Toddler Brain Politics

In 30 years of clinical practice with highly distressed couples, I have never seen intimate partners so polarized, intolerant of disagreement, emotionally reactive, self-obsessed, and stubbornly resistant to seeing, much less understanding each other’s perspectives. In no small part, these patently Toddler-brain characteristics reflect the current political climate. Most arguments of today’s politicians and intimate partners can be reduced to the favorite two words of the toddler – one says, “Mine!” and the other says, “No!”

The Toddler brain is pretty much fully developed by age 3, more than two decades before maturity of the Adult brain, the upper prefrontal cortex. For toddlers, negative emotions are alarms to summon adults to meet their needs and solve their problems, which they can’t do for themselves. But the Toddler brain has no reality-testing; toddlers cannot distinguish what they feel and imagine from what is really happening. They assume the smoke alarm is the fire, because they lack the Adult brain capacity to discern if there really is a fire or if someone is cooking or smoking, and, if there is a fire, to figure out the best way to extinguish it.

Without the Adult brain to regulate emotions and impulses, toddlers use the primitive coping mechanisms of blame, denial, and avoidance to numb shame and fear. Ask a toddler about a broken toy and you’ll hear, “He/she did it (blame)” or, “I don’t know (denial),” or the kid runs away or hides (avoidance). After years of studying toddlers, the way they think still seems so darn cute!

But when politicians (and intimate partners) think like toddlers, they’re not so cute, as they reflexively indulge:

  • All-or-nothing thinking (no nuance whatsoever)
  • Self-obsession – inability to see other perspectives of those who disagree with them
  • Intolerance of differences

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