Neurobiology and developmental psychology

In order to understand Toddler behaviour we need to understand the basis of many popular toddler taming theories and methods and so we start with the work of the early behaviourists, namely Skinner and Pavlov.

Following that we will look at Carrots and Sticks’: The Issue of Intrinsic V Extrinsic Motivation and their impact on toddler development. 

Finally, we will look at the psychoanalytical theories for understanding t


B.F. Skinner

In perhaps his most famous experiment B.F. Skinner placed pigeons (which were starved) in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behaviour." From this he discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions. 

For instance “One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return” Skinner believed that his pigeons were behaving as if they were influencing the delivery of food and also believed that this experiment could shed light on human behaviour: “The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behaviour and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking.

 There are many analogies in human behaviour. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favourable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behaviour in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviours have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing, or more strictly speaking, did something else”.  

Using Skinner’s findings why might a child sit in “time out” or go to “the naughty step”?

Ivan Pavlov

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov carried out perhaps the most famous behaviourist experiment of all, his “conditioned reflex” experiment. Pavlov noticed that laboratory dogs did not just salivate when food was presented but also when the lab assistant who fed them appeared. This led to the famous experiment that coined the term “classical conditioning” in 1927.Pavlov initially starved the dogs and rang a bell whenever he introduced food to them, over time he noticed that the dogs salivated (saliva collected in a cannula inserted into their salivary gland) in response to the bell, even in the absence of food.

Pavlov termed these reactions the unconditioned stimulus (US); The bell and the unconditioned response (UR); salivation. If the neutral stimulus (the food) was presented along with the unconditioned stimulus (the bell) it would become a conditioned stimulus (CS). If the CS and the US are repeatedly paired, eventually the two stimuli become associated and the organism begins to produce a behavioural response (in this case salivation) to the CS. Pavlov called this the conditioned response (CR) which gave rise to the term “classical conditioning”.  This theory is still widely practiced, particularly in dog training. For instance to get a dog to sit we may use an edible treat and the word “sit” (the US). When the dog does indeed sit (the UR) he is rewarded with a treat, the word “sit” therefore because a conditioned stimulus (CS) if paired with the US (the food) enough times, with the conditioned response being the sitting.

How might Pavlov’s findings apply to reward/sticker charts?

Seligman and the theory of Learned Helplessness

In the 1970's Seligman restrained dogs in a Pavlovian harness and administered several electrics hocks (UCS) paired with a conditioned stimulus (CS); a bell. The dogs were then placed in a shuttle box (a box divided into two halves with a hurdle to jump in the middle) where they could avoid a shock just by jumping over a barrier. Most of the dogs however failed to learn to avoid shock by jumping the hurdle, they just accepted it; they learnt to be helpless. 

Seligman argued that the prior exposure to the inescapable shock (whilst harnessed) interfered with the dog's ability to learn in a situation where avoidance or escape was possible. Seligman used the term Learned Helplessness to describe this phenomenon. The dogs didn't think they could get away so they didn't even try; does it mean they were content to be shocked because they quietly stood there and let the shock happen?

Using Seligman’s Theory of Learned Helplessness how can we understand current toddler sleep training?

‘Carrots and Sticks’: The Issue of Intrinsic V Extrinsic Motivation

The Case Against Rewards: “The more we want our children to want to do something, the more counterproductive it will beto reward them for doing it.” Alfie Kohn – Punished By Rewards.

  • Sticker/ Reward Charts
  • ‘Golden Time’
  • Marbles in a Jar
  • Bribery
  •  “If Then”

Rewards work on increasing extrinsic (external) motivation – that is encouraging a child to behave in a certain way in order to receive a reward – a classic behavioural tool. e.g.: “eat all your dinner and you can have a chocolate”, “brush your teeth and you can have a sticker”.  “If you pick up your toys then we’ll go to the park.” 

In the short term these techniques work well and most importantly for parents they work quickly. The effects however are not long lasting and are highly superficial, for a real change to take place we need to work with our child's intrinsic (internal) motivation – that is the motivation that comes from within.  Rewards such as sticker charts work only on a superficial extrinsic level and can actually undermine intrinsic motivation, making the child less likely to do the specific task unless they are given a reward, this sort of 'motivation' (sticker charts and the like) are actually a form of compliance tool, the child is complying with their behaviour whilst the reward is on offer, remove the reward and you lose compliance. Compliance does not indicate an internally motivated change has taken place.

