The first two years of life are a period of astonishing, fast-paced development. The brain grows from 400 grams at birth to around 1,000 grams at twenty-four months, a near tripling of its size. (Goleman, 2006; Walsh, 2007) To put this growth in perspective, an adult brain averages 1,400 grams.

Childhood Adversity: The First Two Years

The newborn begins life with one important task at hand: attachment. The bond with caregivers is a child’s most fundamental need, and it’s crucial children be given lots of love and attention from consistent caregivers. Early healthy emotional attachment, especially during the first 24 months of life, helps develop the social and emotional neural pathways that will be used later. (Siegel, 1999) The level of nurturing and attachment received also impacts the level of stress a child experiences, and will have a life-long impact on how efficiently a child’s brain handles stress. More early nurturing = less stress later.

From birth to age two, the brain has more neurons than it will ever have again, even though it starts out at roughly one-fourth the size of an adult brain. (Jensen, 2006) All of those extra neurons are part of the process of neuroplasticity, and must either be wired or pruned away according to the baby’s experiences. Infants emerge from the womb as little sponges, studiously studying their environment. Within days or even hours of birth they may begin mimicking certain facial expressions made by their parents. By around six months of age, most infants are able to distinguish between the different sounds in their environment. (Aslin & Hunt, 2001) They can discern the voices of their different caregivers and other people in their life, such as siblings or other children, and can recognize hostile versus friendly sounds.

What infants understand about anger and hostility

Even infants as young as 6 months of age are able to distinguish between helpful and hurtful intentions. Researchers at Yale University’s Infant Cognition Center presented babies, ages 6 to 10 months, with two googly-eyed toys. With one toy, they put on a show where the friendly toy helped another over a mountain. They then put on a second show with a different toy, who rather than helping, pushed his friend backwards over the mountain. Babies were then given the choice about which googly-eyed toy they wanted to play with. Though the toys were identical in looks, nearly all of the babies chose the ‘nice’ toy over the naughty one. (Borenstein, 11-22-07)

Other studies show that within the first 9 months of life babies can tell the difference between expressions of happiness and sadness and anger, and can even match a happy-looking face with a happy tone of voice. For example, if you turn on a sound tract playing either a happy or sad voice, they’ll look longer at the face that matches the emotional expression they hear. (Nelson, 1987; Walker-Andrews, 1997)

Empathy is another skill that seems inbuilt pretty much right from the beginning. Between the ages of 12 to 24 months, children begin to exhibit the early stages of moral development, and their tendency for self-concern begins to make way for empathy and concern for others. They respond to distress in others through cooperative and helping behaviors. Children as young as two years of age are able to show some sympathy toward a hurt or upset child. (Zahn-Waxler et al., 1984) Studies show that children around this age are able to recognize emotional states in others and respond in a caring way. (Denham, 1986; Iannotti, 1985) Our own staff have witnessed empathetic gestures in kids even younger than two, and recent research has shown that at one year of age the skills for empathy are there and that children can infer another’s state of mind if they’ve had a similar experience.

A child’s sense of self is also developing during this age. If you place a large red mark on a baby’s forehead and then sit them in front of a mirror, a baby younger than 18 months will tend to reach at the mark in the image on the mirror. Those older than 18 months will typically see the mark and reach for their own forehead, recognizing that the image in the mirror is their own reflection. During the middle of the toddler years, children begin to become aware of differences between their own state of mind and that of others. For example, set out different snacks at a table. (One vegetable category and one junk food category works good for this experiment.) Let the child sample each snack and determine which one they prefer. Then have the parent sample each snack, while making a sour face at the child’s preference and showing favor towards the opposite choice. Be sure to exaggerate the expressions on each. Then ask the child to hand you a snack, saying: “can you get one for mommy?” Kids younger than 18 months will usually hand over the snack they prefer, while children older than 18 months will likely hand you the snack you showed preference for, recognizing your thoughts as separate and aside from theirs.

The most significant thing for this age group in terms of adversity is that they are pre-verbal. A baby is unable to express their feelings except through crying. They can’t tell you what’s wrong, or explain what is bothering them. As babies develop into toddlers they pick up enough words to communicate basic wants and desires to caregivers, but aren’t able to express themselves when it comes to complex feelings. This can pose a hurdle when it comes to helping them through adverse events.

How Infants & Toddlers Deal With Adversity

  • Babies zero to 12 months are very tone sensitive; they pick up emotional tones in the voices of their caretakers. This means they respond well to comforting in the form of calm cooing or singing. They also have little else to do but lay there and listen, and are sensitive towards unhealthy tones in their environment.
  • Pre-verbal children tend to feel trapped or constrained by their limitations to express themselves, and so they express negative feelings through crying, tantrums, emotional outbursts or general moodiness. This also makes them easily frustrated.
  • While they can’t communicate fully, toddlers can understand much more than they speak. So it’s important for caregivers to comfort them anyway in the same way a parent might talk to a preschooler to comfort them. It may seem like they don’t understand, but they comprehend a lot more than you probably imagine. Talking to children of any age in a comforting tone about a difficult situation can be therapeutic.
  • Just because children this age don’t express specific concerns doesn’t mean they’re not bothered. Distress will tend to show up in overall emotional states or temperamental problems, which may seem unrelated to the event.
  • Issues related to attachment are, as a general rule, the most traumatic for children this age to deal with. Things such as divorce or parental death/absence, which break or damage important attachments, can leave a lasting imprint.