Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Are We Being Ruled by Our Toddler Brains?

Stress and outside influences make us revert. But you can rise above.

Did you ever wonder why smart people make the same mistakes over and over? Or why you see so many stressed-out people acting like toddlers? Or why we seem to take target practice to get better at shooting ourselves in the foot?

The answer is in ourselves, to be sure, but it’s also in our stars. The current pop culture almost demands superficial feelings and self-defeating behavior by duping us into living and loving in the wrong part of the brain.

Toddler Brain vs. Adult Brain

Suffering and failure begin in the volatile limbic system, or Toddler brain, which reaches full structural maturity around age three. When we're not under stress, we’re able to turn pain and failure into growth and accomplishment in the Adult brain—the prefrontal cortex, which is the most profoundly evolved part of the most complex organism in the known universe. In the Adult brain, which reaches full maturity around age 28, we have the mental capacity to construct a solid sense of self. Living in it, we’re able to improve situations, connect to others, protect all that we value, and appreciate people, ideas, nature, and creative beauty. We can stand for something, learn from our mistakes, make the world a better place, and forge a legacy.

When we retreat to the Toddler brain under stress, we create conflict and almost invariably act out self-defeating behavior. In the Adult brain, we create value, meaning, and purpose.

The signature process of the limbic system is to sound alarms. This more primitive part of the brain lacks reality-testing, which is why we can become alarmed when we’re dreaming or when nothing is happening outside of our active imagination. The prefrontal cortex regulates limbic alarms by testing them against reality (Is there really a fire?) and by assessing the threat (How serious is the fire?). It then chooses a course of action—put out the fire; evacuate; or declare a false alarm and go back to work.

Unfortunately, the assess and improve modes of our prefrontal cortex can often be hijacked by habits forged in the Toddler brain—when those habits are repeatedly reinforced in adulthood. Instead of regulating alarms with reality-testing, then, our thought processes amplify and magnify them. Intelligence and creativity go to justifying the alarm. Commandeered by Toddler brain habits, the prefrontal cortex can reduce the alarm only temporarily by blaming it on someone, denying responsibility for it, or avoiding it through distractions. That's right: It employs the familiar toddler coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance.

In Our Stars

Most of these self-defeating emotional habits were initially formed in toddlerhood, but they would do little damage were they not so vigorously maintained by cultural reinforcement. When pop culture promotes living and loving in the wrong part of the brain, we can hardly escape ubiquitous toddler dialogues of “Mine!” and “No!” Politicians, for example, often speak like stubborn toddlers overstimulated by a 24-hour news cycle. They and others seem to surround us with power struggles, overreactions (temper tantrums), and resentful pouting, to which we either respond with powerless frustration or, worse, by reacting in kind.

Many factors contribute to the Culture of Toddlerhood, chief among them:

  1. Entitlement (an ever-expanding perception of “rights” and demands)
  2. Self-obsession (the inability to see perspectives that go beyond our personal experience)
  3. Splitting (seeing everything as good or bad, angel or demon, all or nothing)
  4. Intolerance of disagreement and uncertainty
  5. Elevation of feelings over values
  6. Substituting power for value (reacting to diminished self-value by exerting power)

Entitlement: No! Mine!

Toddlerhood is the first stage of development in which children become aware that their emotional states differ from those of their parents. Now they must struggle with an inchoate sense of self prone to negative identity. When they feel bad or willful, they don’t know who they are, but they know who they’re not—they’re not whatever you want them to be. Thus we have the two favorite words of the toddler: “Mine!” and “No!”

Intolerance of disagreement ultimately rises from a dread of uncertainty, a dread that severely limits growth and accomplishment. Uncertainty, if we can tolerate it, drives us to learn more and connect to one another; it makes us smarter and more compassionate. But the Toddler brain cannot tolerate uncertainty, because it provokes too much anxiety.

