Terrible Twos scaled

Top tips for the terrific twos – Tip seven: overwhelm

My second son recently turned two. Friends have commented that my first son skipped the terrible twos. They presume my professional skill set will get us through them again. I don’t fancy my chances. This series of articles presents ten tips for negotiating this time with small ones. Know that with every strike of the keys, I remind myself that advice is easy to give and hard to follow. I will be attempting to practice what I preach this coming year: wish me luck!

In the very first article of this series when I pitched for switching the language of the terrible twos to the terrific twos, I made mention of just how extraordinary a brain is at aged two. It is worth revisiting this now as we consider a famous feature of the ‘T-Twos’: the meltdown, the tantrum, the overwhelmed small person letting it all out at full volume. What is going on here?

Well to understand, it is worth tracing back to what has been happening so far in their young lives. From birth they have been working on wiring their brains. It’s an incredible process, founded in the experiences they have. Sensory experiences, so things they see, hear, taste, touch and feel, send little electronic pulses through the brain, and at first these leave just a trace, but with time and with repetition, what was a trace becomes an established neural pathway. As more pathways find their way into the brain they meet each other and connect, and the brain forms networks of neural pathways. These are the foundations for cognition.

I always imagine it in terms of a forest. The early brain is a densely overgrown forest. When the baby has an experience it sends someone walking through the forest. If this just happens once, the forest remains pretty much the same, save for a few bent over blades of grass. But if it happens repeatedly, a little muddy track is formed, and in time, it becomes a road: an established neural pathway.

When babies are born there are no pathways in the forest, it’s all trees. Imagine being a person trying to navigate from one side of the forest to the other. You would get lost, there are no clues as to which way to go. Without roads, the forest is a confusing place. Little babies find the world…maybe not confusing, but full of wonder. Everything is strange and new. An image of neural pathways at this time will show a few little sprouts scattered over the brain.

Little by little, those pathways are built, tracks appear in the forest and now someone walking through has a vague idea of where to go. At this time in the lives of little ones, you will see them beginning to make sense of the world: reaching for an object they see to grab it with their hand, lifting food to their mouths. An image of neural pathways at this time will show a cobweb of pathways lacing across the brain.

They keep having new experiences and pathways keep on being laid in the forest. Now is about the time, if our metaphorical forest were a real one, that we would see campaigners lashing themselves to trees and trying to protect what is left of the greenery. Because as children approach the age of two, they have had so many experiences in their lives that there are roads everywhere in this forest. An image of neural pathways at this time looks like a child has been left alone with a biro for too long, a dense scribble of line over line crossing over and intersecting with one another covers the whole brain. This brain is a very difficult place to navigate within!

Just like the overgrown forest without any pathways it is hard to navigate across, so is the forest that has been nearly entirely replaced with pathways. When paths lead everywhere, how can you possibly know which way to go? Information comes into the brain – and fires across it in all directions. It is this that creates the wonder and awe. It is this that makes the blade of grass so interesting. It is this that makes them want to stop and stare at a beetle on the path. And it is also this that makes it all too much for them at times. Whilst a blade of grass can be fascinating, the average family living room with voices, a TV and toys would be overloading. Children are amazing and mostly they handle it, but every so often, they do not!

What happens next in the brain is interesting too. It recognises that it is not useful to have SO MANY pathways, and so it decides which are most used and lets the rest grow over. By the time you are 6, you have a brain that is bespoke to your early environment. The brain continues to change and grow and adapt, but never again do you have as many pathways as you do aged two. So when they do get overwhelmed by it all, understand that if we were in their brain, we would probably be overwhelmed too.

In my next article I’ll look at what to do when the overwhelm hits.

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