How Toddler’s Behaviors and Emotions Speak Loudly about Visual Difficulties

toddler aged boy crawling up the stairs with his mother behind him. He is squinting and looking up the staircase. The stars are wooden and very airy and open. There is a wooden railing on both sides. The mom is bent over with one hand on the railing and one hand protectively reaching down.
Cheri Moore

Written by Cheri Moore

October 21, 2021

Rarely do parents learn how toddlers’ emotions and behaviors are affected by visual processing difficulties. Professionals and doctors ask about behaviors associated with delayed visual-motor skills, speech, or even lack of eye contact. However, these areas of development are affected by visual acuity (20/20 eyesight), eye health, and the development of visual processing skills. The health of the hearing system also impacts visual development. Your toddler’s behaviors may be a clue that they are experiencing visual difficulties.

When both eyes work well together and both ears work well together, what is seen synchs up with what is heard. Consequently, toddlers continue to develop more advanced eye movement skills (visual processing skills) needed for more difficult motor skills. For example, the development of balance requires information from your eyes and your inner ear’s vestibular system. Then, your brain learns balance.

Fixed Depth Perception Effects Toddler’s Behavior

Depth perception is the distance between the eyes and the ground or between two objects. How would you respond if day after day visual difficulties made stationary objects like door handles and drinking cups shift and double in front of you? Even letters can float off a page. What your toddler sees should stay fixed in place. This is called fixed depth perception, a visual processing skill. The ability to see objects fixed in space helps the brain coordinate movement through open doors, around objects on the ground, over uneven ground, and walk upstairs.

White door with a silver handle that is partially open to the next room. The room has light blue walls and another white door in the background. There are light wood floors in the room. The open door is slightly blurry and there are two handles slightly off put from one another to exemplify what someone with a vision difficulty like double vision would see.

In 2005, researchers confirmed that the inner ear’s vestibular system helps the brain track depth perception during movement.

Healthy ears send strong sound energy to the brain helping your baby develop fixed depth perception.

Stanley N Graven, Joy V. Browne (2008). Auditory Development in the Fetus and Infant, Newborn and Infant Nursing Reviews. Volume 8, Issue 4, Pages 187-193, ISSN 1527-3369

There are various types of visual processing skills, which must go through different stages of visual development. Is vision clear and single all of the time as your toddler looks from one place to another? Do your toddler’s eyes work well together letting them clearly see a detail in a picture, move with confidence, and judge depth perception? When you change an activity and your toddler suddenly becomes upset, I encourage you to stop, observe, and think. Over time, you may notice a pattern.

My Sudden Visual Difficulties Affected Behaviors & Emotions

I have personally experienced vision difficulties due to an eye bleed resulting in partial vision loss. The intermittent blurry vision made it very difficult for me to perceive depth. For example, how far down is that step? How high up must I step over that fallen tree limb? Walking was work. I could only focus on what I saw directly in front of me. That means I lost the ability to see around me: to the right, left, and up ahead.

As I regained my vision, I will never forget seeing the sidewalk heave up and down as if it was breathing. I instantly felt nauseous. Thankfully, it was at the end of a long walk. I understood that movement was the best way to help my brain and eyes relearn how to perceive the distance between objects.

You can read about my vision loss journey by clicking on the two links below:

Unexpected Vision Loss Changed My Life

A Miracle in My Vision Loss Journey

I challenge you to imagine the effect of such experiences on the emotional health of a toddler. A toddler who only knows what has always been experienced since birth.

Toddler’s Behaviors and Emotions Speak Loudly about Visual Difficulties

By age three, your toddler’s development of depth perception helps them move through, under, inside, over, and on top of objects. However, depth perception difficulties cause emotional distress and avoidance behaviors in toddlers such as:

Typical Toddler Behaviors and Emotions

  1. Walks through doorframes or open doorways with confidence.
  2. Successfully picks up a cup.
  3. Climbs upstairs alternating feet on each step while holding onto the rail.
  4. Enjoys heights, goes down the playground slides and plays up high.
  5. Walks up and down hills on even and uneven ground.
A glass water cup sitting on a wooden table in front of a blackish blue background. There is a second blurry image of the same cup overlaid over the main cup to show what someone with a vision difficulty like double vision would see.

Atypical Toddler Behaviors and Emotions

  1. Walks into the doorframe, hitting part of their body.
    • Touches doorframe before walking through the door.
    • Avoids walking through doors.
  2. Knocks the cup over several times a week.
    • When reaching out, acts uncertain about which hand to use.
  3. Dislikes, avoids, or acts fearful of walking upstairs or downstairs.
    • Crawls going upstairs or continues to put both feet on each step.
    • Sits on the steps one at a time and scoots down on their bottom.
  4. Is afraid of heights and clings to a parent or adult at the playground.
    • Cries, buries face in parent or adult.
    • Refuses to go up steps to the top of the playground equipment.
    • Dislikes slides.
  5. Grips an adult’s hand tightly when walking.
    • Avoids walking on uneven ground.
    • Tires quickly, insists on being carried, fussy.
    • Walks on their toes.

