Here’s What’s Really Going on in Your Toddler’s Brain, According to Science

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It’s a well-known fact that toddlers are total maniacs. One minute, you’re snuggling together reading Corduroy, and the next she’s angrily demanding a bowl of ketchup for dinner instead of the chicken cacciatore you spent an hour preparing.

With all of the rapid brain development happening inside those cute little heads, it’s no wonder that life with a toddler can be a wild ride. Luckily, child psychologists and early childhood specialists have learned quite a bit about the toddler brain to help us hang on (and maybe even enjoy their quirks a little) until they reach Kindergarten. Here’s what we know about the weird and wonderful minds of kids ages 1 to 3, including why they remember everything, steal your phone and need the green cup now.

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Their Memory Is Better Than Yours (Sometimes)

Remember that annoying battery-powered robot your in-laws bought that wouldn’t stop beeping, so you chucked it in the trash as soon as they left last Christmas? Your toddler does. And he will continue to ask what happened to it every weekend for the next two years. That’s because toddlers’ memory retention is surprisingly excellent—in a study conducted by Emory University in the ‘90s, psychologists studied a group of three year olds who went to Disney World with their families. Most of the toddlers were able to recount even small details about the trip 18 months later. (But really, who could forget the words to “It’s a Small World?”) On the other hand, toddlers’ working memory, which allows them to maintain a train of thought, needs some work. “If you’ve given your child what feels like a reasonable set of instructions, but they keep getting off track, it’s a good sign they’ve reached the limits of their working memory,” notes Rae Jacobson of the Child Mind Institute. And if you have a toddler, it’s probably no surprise that asking him to go to his room and grab his pajamas from the dresser will result in a toddler sitting on the floor of his room, surrounded by Legos. “Sweetie, where are your PJs?” “Huh?” Rest assured, it’s normal and his working memory will improve with age, so don’t sweat it.

…But Their Brains Are Also Designed to Forget

Think of your earliest childhood memory. You were about 3 or 4, right? That’s thanks to childhood amnesia, a term coined by psychologist Caroline Miles in the late 1800s. While toddlers can easily remember their pre-verbal lives as babies, as time goes on, they actually begin to recall those memories as having happened years later, a 2016 study published in Frontiers in Psychology suggests. Then, as adults, everything gets fuzzier, eventually becoming only a few faint memories from early childhood. Guess your kiddos will just have to rely on mom to supply the stories (and embarrassing photos) when they’re adults.

Tantrums Are Totally Normal (and Healthy)

Your toddler wanted the blue fork, but you gave her the green fork. A tantrum ensues. As parents, we sometimes feel like we’re in The Twilight Zone (namely, that episode where that five-year-old mindreading kid terrorizes the entire town), but these seemingly irrational meltdowns are actually completely normal behavior for the under-four set. A child’s limbic system is the brain’s emotional center, explains early childhood educator and developmental specialist Allana Robinson. “Our amygdala, which is the part of our limbic system that monitors our environment for danger–is growing super fast so it’s really overly sensitive [in toddlers and young children],” she says. If the amygdala is sensing danger, a toddler will go into a fight or flight response, which can be very difficult to snap out of once it is triggered. And even though your child isn't in any actual danger (see: green fork incident), a lack of control, feelings of discomfort and limited language skills to communicate their needs can easily send them into this spiral. While you’ll typically need to ride out a tantrum with your kid once it starts (think lots of hugs, deep breaths and nodding while she wails), making sure she’s slept well, eaten and used the bathroom can sometimes prevent a tantrum from beginning in the first place.

You’re Teaching Them How to Love Themselves (and Others)

Ever heard of Attachment Theory? First coined by psychologist Mary Ainsworth in the 1970s, Attachment Theory posits that a child’s relationship with her primary caretaker sets the stage for the way she bonds with her future partners, friends and even her own children. Ainsworth created an experiment called “The Strange Situation.” Basically, test-subject toddlers entered a room with a parent and some toys, and were then observed as the parent exited the room and a stranger entered. It actually didn’t matter much if the child freaked out when the stranger entered or not. Regardless of their reaction to the stranger, if the child was immediately calm and happy when mom returned, that’s a secure attachment. Did she become more upset or just straight-up ignore her mom when she returned? That could mean the toddler has ambivalent or insecure attachment, which is linked to depression and paranoia, in addition to drastically affecting the child’s relationships when she reaches adulthood. But if a toddler develops secure attachments throughout their childhood with kind, nurturing adults that love them, they will learn to love and respect others the same way. Pretty fascinating, right?

No, They Aren’t Trying to Manipulate You

If you’re a parent and the name Dr. Becky Kennedy doesn’t ring a bell, we’re about to change your damn life. The Instagram-famous psychologist and parenting expert is our go-to for pretty much everything toddler related, and we’re constantly repeating her brilliant adage: “There’s no such thing as fake crying.” Toddlers are not developmentally able to manipulate adults, and the concept is “based on a problematic assumption that we–the parents–have a better idea of what's going on inside a child than the child does,” Dr. Kennedy explains. Instead, try to give your child the benefit of the doubt and seek to understand the root of what is making them so upset. “Every human is looking to feel seen,” she says. (Ugh, she makes it sound so simple!)

They Notice When You’re on Your Phone

Your two-year-old has 10 bazillion toys, but she’s only interested in your phone. (Her next favorite plaything? The remote, followed by the dog bowl.) As you could probably guess, that’s because you find it so interesting. And while it may be cute to see them make pretend phone calls, watching you scrolling Instagram at the dinner table might be affecting them more than you realize. In this video of the ”Still Face Experiment” by Dr. Edward Tronick, babies are overjoyed when their parents smile, laugh and otherwise mirror their feelings back to them. But when a parent just stares into space, not reacting, it can be very upsetting for a young child. The solution? Keep the mindless scrolling to a minimum around your kids because they’re definitely paying attention. (Even if you’re just catching up on Dr. Becky’s Instagram.)

But Don’t Stress Too Much About Childcare

Daycare? A nanny? Grandma’s house? Home with Mom or Dad? As long as your toddler spends the day with an adult who is kind and attentive, the type of childcare might not matter much. “Evidence suggests that children of working moms grow up to be just as happy as children of stay-at-home moms,” notes Nicole Cuttia of New York Behavioral Health, citing a Harvard study of more than 100,000 parents. Bottom line: Do what feels right for your toddler (and the rest of your family), and everything will fall into place.

Positivity Is Key (Even When They Color on the Walls)

Parenting has come a long way since we were kids. Time outs and bribery have widely been criticized as ineffective and outdated (sorry, Supernanny) while gentle parenting and positive discipline are the methods du jour. But wait—this doesn’t mean you have to give in to your toddler’s every whim and serve him ketchup soup every night. Instead, try to consider difficult moments as an opportunity to come together instead of moving farther apart. “It may sound odd, but the mishap is not the problem, so long as there is a positive connection, a repair,” says Dr. Tovah Klein, author of the Toddler Whisperer. “The key at times like these–when their needs collide with ours–is how you reconnect with your child. Coming back together again, without blame, lets them know you are here for them, always, even when bad moments happen.” So even if you have to take your toddler’s favorite toy away because she won’t stop hitting her sister with it, set a firm boundary while still acknowledging their point of view. (“Yes, I know you’re upset, but I can’t let you hit your sister with the truck. I have to take it away now. We can talk about it if you want, and I’ll be right here if you need me.”) Deep down, your toddler wants to be understood, just like you do…even if her brain does work a little differently.

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Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.