The expectation gap: When do young children have control over their behavior?

by 05.12.2022

Toddlers are mesmerizingly unpredictable. One minute your little girl may be happily chatting with you, and the next she’ll be out of control – rolling on the floor in agony because she can’t have that cupcake she just spotted on TV. For parents, this seemingly unpredictable lack of emotional control can be exasperating-unless you expect it.

One of the reasons parents feel so frustrated with their toddler’s behavior is the “expectation gap.” Many parents assume that young children are capable or should be capable of things their brains simply aren’t ready for yet.

A major survey by the Zero to Three Foundation* (the world’s largest organization dedicated to the welfare of babies and toddlers) revealed that 56% of parents believe that children have the impulse control to resist the urge to do something forbidden before 3 years old. And 36% believe children under 2 can do it.

The truth: toddlers don’t begin to reliably develop these abilities until age 3.5 or 4 at the earliest.

The same survey found that 43% of parents felt that children could reliably share and take turns playing with other children before the age of 2. In reality, this skill also develops between 3 to 4 years.

If you are skeptical of these results, you may wonder why your toddler can sometimes successfully handle a situation, but other times misbehave in identical circumstances. Doesn’t that mean the child is purposefully choosing to misbehave?

The short answer is no. Young children’s behavior is so unpredictable because achieving the ability to control their emotions and actions depends on a combination of the child’s brain development and the state of their body at any given moment. All of these factors affect a child’s ability to control behavior:

* Rapid brain growth with neural circuits in flux.

* Sleep requirements not met.

* Hunger or fluctuating blood sugar levels (known as “starvation” states).

* One’s subconscious sense of safety-which may depend on the environment and relationships.

* Body conditions, including teething pain, an incubating virus, or over-reactivity to sounds or other sensory input.

* The expected ups and downs of social and emotional growth.

In other words – it’s complicated!

So, the next time you’re freaking out about something your toddler has done, remember that your child’s abilities are still emerging. In fact, we develop the capacity for emotional and behavioral control in early adulthood. Being inconsistent is to be expected. One day your son may handle the frustration or restriction calmly, but the next day (or hour) the same challenge will cause a tantrum. It’s all part of how we develop as human beings.

So what can you do as a parent when your toddler is acting up and you’re not sure how to react?

Ask yourself if the child’s ability to control his behavior is fully developed. If your child is less than 5 years old, this ability willbe very inconsistent, so it’s important to respond to behavior with compassion and loving boundaries. How to set these boundaries and what are our personal boundaries, what are the child’s personal boundaries – we will look at an example of this question at the end of the article, so keep reading.

All children, regardless of age, are vulnerable to losing emotional control, especially during times of community or world stress (such as a pandemic).

The best way to help an out-of-control child is to stay calm. This process of helping the child calm down by sharing our own calmness is known as emotional co-regulation.

To give a child what they need, we need to recognize first how many resources we have in our own emotional reservoir right that moment and take care of ourselves first. In this way, we are more likely to have the energy and presence to successfully support our children.

Remember that children feel growing pains in more than just bones and muscles. These inconveniences also arise from the way small human beings come to terms with living in an unpredictable world. By understanding that young children naturally have uneven coping abilities, we can narrow the gap in expectations and reduce our children’s stress and our own. In the process, we will strengthen our precious, lifelong relationships with our children.

PS The promised case study – How to consider the issue of body boundaries and the important topic of child nutrition through the prism of democratic communication:

Dear parents, the human body can go a week without food, but we mothers can’t go two hours without fussing over our child’s feeding. We will do well to stop in terms of feeding the child. If we can calm down a little, we will soon be happy to eat together again.

It is our duty to buy and prepare healthy and nutritious food, and it is the duty of the child to manage his body, including feeding and going to the toilet.

Don’t do for them what a child can do alone. If you do, you begin to act like a slave serving a master, and the child begins to run away from responsibility. 

This is the trap of enablement.

In fact, the child feels confused by our help. Sometimes children refuse to eat. Make sure everything is fine healthwise. We usually don’t trust a child when they are not hungry, but we trust them when they want to nurse on demand. Sometimes this is how children express their position of power.

Find out if you are involved in a battle for supremacy. Assess the situation. What does the child tell us? As soon as the child can hold a spoon, it means that they can feed themself. Don’t push it. The child senses and begins to expect your decision when they are hungry or need to go to the toilet. Respect children’s decisions and learn to rely on their internal somatic senses.

You can use a statement like: “You know your body best.”

It is our duty to prepare and serve the food at the appointed time, and it is up to the child to decide whether they are hungry or whether they will eat.

Let go of control, relax, and you’ll see children begin to listen more to their bodies and follow their instincts. Of course, first make sure that everything with the child’s health is in order.


In conclusion, I would like to share with you something that I deeply believe: Healthy eating is about listening to our body’s signals. When we stop trusting our children to know their bodies and start trying to “make them eat”, we risk disrupting their ability to read signals about hunger and fullness, which can potentially affect healthy eating in the near and far future. Even kind admonitions and encouragement (such as praise for a clean plate) can get in the way of healthy eating because mealtime becomes a pleasure or displeasure to parents instead of listening to your own gut and enjoying the food.

*The indicated data are from materials published on