The popular media, unfortunately, continually reinforces toddler impulses in adult consumers. How many people do you know who watch political shows, listen to talk radio, or read certain blogs just to get irritated? More accurately, they want the hit of adrenaline that comes from saying, “No!” to some commentators and “Mine!” to others. Such programs discourage and suppress complex adult dialogues that focus on cooperation and reconciliation of disparate views. Adult dialogue makes for poor sound bites, lousy tweets, and boring blogs.

Polarization, fueled by Toddler brain splitting, has taken over the media and, by extension, political discourse. Angry, resentful, contentious, and rude emails, blogs, and tweets, along with heavily negative political campaigns and governmental gridlock, are here to stay. And they're certain to get a lot worse, until we change the Culture of Toddlerhood.

No wonder it's hard to have an adult conversation with your significant other.


In the beginning of the "reality" show era of TV, the rampant self-obsession on display was probably just the result of real people (non-actors) pretending to be real people for the camera. The rest is history, as life has a way of mimicking art. For a lot of people, it's now cool to think and act like reality show characters, who are as fascinated with themselves as toddlers staring at a mirror. So many of my clients have revealed in therapy that they imagine themselves on camera several times a day, that I've started asking about it in the first session. In the Culture of Toddlerhood, we can easily make our lives into a series of reality shows and go through the day trapped, like deer in headlights, by the glare of our imagined reflections.

Ironically, while the Culture of Toddlerhood fixates on happiness as a primary objective, nearly all its messages are of self-obsession and “getting your needs met.” And yet research on happiness shows that self-awareness, balanced by mindfulness of the environment and meaningful interactions with others, bring happiness, while self-obsession destroys it.

The Cult of Feelings

Much of pop-culture assumes that how you feel is who you are. Thus we live in a cult of feelings, in which what we feel has become at least as important as what we do. (Think of all the reporters who shove microphones in the faces of politicians, perpetrators, and victims alike to ask the inevitable question, "How do you feel?") We give more importance to personal feelings than personal values, and to expressing how we feel rather than doing what we deeply believe is right. People feel entitled to express every feeling they have, without regard to the effects on others, just as they felt entitled to litter until a few decades ago and to smoke in public buildings until a few years ago. The result is a culture that elevates superficial feelings over deeper meaning.

In the most tragic circumstances, we choose to blame rather than heal. A hallmark of our toddler culture is “victim identity.” Call-in shows and self-help books seduce us into prolonging feelings of injury to illustrate how badly others have treated us. Like lawyers for the plaintiff, we try to prove damages, as if our suffering would hold offenders accountable but healing and growing would let them "off the hook." The cruel cost of victim identity is a perception of the self as “damaged,” which lowers the likelihood of healing and growth.

Substituting Power for Value

Much of our psychological suffering comes from substituting power for value. When they feel devalued, many people confuse the decline in energy and well-being that result from a deflated ego with physical threat, which floods them with adrenaline and cortisol. These stimulating hormones make them feel temporarily more powerful, and primed to exert of power, either overtly or passively. A lot of the excess cortisol typically blamed on “stress” comes from Toddler brain egos perceiving continual threat and insult.

TV and movie screens are rife with displays of aggression in response to petty ego offenses. Nowhere is there a model of what every person needs to know: When feeling devalued, we must do something that makes us feel more valuable, not more powerful.

How We Can Soar Above

The good news is that many, if not most, of the problems that seem like emotional disorders or childhood issues or relationship incompatibility can be viewed as mere Toddler brain habits. With self-compassion—and lots of practice—these habits can be changed in the Adult brain. Every adult has a supremely developed, growth-oriented, upper-prefrontal cortex, capable of brilliance, compassion, and basic humanity. Accessing it under stress is just a matter of self-care and practice.

To soar above is to go beyond limits, to become greater, to become the most empowered and humane adults we can be. This is not a birthright or an entitlement. It’s something we must earn by developing habits to access the Adult brain under stress. When we’re able to do this consistently, we realize that self-help and helping others are synonymous. We recognize that lasting success and happiness depend on using the most profoundly evolved part of the brain to make the world a better place.

Soar Above: How to Use the Most Profound Part of Your Brain under Any Kind of Stress

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today