Parenting Teenagers

Are Teenagers Really Just Overgrown Toddlers?

Published: 16 Sep 2013
Are Teenagers Really Just Overgrown Toddlers?

Teens are just like toddlers! It’s a common comparison, and the some of the reasons for it are obvious. But is it normal?

Are our teens supposed to behave like over-sized, hormonal, hungry toddlers? What is going on with our previously stable (?) easy-going children?

Here are 7 reasons that teenagers are just like toddlers, with some evidence that suggests this toddler-like behaviour is actually quite normal and, bizarrely, healthy.

1. Intense Development

While development continues throughout the lifespan (from conception to death), there are huge leaps in physical, cognitive, emotional, and neurological development during both toddler-hood and the teen years. Even though we are in shock at ‘how big’ they are getting (at both age groups), we need to remember that during these phases, our children are experiencing critical developments that, while inconvenient, are a necessary component in growing into a happy and healthy adult..

2. Tantrums

Toddlers and teens both seem capable of remarkable tantrums. They tend to be highly emotional. In both cases, this high emotionality is related to neurological development, and teens get the added bonus of significant hormonal development.

Dealing with a teenage tantrum is often harder because we expect much greater maturity – plus, they’re so big! But in both cases, toddlers and teens are undergoing significant brain changes that are affecting the way they see the world and process emotions. Patience is almost an impossibility – but it really is a virtue in these situations.

3. Issues with friends

Toddlers and teens both have significant social developments at these critical phases of their development. For toddlers the issues generally revolve around sharing, cooperation, and being in other children’s space.

Teen’s issues are still social, but differ in important ways. While both age groups are ego-centric, toddlers just want their needs satisfied, whereas teens want their needs satisfied and they are preoccupied with what others think about them.

Teens do something else toddlers cannot do – perspective taking. They start to see things from others’ points of view and incorporate that into the way they relate to others, and decisions they make about their own actions, and their relationships with others. Additionally, teens begin learning new skills around negotiation, planning, and working in groups.

4. Risky behaviour

Toddlers want to explore. They want to climb – on chairs, stairs, in playgrounds – everywhere. And they love to run away from their parents – in the house, at the shops, in the park… even near the road. Toddlers often fail to perceive the dangers in their environment and take risks as a result.

Teens behave in similar ways, and with similarly scary potential outcomes. Some will consume alcohol or experiment with drugs and sex. Others will drive dangerously, or with others who are dangerous. Some will do all of it and more… and they’ll do it all too soon, too fast, and too much!

Invulnerability is the name of the game. Adolescents don’t think the risks that others experience apply to them. They know better! This is because the adolescent pre-frontal cortex, responsible for planning, problem-solving, weighing options, and being strategic (we call it the executive function centre of the brain) is under construction.

Simultaneously, the limbic system, partly responsible for emotional regulation and impulse control, is also developing. So with limited impulse control, high emotional reactivity, and low capacity for planning ahead or assessing risk our teens tend to think they’re immortal and invulnerable.

5. Think they’re the centre of the universe

Toddlers believe that they’re the centre of the universe. They’re highly egocentric. All that matters is “me” and “what I want.” Their perspective and experience is the most central influence in their view of the world. This is primarily because of neurological under-development. Their brain still has lots of growing to do.

Teens behave in similar ways. They do it for different reasons though. From around age 11, adolescents become highly aware of their thought processes. They begin thinking about thinking – their own thinking. And they primarily think about themselves. It’s the beginning of their identity formation.

But adolescents also start thinking about other people’s thinking – and they think other people are only thinking about them! They think that they’re the focus of everyone else’s attention. This eases off after about age 16-17, but until it does, the ego-centrism can be hard to manage.

6. Need to sleep

Toddlers are terrible without sleep. So are teens. They become moody and emotional – even irrational! (So do their parents, I might add.)

Toddlers need 10-12 hours of sleep per night (and usually closer to 12 hours).

Teens need between 9 and 10 hours per night. Unfortunately there are loads of things that interrupt this and put teens into sleep debt. Peers, social media, school projects, extra-curricular activities, employment, and teen-angst and hormones all get in the way of a good night’s sleep. And they all impact on our adolescent’s ‘friendliness’.

Importantly, sleep not only impacts on how social and how helpful our teens are around the house, but it also affects learning and academic success. Some studies suggest it even has an impact on brain development and organisation.

7. Need their parents

We readily accept that toddlers need their parents. It’s obvious that they are heavily dependent on us, and in the main, we are happy to oblige.

Teens, on the other hand, are wired to show us how much they don’t need us. They want absolute independence and freedom. They seem intent on resisting our efforts to connect, guide, or help, and try to push us away whenever we get close.

But the truth is that every child needs his or her parents, regardless of how old that child is. Our adolescents must forge an identity, and must separate from us to be psychologically healthy and independent. But that same adolescent will thrive when independence is achieved and there is still a strong connection with parents who love, nurture, support and guide.


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