What's Going on Inside the Toddler Brain

Child psychologist and director of the Barnard Center for Toddler Development Dr. Tovah P. Klein reveals what parents can do to help their toddler grow into a fulfilled child and adult, and she discusses new science that shows that resilience, self-reliance, self-regulation, and empathy are more critical to success than simple intelligence. She also explains what’s behind tantrums and fights over bedtime and why “toddlers are the opposite of civilized human beings.” 

On toddlers are so prone to tantrums: “They have a lot of new emotions – so anger, frustration, disappointment, fear really come into play as they start to separate. But they don’t – literally – have the brain mechanisms to control those. So they get upset, they get upset in the moment.”

On why their newfound independence can be so confusing for toddlers: "The struggle between being independent or wanting to rely on others is a lifelong struggle."

On the importance of routines: “Toddlers have no sense of time. Zero. And so what routines do is they help organize them. They walk them through the day. And we’re also, literally in those routines, setting up kind of a roadmap for them so we don’t have to keep micromanaging them.”

On not believing everything you read on the web: “I think that parents need to step back, and sometimes ask them or maybe even often ask themselves, ‘What do, in my heart, I think is right for this child?’ And parents are usually right.”

On why time outs don’t really work for toddlers: “Time outs were started for older children…It was the nicer version of the dunce cap.” She says, “But young children don’t have that capacity to sit and to think, so removing a child in a supportive way because a situation’s not working, and saying, ‘Hey, we need to take a break,’ is one thing. But punishing them actually does backfire and makes them feel very, very badly rather than getting control of their behavior.”

On why sticker charts rarely work: “They’re short-term control mechanisms.”

The most important thing to keep in mind, Klein says: “There’s not one set of rules.”

Dr. Klein's book is How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success.