechanisms are completely inactive in toddlers or young children, but they function differently as they have not fully matured. It is almost impossible to get a toddler to inhibit what they say or show restraint in what they want. Toddlers, like babies, are more emotionally driven and struggle to control their emotions, and so are often impulsive. You only really catch up during adolescence!"

Toddlers' immature frontal region can also account for their short attention span.

At least now you can feel good knowing there's a scientific reason for this, and your toddler isn't trying to annoy you.

ALSO READ | The 'why phase': How to deal with your toddler's many, many questions

'Toddlers are driven to act independently'

The immature prefrontal area of the brain can also be credited with being the reason the toddler years are famously referred to as the "terrible twos," but what Rochat, Redinger and Besharati call the "terrific twos" instead. 

It's also the time when your child discovers and embraces their independence.

"One of the 'milestones' they reach is the realisation that they are separate individuals from their parents or caregivers. This means that toddlers are driven to act independently, to assert themselves, and to communicate their likes and dislikes," the Wits experts explain.

They say it helps to see this as a "normal development phase". Rochat, Redinger and Besharati say it's also a fruitful time for parents to teach their tots "how to communicate their specific needs and desires".

"Challenging behaviours in toddlers often arise when a child cannot find a way to express their feelings or needs in an appropriate way. Using these moments to teach a more constructive way of handling a feeling or situation is the most effective way of dealing with the challenging behaviour in the long term".

Next: Your baby's brain explained | 'Three times more active than an adult's': The preschool years

Find the complete series here: Your baby's brain explained: A Parent24 Series 

More about our experts:

Associate Professor Tamsen Rochat is a Welcome Trust Intermediate Fellow in Public Health and Tropical Medicine at the Centre of Excellence in Human Development at the University of the Witwatersrand. Tamsen is a clinical psychologist and has led many trials of parenting and mental health interventions, including the Amagugu Intervention. She has established The BEACON cohort in Soweto, which is a large research project investigating the link between executive function, mental health and risk behaviour in early adolescence.Dr Stephanie Redinger is an occupational therapist and early career researcher in maternal mental health and early childhood development. She is particularly interested in how caregiver-child relationships might influence both caregiver well-being and children's developmental trajectories. Stephanie is currently employed at the Wits Health Consortium, where she works on various projects. She has recently submitted her PhD in Paediatrics examining antenatal depression and anxiety through the Developmental Pathways for Health Research Unit at the University of the Witwatersrand.Dr Sahba Besharati is a neuropsychologist and senior lecturer in cognitive neuroscience at the Department of Psychology at Wits. She is a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar in the Brain, Mind and Consciousness Programme and the co-founder and joint leader of Wits NeuRL (Neuroscience Research Laboratory). Sahba's research specialises in social-cognitive and affective neuroscience, where she integrates innovative methods to investigate self-consciousness, emotion and social cognition. Above all, she is the mother of two vivacious children aged three and five.


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