The Truth About What Drives Toddler Behavior

The Truth About What Drives Toddler Behavior

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By Chris Thompson, author, parenting expert and certified NLP practitioner

The way kids behave can seem like a big mystery to parents. Most parents get frustrated because their toddlers or preschoolers won’t go along with simple requests. Whether it’s getting dressed, eating dinner or staying in bed at night, the frustration can seem endless.

But before we solve this problem, have you ever thought about your own behavior?Judging from my interactions with parents, it’s actually very common for adults to behave in a way that they feel bad about later.

Funny isn’t it? Toddlers may behave in ways that drive us parents crazy, but we end up behaving just as poorly as they do. It’s just that we’re supposed to be “grown ups”, so we reflect on it later. We feel bad for losing our cool, and we then search for solutions to become better parents.

With that said, I want to share a simple truth with you about toddler behavior. And as I share this truth with you, notice how it actually applies to all people. Not just toddlers. This means it applies to you and your behavior as a parent (or spouse, friend, employee, etc).

Emotion Drives Behavior

So what’s the big secret? Emotion drives behavior. It really is that simple. All behavior is driven by a person’s emotional state. Before we apply this to toddlers, let’s explore just how true this is in your own life.

Can you think of a time when you felt like you should be paying attention to your kids, but something deep within you “made” you just want to sit on the couch and relax? Or how about the last time your kids were misbehaving so badly that you felt you had no choice but to raise your voice, yelling at them?

Here’s another scenario: You’re reading email and you get an upsetting message from a colleague or boss. It puts you in a negative emotional state. Just at that instant, your child comes up to you asking you to play. You snap back, “Not right now – I’m busy!” Your words are not hurtful, but the way you conveyed them was.

Now your child is crying.

What happened? Quite simply, you were upset. Your emotional state had absolutely nothing to do with your child. Yet he or she was there at the exact “wrong” moment, and suffered the wrath of your emotional state.

If this type of thing hasn’t ever happened to you then … I guess you’re the perfect parent. For the rest of us, we make mistakes. We’re human. ??

Logic Does NOT Drive Child Behavior

Imagine that you’re in a bad mood and your spouse comes up to you and says, “Oh, you’re only upset because of work. Forget about it. You’re at home right now and shouldn’t let this stuff bother you at home. Snap out of it!”

Internally you darn well know he’s right. But it doesn’t change things. It doesn’t change your mood, does it? Of course not. Because you’re still upset emotionally!

Do this fun exercise. Imagine you have a 3 year old child who walks up to you one day and starts lecturing you. “You should be leaving your work problems at work, and having fun at home!”

This would completely catch you by surprise, right? It’s not the sort of thing a 3 year old says! You’d be trying to figure out who “planted” this line in your child’s mind. You’d burst out into laughter. This would powerfully shift your emotional state. Coming from a small child, this type of comment would really interrupt your emotional state.

A Child’s Behavior is Also Driven by Emotion

Logic, on its own, does not have much effect on emotional states. And as a parent, you need to understand this when trying to guide your child towards better behavior.

Based on my work with parents, most don’t seem to realize that their toddlers’ behavior is driven by emotion. If little Suzie refuses to take a nap, Mom reminds her that she’ll be cranky without it. Brandon cries because he dropped his stuffed bear on the car floor while Dad is driving 50 miles an hour on the highway. He doesn’t react too well when Dad tells him, “Sorry I can’t reach your bear for you right now”.

Parents tend to make the classic mistake of attacking a behavior problem or emotional upset with logical arguments. And they fail. Every time. Logic doesn’t work. Remember this. Say it to yourself out loud. Logic does not work!

The Solution: Directly Change the Child’s Emotional State

Let’s shift back to adulthood for a second. If I want my wife to feel loved, I don’t go explain to her all the reasons that she should feel loved, hoping the logic changes her mood. No. I go give her a hug, and look deeply into her eyes. I brush her hair back with my hands and tell her how much she means to me.

That creates a very powerful emotional change within her. It happens almost instantly.

Think about how you can apply this same understanding to kids. I teach parents a whole toolbox full of techniques in my Talking to Toddlers program. One tool is to break the negative emotional state by completely ignoring it, and manufacturing a new emotional state right on the spot.

Remember the above made-up example of a 3 year old saying something unexpected to you? It interrupts your emotional state. You can do the exact same thing to a child by saying something fun and crazy to a child.

Say something like, “Adam, look at that huge purple bird driving a truck across the street!” It sounds crazy, but it breaks their current state and gives you the opening you need to steer them towards a new, more resourceful and positive state of mind. For example, right after Adam gives up looking for the purple bird, you can offer up a discussion about how much fun swimming will be on the weekend. If Adam loves swimming, then talking about this will make him happy.

Since emotional state drives behavior, you can quickly and easily solve “bad” behavior this way.

Learn More about Guiding Emotional States in Kids

The pattern interrupt that I described above is only one simple method to redirect a child’s negative emotional state and find a happy place. My full complete home-study audio course, “Talking to Toddlers: Dealing with the Terrible Twos and Beyond” shows you many more tricks and tools to accomplish the same thing.

Just remember: Logic doesn’t drive behavior. Emotional states do. If you have an unhappy or poorly behaving child, learn to be a puppet master of your child’s emotions. It will carry you far beyond the toddler years. I believe it will lead to your child unconsciously learning more about managing emotions than he or she otherwise would.

Discover the easy way to be a better parent.

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