What is my toddler thinking?

Tiny toddlers can express some big emotions. Psychologist Melanie Woodfield shares four thoughts on what might be going on inside our little ones’ minds. 

Me first
When parenting young children, it's crucial to remember that toddlers are egocentric wee creatures, but not in the nasty sense. Put simply, they struggle to see a situation from someone else’s point of view and assume that everyone else shares the same thoughts, feelings, likes and dislikes. Carefully presenting Mum with a huge worm is an example of this – assuming that, because it’s precious to them, it’ll be appreciated by Mum too. It’s also why the question “How do you think Sarah felt when you took her toy?” can be tricky for a young child. Understanding how other people are feeling is beyond their point of reference right now. It’s absolutely a helpful question to ask to encourage learning when everyone’s calm, but just expect to have to provide some input – “You felt happy, but she felt sad”.

Concrete thinking
Toddlers also tend to think literally (‘concrete thinking’) and find it hard to think abstractly about things that they can’t see or touch. That’s why it’s more meaningful to say “We’re going to music after you’ve eaten your apples for morning tea” rather than “We’ll head out about 10am”. It’s also why they tend to struggle with clichés and sarcasm – “I’m over the moon!” or “Yes, I just love you hitting your brother” don’t make much sense when you’re tiny.

Thinking and feeling
Thoughts and feelings have a very close relationship with each other. This is a complicated concept but the core ideas can be introduced from a young age. To start with, help your child to notice their own emotions and have a word or label to describe these – wouldn’t it be wonderful if your child could tell you they’re angry, rather than demonstrating this feeling by throwing something? With babies, try babbling the likes of “Oh, bubby is a sad bubby”, or “Happy boy!”. With toddlers, keep categories simple (happy, sad, angry and possibly ‘worried’) and try things like “I can see your face has gone red and you’re frowning – you are angry!”.

With slightly older children, you can help them get to know their thoughts, and the relationship between thoughts and feelings. If your child says “No one likes me”, help them to see that this is an idea, which is not necessarily true (even though it feels true). And help them to notice that, when they have that thought, their feelings change. For all ages, praise any behaviour you want to see more often, along the lines of “Thanks for telling me how you feel”.

Cause and effect
Finally, toddlers are not cognitively capable of consciously manipulating you. Their actions are almost always an attempt to figure out how the world works. It’s their job to be curious and notice things. They’ve noticed that pulling all the books off the shelf leads to Mum making a loud noise and rushing over … they’re intrigued. But they’re not consciously trying to ruin your day. Step back, take care of yourself (something to eat or a cup of tea, perhaps?) and it’ll become clearer that your challenging toddler is simply doing what toddlers do best – learning how the world around them works.

Dr Melanie Woodfield is a clinical psychologist and mother of two, who teaches and writes on the side.

Image: istock


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