The Case Against Punishments

  •  Time Out
  • Naughty Step
  • Sending to their room
  • Toy confiscation
  • Missing supper
  • Withdrawing parenting love and attention

“Behind every behaviour is an impulse or an attempt to communicate that can be supported? Even 'hostile' gestures can come from a basic desire to communicate. People hurt others only as much as they themselves are hurting. When they hurt others it is because they are often feeling hurt, mad or  scared themselves. A child who pushes another child out of the toy car may be feeling crowded and scared. When a child is hurting other children it may be hard to remember that he’s feeling vulnerable or scared himself. But if you merely punish him you load more hurt onto the existing hurt. If instead you take into account his circumstances and motivation, you can approach conflict resolution from a less punitive perspective than ‘let’s punish the wrong doer.’” Laura Davis “Becoming the Parent You Want To Be”

Ignoring a toddler, placing a toddler in 'Time Out' or seating them on 'The Naughty Step' does nothing to help the child release the hurtful emotion, instead it indicates to them that adults do not want to listen and instead the child should contain the hurtful feelings within themselves, it does not reduce their drive to perform the undesirable behaviour again. If the toddler is regularly punished in this way it is only natural that in time they will stop sharing their feelings with us. Love withdrawal techniques also make our love conditional, teaching the child that we only love them when they are 'good' – in many cases this can compound the issue, particularly when the child's unwanted behaviour is initially sparked by a need for more love and attention – e.g.: the arrival of a sibling. 

Might the answer then be to provide unconditional love and a safe environment for the child to express their unwanted feelings? Psychologist Martin Hoffman believes that Time Out is crueller than any other punishments as the child does not understand why he has been bad or know when mum is coming back. This loss of parental love does work at controlling behaviour but at terrific cost. 'Time out from positive reinforcement' was initially used to suppress behaviour in lab rats (for instance with sensory deprivation or removal of food in order to control behaviour) as with much of Behaviourism these animal based experiments grew into what is now the leading approach to child discipline!

How can we draw a parallel between Time Out and Controlled Crying? How and why do they both work?

Time Out – The ToddlerCalm Way

The only 'time out' ToddlerCalm advocates is the use of 'Time Our For Parents' – where instead of removing the toddler, at times of high stress the parent may decide to retreat – whether physically or mentally – for a few moments in order to calm themselves down so they may respond appropriately and respectfully to their child.

The Case Against Praise: Effective Versus Ineffective Praise

The majority of praise given to our children is very shallow and can have the opposite effect of that desired, for instance it can cause a child lose interest in a task and not push themselves to do better next time. Praise can also lead to our children believing they are only 'good' if they are perfect which in turn can lead to a fear of failure. Constantly telling a child “good job” is meaningless. Praising looks in particular can be very damaging. There are however ways to use praise effectively, i.e.: “Say what you see” and questioning to show your child that you are interested and appreciate their efforts. “Praise, like penicillin, must not be administered haphazardly. There are rules and cautions that govern the handling of potent medicines - rules about timing and dosage, cautions about possible allergic reactions. There are similar regulations about the administration of emotional medicine.” (H. Ginott, 1965)

Eight Ideas for Using Praise Effectively

What we say to our children is very powerful to them. It is important to offer acknowledgement, encouragement and attention through our words.  Praise can be a very effective tool for helping a child to learn that we value and love them.

1. Notice what your child is doing & comment on what you see “I can see you’ve built a train track, and now the train is going over the bridge” “I can see all your dollies are sitting in a line, and you’ve given each of them a cake”

2. Show a genuine interest & enthusiasm “I see lots of green on this drawing; tell me about what you’ve drawn” “I see all your cars are in a row, tell me about what they’re doing”

3. Tell your child how their behaviour makes you feel/ the effects of their behaviour “I feel so proud inside when I see you sat there chatting to your dolls” “I feel so happy when you join me to tidy up the toys”.

4. Show an interest in their behaviour by asking questions "I noticed you gave your brother a big cuddle when he fell over, what made you decide to do that?”

