I’ve talked a lot about our toddler brain before (check it out here), but I want to take a slightly different angle today.
My firstborn turned 20 last week. I can hardly wrap my brain around it, even though he hasn’t been a kid for a while.
As I was preparing for this podcast, I was thinking about him as a toddler, which partly inspired this new angle on the toddler brain. He was such a sweet, compliant, loving little boy.
Often, when I talk about our toddler brain, it’s a bit different. Typically when we think of our toddler brain, it involves tantrums, impatience, and irrationality.
Sometimes we roll our eyes at it, or sometimes we’re a little sarcastic about it. Sometimes we find ourselves annoyed, frustrated, or angry that our toddler brain is at the helm.
But as with most things, it is multifaceted. There are some things about the toddler brain that aren’t all bad.
Our toddler brain’s job
The toddler brain is the part of our brain charged with our immediate survival. It is what is in control of our fight or flight response.
Its primary purpose is to constantly lookout for this moment, specifically what danger is present and what threats are happening right now.
Your toddler brain, when it feels like it is in constant danger, will overreact.
Not because it is against you; because it is for you!
Your toddler brain believes it is protecting you
One thing our brain perceives as a threat is the ever-present famine mode that we are stuck in because of all of our food rules.
We are focused on what we can and can’t eat, what is okay and not okay, what is good and bad, what is off-limits and acceptable, et cetera. (Learn more about why you don’t need food rules)
If you listened to everyone, you would eat nothing, right?
Some people say carbs are wrong and you should eat all protein and fat. Others say you should switch to a plant-based diet, while others say you will be deficient in vitamins if you’re a vegetarian.
Others say be moderate and live a little, and still, others say sugar is poison, and you should never eat it. Not to mention all the theories about what to eat and not eat to lose weight.
It’s no wonder our brain is in constant fear of danger since it seems to be lurking around every corner.
Why food rules trigger our toddler brain
Our toddler brain is interpreting all of the food rules and restrictions we give ourselves as dangerous.
At the same time, when we decide to eat less of whatever or not eat certain things, our brain interprets that as a threat to our opportunity to eat sufficiently to survive.
It makes sense that it spends a lot of the time freaking out and driving us to overeat random things.
Your toddler brain thinks it is taking care of you!
It thinks driving you to eat Oreos instead of feeling shame is helping you survive. It thinks driving you to eat until you’re stuffed is keeping you from dying of starvation.
Your toddler brain is guided by the misconception that shame is dangerous because it feels so terrible.
It thinks that because you have put yourself on a diet every other month of your adult life, you are in danger of starving to death and therefore must eat as much as possible when presented the opportunity.
It makes perfect sense. Our toddler brain is doing its best with what we’re giving it.
Ironically, the behaviors it’s driving are not the most useful or helpful in terms of our survival. For example, overeating and burying our feelings under food are not, in reality, helping us survive.
The large majority of the “danger” our toddler brain tries so hard to escape is not actually life and death—just a misperception.
Change how you view your toddler brain
Nonetheless, there need to be some changes in how we view our toddler brain as it does its job and how we respond, and what we think triggers the freaking out in the first place.
When my 20-year old was young, he wasn’t a tantruming, defiant toddler. However, he would act up and get whiny and teary when he wasn’t getting enough love, attention, and validation.
He needed to be held and cuddled. He needed my undivided attention for a little bit throughout the day. He needed to know that I was there, that he was important, his needs were seen and met.
In essence, what your toddler brain is doing is turning to food and overeating for reassurance that everything is okay. It’s looking for a reason to believe that there is no need to panic and that everything will be okay.
A healing journey
This journey to reaching our health goals and achieving the body we want is a healing journey.
It means healing our relationship with food, healing our relationship with our body, and our body image. It means healing our relationship with this toddler part of our brain and learning to value and appreciate its contribution.
Finally, it requires learning to work in concert with it instead of being frustrated with its tendency to freak out.
We basically live most of our lives in sustained fight or flight, with our cortisol levels through the roof and no end in sight. Our poor toddler brain perceives us as constantly under attack. It’s doing its best. It is trying so hard to have our back.
We want to love our toddler brain through the freaking out and the healing process and learn to do things another way.
Healing your relationship with food
We heal our relationship to food by showing our brain that we always have full permission to eat whatever we want.
This doesn’t mean we always choose to eat whatever we want in whatever amounts.
But over and over, we want to open up to the truth that we can. There is nothing that isn’t an option. The choice is ours. (Click here for a deeper dive into this.)
We also want to show our brain and body that we will always give it what it needs.
Love and healing go hand in hand, especially when it comes to our body and how we experience it and view it.
Part of healing our relationship with our bodies is first accepting them and then learning to honor and trust our bodies.
I recently found a new book I love. It’s called The F It Diet (only spelled out).
Just a warning, if you’re interested but sensitive to language, it has language, as you might guess from the title. But it is a fantastic book full to the brim with awesome insight and some really great exercises to assist in this healing process.
One of my favorite tools she teaches is the 10-minute lie-down.
It’s what it describes—taking 10 minutes, sometime throughout the day, to lie down and do nothing. To slow down, lie down, and calm down. Not scroll Instagram, not watch TV, not make to-do lists. Just be.
Even for just 10 minutes, slowing down to relax is critical to our health and healing journey. This pause to breathe and just be also shows our toddler brain there is no need to panic. We were not meant to live, let alone thrive, in a constant state of emergency.
If every minute of every day is perceived as an emergency, and our brains and bodies are reacting accordingly, it’s no wonder we’re permanently worn out, right? So we need to take some time to chill out.
Pause and Question
So when you notice your toddler brain panicking, driving you to eat all the things, to overeat all the things, ask why is your brain reacting this way?
Where is it interpreting danger and famine where there is none?
How can you start to heal and relate to those dangers in a new way?
How can you chill out instead of freak out?
Want even more on this topic?
Check out these articles to learn more:
- A Compassionate Way To Lose Weight
- 4 Ways To Inject More Love Into Your Weight Loss
- Finally Accept Yourself (While Still Changing For The Better)
- How You Can Learn To Love Your Body
If you want to learn more about my mindset-centered approach to weight loss, start with my free PDF, Freedom From Food Rules. You’ll learn why you don’t need to follow any food rules to lose weight—and how to use the Next 24 Hours Method instead.