When talking about weight loss I often refer to your “toddler brain” and your “adult brain.” I want to explore this topic today and explain in more detail exactly what your toddler brain is and how it’s holding you back from losing weight for good.
What is your toddler brain?
When I refer to your toddler brain, I’m talking about your lower brain. Other names you might have heard for it are your primitive brain, lizard brain, or your caveperson brain.
It’s basically the part of your brain that evolved early and is focused on survival. This is where your fight or flight response exists. It’s your reactive, default state.
When it comes to emotion, for most of us, our toddler brain is in charge. It’s on high alert at all times, interpreting any discomfort as danger and telling us food will help us escape.
What is your adult brain?
Your adult brain is your prefrontal cortex. It is your rational, decision-making brain.
This is the part of your brain that can think about what you’re thinking about, make observations, and can ultimately control what you do.
The adult brain evolved to help us thrive, not just survive. It allows us to create, self-evaluate and make big-picture decisions about the future.
Both the toddler and adult parts of your brain are critical. The toddler brain has preserved humanity this far by focusing on and prioritizing survival. We stayed together in mutually beneficial groups. We were driven to find food, stay away from danger and reproduce.
But now that we have evolved and live in a modern world of relative safety and security, we can focus more on parenting our toddler brains and using our adult brains to take on the responsibility of our emotions and reactions to them, rather than delegating that responsibility to food.
Parenting your toddler brain
Let’s talk about what this looks like by reviewing some examples that can occur in our weight loss journey when our toddler brain is in charge, rather than our adult brain, and how to start changing that around.
Weight loss tantrums
Picture the grocery store checkout line with all of its tempting candy. Mom is trying to check out, she’s trying to manage unloading the groceries, carrying on a conversation with the clerk, thinking about other errands or dinner that needs to be made, or a project at work.
While her mind might be going in many directions, her toddler is all about one thing: getting the candy that she just saw and now needs more than anything in the world into her mouth as quickly as possible.
She knows that means demanding Mom buy it and give it to her, so she begins the process of demanding over and over, whatever it takes. The tantrum begins.
Just like this toddler, your toddler brain is constantly throwing tantrums. It may not show up as screaming, yelling, falling on the floor, going limp, hitting, running away, et cetera, but the drive is the same. It is driven by the in-the-moment immediacy.
As is characteristic of the toddler brain, there is no future focus. It is all about right now and right now only. Getting the thing we want feels like a life or death mission.
Tantrums on your weight loss journey often look like an urgent desire for something that takes over. You feel like you are eating out of your control. It feels like tunnel vision for a specific food or a craving that demands your attention.
It’s loud, it’s hyper focused and it’s a disregard for anything but putting out the fire of desire.
Our typical response to this is to make it stop as quickly as possible. Just like the frazzled parent in the checkout line who gives up on making the toddler wait and hurries to purchase the candy and give it to the toddler so they will be quiet, we usually just eat the food and tell ourselves we’ll try again tomorrow.
Parenting your toddler brain in these moments takes strength and compassion. Yelling at your toddler brain during a food tantrum is as effective as yelling at your screaming toddler to stop screaming.
Giving in so the toddler will be quiet is equally ineffective. It just sends the message that if you scream loud enough and long enough, you get what you want.
What your toddler brain needs to know is that you see it. You hear it. You understand why it wants a Snickers. But it’s not Snickers time. Your toddler brain needs loving limits, not access to whatever it yells loudest about.
Your adult brain has the ability to see the bigger picture. It understands that Snickers don’t actually satisfy our nutritional needs, that taking care of ourselves sometimes looks like pausing and choosing what we want most over what we want in the moment, and that our future self is a result of what we choose now.
Small-picture vs. big-picture thinking
I remember when my kids were little, getting down on the floor with them, crouching down to their level and noticing what the world looked like from their vantage point. All they could see was knees in a crowd or the underside of a table. So many things that were out of their reach.
They would get preoccupied with bugs on the ground or dandelions because they weren’t focused on where we were going, they were just focusing on what was closest to them.
Your toddler brain gets like this sometimes. It feels like it is crouched down low to the ground, focused on how hard and never ending it feels in this moment.