5. Model self-praise: “I’m so proud of myself for cooking this dinner. I didn’t know if I’d have the time or energy, but I’m so glad now that I decided to go for it”

6. Be very clear and specific “I’m feeling really happy that you put your books back on the shelf” versus “good girl for tidying”

7. Always focus your attention on effort and not outcome “I noticed how hard you had to work to climb up that slide” not “well done for getting to the top”

8. Never mix praise with a put down ”I’m feeling really happy that you got dressed so quickly, for once”

The Psychoanalysts and Alternative Toddler Techniques

John Bowlby and the Concept of ‘A Secure Base’

Bowlby was an English Psychiatrist/Psychoanalyst who devoted most of his career to the study of healthy and pathological attachment in infants and adults and believed that attachment was an evolutionary survival strategy for protecting the infant from predators. In 1951 wrote a publication for the WHO: Maternal Care and Mental Health in which he stated “The infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his  mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment and that not to do so may have significant and irreversible mental health consequences”. Bowlby's main idea was that the child has a need for a secure relationship with his adult caregiver, without which normal social and emotional development will not occur. Once this secure attachment is formed, as the toddler grows, he uses his attachment figure as a "secure base" from which to explore the world and has a tendency to seek proximity to those people, especially in times of distress.

Bowlby believed: "It is this complex rich and rewarding relationship with the mother in the early years varied in countless ways by relations with the father and with siblings that child psychiatrists and many others now believe to underlie the development of character and mental health."

Donald Winnicott and the Concept of ‘Holding

Winnicott's 3 developmental stages:  

1. Undifferentiated unity: The baby has an illusion of being connected with, and not separated from, the mother. They psychologically feel in complete control of the mother when the mother responds to its needs. 

2. Transition: If the baby's 'connection' illusion is undone suddenly it can be a traumatic shock for the baby, therefore it needs to happen as gently as possible, and the transition should be gentle. 

3. Relative independence: If the transition to independence is gentle the child will develop a healthy sense of self. Otherwise, the child remains uncomfortable with itself. 

Winnicott believed a transitional object (such as a soft toy) helped an infant to cope with separation(acting as a “mother substitute”) and was therefore a vital aspect of healthy development of independence.  Often they are warm and soft and reminiscent to the child of the mother's chest. He believed that by cuddling the transitional object a child feels they are cuddling their mother and thus feel comforted. Winnicott said that taking away the object from the child can cause great anxiety as they are now truly without their mother and suffer great feelings of loss and aloneness.The ‘good enough mother's’ role is to provide early connection (‘Holding’) and then gentle separation– for toddlers the ‘good enough mother’s’ role is to ‘hold’ when needed and to help the toddler transition into relative independence!

The Theory of Containment

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1. Melanie Klein:

Melanie Klein was a British Psychoanalyst (though she was born in Austria) working mostly in the1930s through to the 1950s. Klein was most famous for being the first to use psychoanalysis with children.  She also believed that children’s play was their primary mode of emotional communication.  

2. Wilfred Bion: 

Heavily influenced by the work of Klein, Wilfred Bion was a British Psychoanalyst working mostly in the 1950s through to the 1970s. In 1962, in his book ’Learning from Experience’, Bion (1962)introduced the idea of Containment. Stating the place where the child’s projection ends up as the 'container’ (The Mother) and that which is projected, the ‘contained.’ Waddell* (1998) helps us to put Bion’s ideas into practice. She describes a situation where a young child is attempting to do a simple jigsaw puzzle, battling to figure out where a piece fits. The mothers in this situation might give many different responses but she singles out three responses that illustrate Containment:1. The mother might see her child struggling and feel irritated that her child cannot complete a seemingly simple puzzle and the child picks up on this, feels more anxious and less capable of completing it, and eventually starts crying or leaves the room. 2. The mother might pick up that her child is struggling with the puzzle and believe that the child’s problem will be solved if she simply puts the piece into the correct place.3. The mother might engage with the child, encouraging him or her to persevere a bit longer, giving hints if needed, getting a feel for the child’s level of distress and turning the piece around the right way if needed, all of this in helping the child achieve a measure of autonomy through the exercise, a sense that they have the capability to complete the task. In the first example, the mother fails to contain the child’s anxiety about not being able to complete the puzzle. The mother lacks the ability to sit with and transform these feelings of anxiety, with the result that they are returned to the child unmodified. 

In the case of the second mother, she has some capacity to tolerate the child’s anxiety and is able to act in a manner that she perceives as being helpful to the child. However, she doesn’t have the capacity to sit with the feelings that the child has projected for long enough to be able to sift through them and work out what the child is truly trying to say. The child is not trying to communicate that it wants the puzzle to be solved; it is trying to tell the mother about the intense distress felt when faced with the prospect of having to do something without her. The third example shows a mother who is sitting with the child’s anxiety and sifting through the uncertainty for clues as to what the child is communicating; when she does intervene it is with an eye on how the child is responding, and in a way that allows the child to discover a sense of his own capacity and doesn’t impose meaning on him.

