Posted by: coachingparents | September 8, 2007

Emotional Structure for Terrific Toddlers

By Caron Goode

What do thumb sucking, sleeping with a doll, and eating a peanut butter sandwich everyday have in common? These are topics of questions sent to Inspired Parenting about behaviors of two-year-olds. These typical behaviors demonstrate the desire for soothing and the need for structure or routine as the two-year-old’s brain is connecting the neural dots in one of their fastest growth spurts.

So What’s Happening? Biochemistry
As the infant is developing in his first year, the brain is growing, particularly in the pre-frontal lobes. And, from the prefrontal lobes to the emotional parts of the brain, rich neural networks are being established. The toddler develops the emotional-cognitive connection to his environment and the people in his world during typical activities like standing up, walking, exploring, and expressing. Author Joseph Chilton Pearce calls it the “new neural material needed for emotional imprints, construction of knowledge, and relationships the child will create.” Information gets imprinted into the brain and the body through direct sensory, motor, and kinesthetic experiences.

Emotional-Mental Connections
The human evolutionary part of the child gently pushes the toddler forward to know her environment. Explore. Touch. Feel. Think. These activities move the child through ranges of expression and exploration that could be tiring for a parent.

On top of that, the intuitive part of the child feels and senses our feelings like a wave of water moving through the environment. The question is how do we respond to our children emotionally? Do we respond with feeling, activity, words, or structure? A friend had a very intellectual two-year old who held his breath and turned bright red when she started to explain something. He wanted a visceral response, not talk. The actions we take and the feelings we have make more sense than words to a two-year-old.

During these toddler years, the youngster is shaping his or her lifelong emotional character, which includes impulse control, sense of self, ability to relate to people, and their view of the world. The brain’s neural pathways develop now!

Age two is also about emotions and intuition. It is a common parental response to take a two year old personally if we are not yet comfortable and confident in our parenting abilities. Each parent has an inner two-year-old, because much of our emotional impressions imprint at this age. In fact, one parent whose daughters are now teens often changed their occasional emotional pouting by asking, “How old is this one?” The question stopped their talk and made them check their pouty facial expressions in the mirror; laughing at how easily they had reverted to their own toddler years.

Two-year-olds need structure, touch, empathy, physical guidance, music, movement, and exploration. So let’s look at the questions Inspired Parenting has received because they reveal the emotional territory that a two-year-old encounters. Mainly you will see the parents’ disagreement about the two-year-old’s behavior seems based upon their gender acculturation. We make a difference by understanding what the child needs and how it is our responsibility to meet those needs. The child is not there “to obey us.” Rather, we are there to guide the child, to offer the comfort and structure to help a child learn to regulate her own behavior.

Q: I have three children, ages 4, 2, and 4 months old. My two-year-old has started sucking her thumb. My husband yells at her sometimes, and then she goes into a full-blown tantrum. First of all, is the thumb sucking normal and does yelling contribute to her anxiety?

A: It is normal for a toddler to suck her thumb or fingers. Toddlers do this for the soothing and comfortable feeling it brings. Toddlers need touch, and it really helps if their emotional environments are calm. Does yelling, loud voices, and threats cause the need for more soothing? Yes.

Q: “My 2-1/2 year old son plays with his female cousin who is a year older and in a play group. My son dresses up in hats, toy heels, and walks around the house with the other children. My husband is furious when he sees the boy in heels. He calls him an unkind term. Our son turns red with embarrassment and hides in his bedroom. When he falls asleep he has his cousin’s doll in his arms. Our first son never did this because my husband spent much time with him outside playing ball, and this son has turned into an excellent young athlete. But he never took this care with our second son, and now he complains. Is dress-up okay for my son?

A. Yes, dress up is okay for your second son. Think of it as trying on dozens of Halloween costumes to play out different games and roles. It is also what his cousin plays, and he is learning cooperation and social skills. Kinesthetic children who are sensitive to touch especially like textures and materials. I suspect the doll brings comfort or security when he feels upset. The problem lies in the relationship of your second son to his father, and this is a separate issue altogether. Can you get some relationship counseling from a pediatric expert or marriage counselor so your husband will better understand what is developmentally normal for children, and together work out the values and agreements by which you are rearing your sons?

What Can You Do?
The following suggestions for two-year-olds come from different parents and one approach may work for your child’s temperament.

You want your child to pick up a toy or do something physical. Show them and talk about it as you go along. Take them by the hand and walk with them. “Play time is over now. Together we pick this up and put it in this toy box.” Point to the next toy. “Good. Where do we put it?” Move through the motions with a calm voice and your child will be happy to pick up her toys by herself when the imprint is anchored.

About the time your child starts to walk, begin training him in a way to soothe himself when he feels upset. The most powerful soother is your touch. A toddler sucks a finger or thumb because it is a way to sensorally experience touch and the association of the sucking reflex calms the body. Rub their hands together. Move her hand in circles around her chest. It calms the heart and the emotions. Start when your child is a baby to play one piece of music that entrains your child into relaxation, so by the time your child is age two, the music and calmness are already imprinted.

Instead of threats, whisper gently in your toddler’s ear what you want to say, and then move your child through the behavior with physical guidance. Again, I cannot overemphasize the use of touch and empathy instead of threats and harsh words.

De-stress yourself. Stay calm. Take a breather, a break, and nurture your emotional waves so they don’t drown the toddler.

Put on music and dance when a scream, stomp, or tantrums brew. Head it off at the pass with a little dancing around the room and gaiety, even if you have to pretend. Shift the mood however you know how!   Try to train your child with different words. How about Nix instead of No. Stop rather than Shut Up. Smile instead of Scream.

Figure out how your toddler pushes your buttons, then be the grown-up and shift your mood. One mother called me in tears because she gave her two year old some banana slices to eat while he was watching television. When she returned from a quick trip to the laundry room, he had mashed it into her new carpet. He was having a blast, and she burst into tears. She called me because she was saying that he did it “to her.” She knew better. Her son was not out to get her. But she was tired. I babysat, and she went out to lunch.
How to you handle the behavior and emotions of your terrific two-year-old? Send your comments to, and we’ll post your replies in the next magazine.

© 2004 by Caron B. Goode, Ed.D. This article may be reprinted with permission and appropriate credit and biographical information. Please notify Dr. Goode at for a link.


About The Author …
Caron Goode’s (EdD) insights are drawn from her fifteen years in private psychotherapy practice and thirty years of experience in the fields of education, personal empowerment, and health and wellness. She is the author of eight books and the founder of the Academy for Coaching Parents, a training program for parents & professionals who wish to mentor other parents. A mom and step-mom, she and her husband live in Whitney, Texas. Reach her at



  1. I have a two year old that started sucking his thumb out of know where .. He wont stop sucking it he does it all the time any tips to help?

  2. these is is a GREAT relief and a BIG help to me,thanks a lot for the advice, i had a rough morning with my twin boys who turned two on the 2nd of feb. i though i needed to find out more about the ” terrible two” . And am glad i did it.

    thanks again.


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