Empathic Parenting Counseling and Coaching

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Age Appropriate Toddler Expectations


​The “terrible twos” is a ubiquitous phrase to describe toddlerhood, where many parents find themselves in a world of contradictions. Toddlers still need their parents’ near constant attention, even while they are eager to assert their independence. Toddlers are emotional, irrational, and relentless. Yet when we better understand this phase of our children’s lives, we may actually begin to savor this stage of curiosity and wonder.


Katie Thomas via Flickr.com


Prior to the age of three, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is notably immature.  This area of the brain is important for regulating emotions, controlling impulses, and solving problems. In this and myriad others ways, children are not tiny adults. They can’t reason like adults and they can’t make educated, calculated decisions like adults. No amount of punishment will speed up the process of brain development. Given that toddlers have limited skills, we can give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re doing the best they can in a given situation, and it’s with our coaching and guidance that they will acquire new skills. As Dr. Shefali Tsabary explains, “”we help [our children] most not when we try to banish their emotions, but when we equip them to navigate such emotions.”

Tantrums aren’t necessarily pleasant, but they are inevitable. Toddlers are continuously learning what to do with overwhelming emotions in situations where they have very little control. This morning my son and I met some close friends at the park. My son wanted to swing, but our friends reached the swings first, and he quickly realized he would need to wait his turn. He became very upset because he didn’t know how long he would need to wait, and he had no control over when he could swing. He threw himself to the ground and began to wail. Something seemingly trivial felt very upsetting to him, and he expressed strong feelings about his predicament. Treating him punitively or ignoring him would have only escalated the situation and ruined our morning at the park before it had even begun. Besides, expecting him to react with skills far beyond his years is unfair. Instead, I validated his frustration, empathized with him, and when he calmed down I suggested ways we could pass the time until his turn on the swing. As L.R. Knost reminds us, “…caring about the little things that matter to little people creates big connections.”

There seems to be a common misconception that small children are devious. The fact is, toddlers don’t manipulate, they communicate. When we witness a behavior we might view as manipulation, it might help us to stop and ask, “what is my child attempting to communicate?” It could be an unmet need for connection or an attempt to test our boundaries. This doesn’t mean giving in to the demands for extra tv or a cupcake before dinner. Rather, empathize with your child’s inherent lack of power and give him reasonable options, “You love that show don’t you? You can watch it again tomorrow. Right now, we can read a book or you can play in your sandbox.” Providing empathic limits consistently will be more effective than doling out arbitrary punishments.

We’ve all heard the parenting advice to ignore attention-seeking behavior. This always struck me as a little odd. When we ignore our children’s attempts to connect with us, the need doesn’t go away. Our children simply learn we aren’t going to give them what they need. Children are hard-wired to crave connection with their parents. When they don’t feel connected, they will reach out the only way they know how to get our attention. The best solution is to take the time to connect in a way that feels meaningful for the child. Spend fifteen minutes cuddling, playing, or reading books. When your child’s need for attention has been fulfilled, the behaviors we’ve all been told to ignore will likely naturally decrease.

Keeping our expectations of our toddlers realistic will help us to see their most challenging behaviors as an opportunity to offer support and emotion coaching. Through these strategies we can raise resilient, emotionally intelligent children who feel secure in our unconditional love.

7 thoughts on “Age Appropriate Toddler Expectations

  1. How much is too much attention though? My child is constantly craving attention. “Mom. Mom. Mom.” Every 2 minutes!

    • Great question! I think if you’re making an effort to give your child your undivided attention for a chunk of time every day, you can feel okay about not giving your child your attention ALL day. 🙂

  2. Doesn’t reacting, even positively like suggested above, give them the signal that the tantrum elicits your attention and hence keep encouraging tantrums?

    • Great question! I don’t think kids particularly like tantrums any more than we do. Typically they’re a sign that a child needs help, and I think the only message we send by giving them the help they need is that we love and accept them even when we don’t love their behavior.

  3. My 18mo cries & points every time she wants something I try to communicate with her what it is she’s asking for but she just ignores & continues to cry until she gets it, she throws tantrums & hitting especially when she’s tired. (She’s on a schedule wake up, nap & bed time everyday) Idk where this is coming from. What advice do u have for me?

    • Hi Marie! It’s hard without knowing more, but when she cries for something she wants that she CAN have, I would give her the language for it and let her know you understand her request. When she wants something she can’t have, I would reflect that you understand her desire but that you can’t give it to her. More than anything, I would empathize with her that it’s really hard to know what she wants and now have the language to communicate that effectively, particularly when it’s hard to decipher what it is that she wants.. 18 months is a hard age in that regard, and it will get better.

  4. have a two-year old daughter her mother has no parenting skills. How do I get mother the help she needs.

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