Sometimes we need to remember to stand up to our adult brain height and see things from a higher vantage point.
There is so much more than this moment. The future is out there. This moment is just a blip on the journey.
I know most people refer to the two year age as the terrible twos, but I always saw it as a strong assertion of independence. It’s a time when the child begins to gain command of language and a new level of physical capability and locomotion. They are ready to start taking some control.
This is such an important evolutionary drive. If we never asserted our independence and started to express free will, we would remain dependent on our caretakers and helpless in the world. As frustrating as it can be for a parent when all you hear is “no” and “I do it myself,” it’s a critical step on the journey of becoming a fully functional, autonomous human.
This toddler brain characteristic shows up on your weight loss journey as rebellion or self-sabotage. It’s your toddler brain’s reaction to restriction. It’s the toddler brain’s strong assertion of independence.
The irony of our rebellion is that we are rebelling against ourselves. We are rebelling against rules we made up in our own brains. Even if we heard the rule from someone or some source outside of us, we chose to adopt the rule as our own and require ourselves to follow it.
We are both captor and captive — and it is all in our imaginations. It’s madness. Our adult brain recognizes the truth — that what we put on our plates and into our mouths is always our choice.
It knows that eating “whatever you want” is not true freedom. It doesn’t create freedom in our bodies. It doesn’t create freedom in our brains. It doesn’t create freedom in our lives.
Our adult brain sees what true independence and freedom looks like and feels like and what it does not. It does not look like being driven to follow cravings and feeling guilt and shame about doing it.
It does look like being able to be around any food in any situation and choosing to take care of ourselves. It looks like eating on our terms.
Parenting our toddler brain in this case takes patience and consistency. It takes choosing on purpose to practice the belief that what you put in your body is always your choice and responsibility. Parenting your toddler brain here means a willingness to look at the whole picture.
I remember a time when I was younger and my family was having ice cream together. My little sister wanted something she wasn’t allowed to have and was upset that she didn’t get her way. She shouted, “Fine, I won’t even have any ice cream then,” and stomped off to her room to pout, thinking she had really shown us all.
Obviously, we were not hurt in any way by her not having ice cream. She was only hurting herself. This is one of those ridiculous things we do as children that makes no logical sense. Our toddler brain is not the queen of logic.
Pouting is another characteristic of your toddler brain that can impede your weight loss. It usually shows up in the form of self-pity pouting.
This sounds like, “It’s not fair that other people can eat whatever they want, and I can’t” or “I’ll show them.” It always leads to overeating, which only hurts you in the end.
Parenting your toddler brain here takes love and some levity. Of course, your brain wants fairness! If everything was fair, it would be so much easier and more comfortable. Your brain wants to lash out when it thinks things aren’t fair. When you feel totally powerless, lashing out sometimes feels like trying to gain some control.
A focus on fairness will never yield the result we want. There will always be people who can eat pizza every day and not gain weight. You are not one of those people and no amount of pouting will change that.
It will only create unnecessary suffering for you.
Using toddler-like perseverance to lose weight
Things are not all bad in the toddler brain realm. There are also some lessons to be learned from our toddler brain.
For instance, think about a toddler learning to walk. This is a new skill they have no evidence they will be able to master. They see other people doing it and they have an inner drive to achieve this new way of moving. They start the process of building the muscles and skills necessary to eventually stand upright and walk.
This takes a while. If you’ve ever witnessed this process, it’s not an overnight success. The process literally entails near constant failure in order to succeed. The toddler needs to fall and push themselves back up, tip over, and push themselves back up, over and over.
The amazing part is they know this is what it will take and they don’t give up. They don’t ever doubt themselves and just lay there. Sure, they get tired and they choose to crawl for a little bit, but eventually they will start pushing themselves up and trying again with very little encouragement.
This is just like weight loss. It’s not a thing we do. It’s a skill we build.
It is an ongoing process of strengthening and improving, falling down and trying again, persevering until we figure it out.
It takes time, patience, commitment, determination, desire, resilience, and perseverance, but it is 100% possible as long as you keep going.
This kind of mindset work is invaluable on your journey to losing weight for life. If you’re ready to get started, watch my free video on how to lose the first five pounds — and keep going.