The Theory of Containment Illustrated by Modern Science

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Luby,  Barch,  Belden, Gaffrey, Tillman, Babb, Nishino, Suzuki, Botteron, ‘Maternal support in early childhood predicts larger hippocampal volumes at school age’ January 2012, PNAS


Early maternal support has been shown to promote specific gene expression, neurogenesis, adaptive stress responses, and larger hippocampal volumes in developing animals. In humans, a relationship between psychosocial factors in early childhood and later amygdala volumes based on prospective data has been demonstrated, providing a key link between early experience and brain development. Although much retrospective data suggests a link between early psychosocial factors and hippocampal volumes in humans, to date there has been no prospective data to inform this potentially important public health issue. In a longitudinal study of depressed and healthy preschool children who under went neuroimaging at school age, we investigated whether early maternal support predicted later hippocampal volumes. Maternal support observed in early childhood was strongly predictive of hippocampal volume measured at school age. The positive effect of maternal support on hippocampal volumes was greater in non depressed children. These findings provide prospective evidence in humans of the positive effect of early supportive parenting on healthy hippocampal development, a brain region key to memory and stress modulation.” 

What does this mean? How parents care for and support a toddler literally changes not just toddler’s personality, but their brains as well. Responding to a toddler with compassion causes physical changes (enlargement) in their hippocampus.

What is the Hippocampus?

Size matters when it comes to the hippocampus.  Having a small hippocampus increases your risk for many psychological disorders including depression and Alzheimer’s disease. The hippocampus plays a  large role in how we are able to handle stress and how we will remember our life, as the hippocampus is crucial for our ability to form and store personal memories. It is highly important for restraining the body’s stress and inflammatory responses, both of which can induce significant damage to bodily organs and the brain if not properly reigned in.

Why should we respond to a toddler with compassion?

What do we mean by “respond with compassion” anyway? Do we mean:

  • Always letting the toddler get their own way for fear of upsetting them?
  • Being permissive and giving in each time the toddler cries?
  • Always letting them carry on doing what they’re doing because they are having fun/learning?

Absolutely not! These are all examples of ‘Permissive Parenting’ which is something we do not advocate at all, but many confuse compassionate parenting with permissive parenting, fearing they will create little devils who are spoilt and always get their own way.

Instead we endorse:

  • Boundaries, limits and discipline (it is not OK for a toddler to jump on the sofa, pour water all over the floor or hit the dog).
  •  Saying ‘no’ when it is necessary.
  • Empathy towards the toddler’s feelings, though sometimes our boundaries will make them sad/mad.
  • ‘Sitting with’ a tantrum – it’s OK for toddlers to cry and tantrum! They are displaying valid emotions.

It is very important parents do not confuse the two!

Modern Applications of Psychoanalytic Theory

Psychoanalytical approaches to working with toddlers are rising in popularity once again, having been over-shadowed by Behaviourism for at least the last 50yrs. Popular applications include:

  • Love Bombing – Oliver James "As a parent of a child of this age, you need to realise that if things go pear-shaped it is actually always your fault, in the sense that if you keep a close enough eye on them you can prevent atrocities….. Young children need to be in the presence of a responsive, loving adult at all times"
  • Unconditional Parenting – Alfie Kohn: “You have to give them unconditional love. They need to know that even if they screw up, you love them. You don’t want them to grow up and resent you, or even worse, parent the way you parented.”
  • Attachment Parenting “The most effective way to discipline a toddler is to show and tell him the behaviour you expect. Between one and three years of age, children are learning how they're expected to act, and they learn this from several sources: their peers, parents, and other people of influence, such as TV characters. If their world is filled with aggressive models, they naturally conclude that this is the way people should act toward one another” – William Sears "Babies need to be with people they are attached to well beyond nine months. The first two or three years are the crucial window when various systems which manage emotions are put into place. In particular, it is when we learn to exercise self-control and to be aware of other people's needs. Without these basic emotional skills children may not grow up emotionally competent." Sue Gerhardt
  • Authentic Parenting: "Feelings of worth can flourish only in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated,mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible -- the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family." ~ Virginia Satir
  • Playful Parenting – Laurence Cohen: “I’m always amazed when adults say that children “just did that to get attention”. Naturally children who need attention will do all kinds of things to get it. Why not just give it to them?”