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What’s Your Toddler Thinking?

Toddlers can be mystifying beings.  You’re cruising through a good morning, and then suddenly, they melt down at what seems like an entirely insignificant event (the loss of a sock would not be unheard of.)  What’s happening in that toddler brain?

Developmentally, toddlers have some features in common with adolescents.   Both are trapped between a desire to stay close and safe where parents are concerned, and a desire for independence and self-sufficiency.  This ambivalence plays out behaviorally, which can be confusing and frustrating for parents.

Toddlers are developing distinct personalities and preferences.  These preferences might vary from day to day, but are all strongly held–hence, the meltdown when a cherished sock is lost, and NO OTHER SOCK will do.  Even suggesting an alternative can put a parent firmly in enemy camp, in the eyes of the toddler. because it underscores to the child that you just don’t get it.

Another thing toddlers and adolescents have in common is that their preferences feel like part of their identity.   That’s why a compromise (i.e. a different sock) can feel so distressing.  It’s like you’re trying to take away a piece of their still-forming identity and replace it with something substandard, something that feels other.

But because they also want to feel safe and loved, when they feel their bond with a parent is threatened, that can create a lot of emotional upheaval.  For example, sometimes a toddler will have a tantrum and then be clingy afterwards, seeking reassurance that they haven’t sabotaged parental love through their misbehavior.  They need to know that the parent will still reliably be there as a touchstone–in attachment terms, as a secure base that the child can leave and return to again and again.

That’s why it’s important never to shame a toddler (or an adolescent, for that matter.)  Even saying, “That’s so silly and unimportant, of course you can just wear this other sock,” can feel shaming.  It’s invalidating to the  developing self.

Much better to empathize and then hold the limit: “I see this is very upsetting for you, that you really, really wanted the wear the polka dot socks.  I’m sorry that we can’t do that right now.  As soon as the sock is washed, you can have it back.”  It’s not super-important what you say, just that your tone is one of understanding and acceptance.  You’re allowing the child to have his emotional upheaval without belittling it.  This helps a child learn to organize his emotions and to realize, ultimately, that he can be okay without a desired belonging.  But he’ll only come to that realization through compassionate support, and mostly, it will have to be on his own terms.

Because that’s the self-sufficiency/independence part of the toddler make-up.  Creating opportunities for your toddler to figure things out through trial and error rather than simply being told is key.  One of the cool things about toddlers is the sense of self-discovery, which can invigorate even the most jaded parents, if we let it.

What’s Your Toddler Thinking?

Holly Brown, LMFT

Holly Brown is a marriage and family therapist in the San Francisco Bay area. She has a private practice in Alameda ( ). She is also a novelist ( Her latest is HOW FAR SHE'S COME, a workplace thriller which received a starred review from Publisher's Weekly: "This provocative tale will resonate with many in the era of the #MeToo movement."

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APA Reference
Brown, H. (2014). What’s Your Toddler Thinking?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 14, 2020, from


Last updated: 30 Apr 2014
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