After a long day of watching my toddler’s face get red, her eyes well up and her tiny fists shake wildly, I get the overwhelming feeling that I must be doing this parenting thing all wrong. It can be as small as her wanting frozen blueberries instead of fresh ones, or as big as getting scolded for running in a parking lot. Either way, my sweet toddler can sometimes seem emotionally out of whack. My husband reminds me that she’s just a little kid, but I still find myself thinking, “Is this really normal?”
As it turns out, parents like me may expect much more emotional self-control out of our toddlers than is even possible. Tuning In, the National Parents Survey conducted by ZERO TO THREE and the Bezos Family Foundation, found that the majority of parents (56%) believe that children start developing self-control before age 3. In reality, it’s more like 3.5 to 4 years.
Key Findings: Parents Expectation Gap
The expectation gap between parents and their toddlers exists not only with self-control, but also with managing emotions and sharing and taking turns. I remember feeling stressed about my daughter being visibly frustrated about sharing toys at playgroup when she was barely 2. I even asked the teacher for help. Apparently, I’m far from alone. Many of these results are eye-opening, and can really help parents shift how they react to emotional toddler behavior:
- 43% of parents believe sharing can be mastered before age 2.
- 24% of parents believe that children are able to control their emotions at age 1 or younger. Forty-two percent believe they have this ability at age 2.
- 56% of parents believe that children have the impulse control to resist forbidden behavior before age 3. Thirty-six percent believe children under age 2 have this type of control.
Guess what, brain research shows that all of these skills don’t begin to develop until ages 3.5 to 4 years old. We’re off the hook! Well, not quite. Parents also need to manage their own emotions, and 47% of parents told ZERO TO THREE they need better control over their reactions.
Learn to Cope with Your Toddler’s Big Emotions
A toddler’s emotional rollercoasters can make parents feel impatient and ineffective. After asking my daughter not to run away from me at the zoo a thousand times, I wonder if I’m even getting through at all. But brain science tells us that these skills develop between 3.5 and 4 years, and it actually takes years after that for kids to use them with consistency. The key for parents is channeling their own feelings effectively into teaching moments.
In the press release for the survey’s findings, Matthew Melmed, executive director for ZERO TO THREE, said, “The early years are about teaching, not punishing. When parents have realistic expectations about their child’s capabilities they can guide behavior in very sensitive and effective ways.”
ZERO TO THREE also provides parenting resources to help moms and dads support their toddlers and manage their own reactions to tough situations. They also stress that even though toddlers don’t develop these skills until later than parents expect, it is still important to model the right behavior and nurture growth along the way.
This new information already changed my mindset for the positive. Instead of letting my blood boil over when yet another meltdown hits, I stop focusing on how illogical and ridiculous it is. I don’t worry that there’s something terribly wrong. I just take a deep breath, hold her close and we work through it together.