Parenting Help for Young ChildrenMother and Son Playing

The age between one and seven is one of rapid emotional and brain development accompanied by behavior that sometimes confuses, or dare I say, frustrates those of us who care for them.

They are impulsive, delightful, resistant, aggressive, unhampered by logic, generous, unstable and really anything but consistent. (They) resemble grown-ups and this fools us into thinking they are much more like us than they really are. Projecting adult psychology onto them is a typical mistake many adults make. . . (we need) insight into their shyness, separation anxieties, aggression, resistance, oppositional behaviours and more. Making sense of these confusing yet wonderful little people lays the foundation for intuitive and rewarding interaction with them.” – The Neufeld Institute

This series will be of interest to parents, prospective parents, daycare providers, teachers, and anyone else who provides care for this age group. The characteristics of the young child are meant to happen, as illogical and “crazy-making” as they are for the adults around them, and when healthy development is supported, and the growth is allowed to unfold, this phase opens the door to achieving our child’s potential.


Just as nature starts with “one-at-a-time” in the realm of development, so it is with children. When an infant is born, each eye works independent of the other. Each eye must develop and calibrate vision on its own before the infant brain grows the connector that mixes the incoming information from the two eyes, and we develop depth perception. There are countless other ways that nature develops in this manner – calibrating one thing independent of the other, and then joining to make something more complex and better. For young children, this is how it is with their senses and emotions. In order to develop the pathways and know each emotion, the child will experience only one at a time. Generally, adults are able to hold two or more thoughts, emotions, sensations at a time, which allows us the complex decision-making that we require in order to delay gratification, cope with frustration, be truly socially appropriate etc. We can look at the cookie on the plate, desire the cookie, and also consider another family member who hasn’t had a cookie yet. We have the capacity to consider both our own desire AND our sense of how a decision will impact another person. Young children do not have that capacity yet. Here’s an example of how this plays out –

Parenting Young Children; Scenario A

Picture a child enjoying the bathtub, and as bath time is over, you pick the child up out of the tub, and the sound of crying fills the bathroom. Quick as you can, you cuddle the child in a towel and eventually the crying subsides when you succeed in focusing the child on something else. The child cannot anticipate or prepare for the reality that the comfort and warmth of the bath will end. The child does not feel consoled in advance, knowing that the warm towel and hugs are coming. The child registers the pleasurable sensation of the warmth, and then registers the unpleasant sensation of the relative cold. The tears and crying are the automatic response to this change; I feel cold. The attention is on one thing at a time. The attention is on the present moment. It’s all black and white, and there is no grey. There is no future reward that helps the child accept the sacrifice of leaving the warm bath.

Help for Parenting Young Children; Scenario B

Now picture the same scenario, after you as parent have figured out that the child can attend to only one thing at a time and you will use this knowledge. The bath time is over. Before you pick the child up, you collect them with eye contact, and when you have the child’s attention, you begin an engaging song, perhaps one that involves touching toes and nose (you know the type). While singing the song, you pull the child from the tub and into the towel. The song continues throughout, and the child’s attention stays on the song. The attention can only be on one thing, one sensation, one emotion at a time.

Young Children Cannot Delay Gratification

“One at a time” is also the key to understanding why the young child cannot make a future oriented good decision. Offer the child one cookie now or three cookies after you finish doing the shopping. They’ll choose the one cookie now. They are very in this moment, very right now characters. One thing at a time, and right now is the time zone they live in. There is a certainty to the right now, and they are too short-sighted to make the sacrifice. The young child is unable to take more than one factor into their decision making.

One last example for this edition – as a “one-at-a-time” creature, the young child knows the rules and will be unreliable at following them. Their intentions are better than their actions. As an experiment, with a parent the child is attached to, we place the child in front of an amazing toy and the parent lets them know they must not touch it, under any circumstances. The parent can even ask them to repeat the rule, and their intentions will be clear; they know what their parent wants and expects. Then the parent leaves the room and watches. The child’s impulses will easily eclipse their good intentions. Remember, they are unable to hold someone else’s instructions and their own curiosity in mind together. They experience one or the other. They cannot hold their own intention to do as Mommy asked at the same time as they hold their own intrigue. The child will touch the toy. This is NOT intentional disobedience (for that to be the case, they would have to hold the parent’s instructions in their head AND the curiosity and desire to touch the toy, and decide between the two). It’s classic developmental “one-at-a-time” playing out. In the moment they reach out to touch the toy, it’s as if the parent did not say anything, because the adult is not present and their curiosity is. When their parent returns, asking the child if they remember the rule, they may be able to recite it word for word. Their intentions are better than their behavior. They are unreliable because of their “one-at-a-time” stage of development (the cerebral cortex where thoughts and feelings mix has not yet developed). When a parent they are attached to is in the room, their natural desire to please will eclipse their impulse to touch. If asked, “did you touch the toy?” the child’s desire to please the parent they’re attached to (or fear of losing contact if they’re displeased) will eclipse their impulse to answer the question based on the facts. Most likely, the child absolutely holds firm to their statement that they did not touch the toy (because they want to please the parent). This is the classic “hand in the cookie jar” scenario, and the child’s number one need over all else is to seek closeness with the parent they’re attached to. That adult’s approval is #1. This is not to say that we have to allow children to do whatever they want, but knowing they cannot do what we want them to reliably, without supervision, puts the onus on adults to find ways to manage their behavior differently from how we manage the behavior of older children or adults.

Do you recognize any of these scenarios with your own young children? Stay tuned for the next in this series on Parenting Help for Young Children.