Visual Development from 20 Months to 48 Months (4yrs)

Visual development for toddlers ages 20 to 48 months continues to build on previous visual skills.

  1. Sometimes looks without touching (20-24 months)
  2. Smiles when they see their favorite objects or people (20-24 months)
  3. Enjoys watching movement like wheels, beaters, fans, and drills (20-24 months)
  4. While scribbling, watches their own hands (26-30 months)
  5. Walks with more confidence and climbs (30-36 months)
  6. Visually curious, will leave parent to explore (30-36 months)
  7. When coloring, they keep the pencil or crayon on the paper (34-38 months)
  8. Makes up a story when looking at pictures (34-38 months)
  9. Looks closely at the letters and details in a book (40-44 months)
  10. Draws and names a circle and a cross on paper (40-44 months)
  11. When asked, closes eyes and may try to wink with one eye (46-50 months)

Encourage Eye Movements

Encourage your toddler to move both inside and outside the house. While growing up, I loved rolling down hills over and over. Once my brothers talked me into digging a hole. Would we reach the other side of the world? Moving is essential for brain development. It is even more important when there are visual processing difficulties. Thus, use the resources at the end of this post.

The inner ear’s vestibular system receives information from the weight of an object that travels all the way down to your feet. To illustrate:

  1. Visualize a preschooler pulling an empty wagon on a newly paved street.
  2. Now, visualize a preschooler putting bricks in a wagon and pulling it across the yard.

How did your preschooler pull the empty wagon? I saw the preschooler take a few steps backward while pulling the wagon. Then, he turned around and pulled the wagon while walking forward.

How did your preschooler pull the heavy wagon across the yard? Did they push or pull the wagon bent over?

Now, it is 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon. Are you feeling sleepy? Which wagon would you choose?

The weight and rough ground of the second wagon provides more sensory stimulation than pulling the first wagon. Basically, when feeling sleepy, movement wakes up your brain. Did you know that moving and hard physical work also release chemicals in the brain? Ironically, your muscles may hurt, but you will feel more relaxed and maybe even happy. Movement pushes energy to the whole brain. Thus, movement can stimulate an under-stimulated part of the brain.

Your toddler’s behaviors and activity choices are influenced by what their brain needs for development.

Involve Your Kids in Everyday Chores

Toddlers love to do what they see their parents do. They learn by watching and working alongside you. Toddlers are developing visual processing skills. Thus, they will oftentimes seek out stimulation such as heavy lifting. A toddler’s brain needs feedback from muscles and joints, proprioceptive feedback, as they learn eye-hand coordination.

Therefore, encourage them to work alongside you, especially when they ask to help. My granddaughter, who just turned two, spent many days this summer working alongside her mama in the garden picking vegetables. She insisted on carrying several squash or buckets of green beans that were arguably too big or heavy. With a few drops or spills along the way, she successfully carried her heavy load all the way up the hill to the house. Could her mama have done the job faster? Yes, but allowing children to work hard from an early age also develops character traits like tenacity and self-discipline. Getting hot and dirty is just part of living.

A little girl who is a toddler picking green beans in the garden. She is wearing a red, white, and blue striped long sleeve swimsuit with black shorts and rainboots. She is standing with her feet should width apart slightly bent over looking at the bean she is picking.
Little girl toddler aged pushing a green single wheel toddler wheelbarrow with weeds in it. Her father is standing behind her holding the handles to help her push it up the hill. In the background is a fallen tree trunk with a black and white cat walking on it, a red tractor, and an old wooden barn.

Waiting Shows Respect

Have you ever thought about the fact that toddlers need more time to think than children? Likewise, children need more time to think than teenagers. When you wait, you are showing respect. As you transition from one activity to another, look at your little one to decide how long they need to finish their task. When you arrive at your destination and open their car door, take a minute to look and learn if they need another minute to finish their work.

Waiting while your toddler struggles through a task gives them a feeling of self-worth and accomplishment

Playing and working with your toddler creates opportunities for them to build character, tenacity, and analytical skills. A toddler who can think can grow up to become a leader.

Activity Ideas For Toddler’s Whose Behaviors Indicate Visual Difficulties

Buckets and Rocks

If you have a gravel driveway, give your toddler a bucket and let them collect rocks. Show them how they can pick up the rocks that have been tossed in the grass by the cars and put them back in the middle of the driveway. Allow them to make the bucket as heavy as they want. Remember, the weight of the bucket and picking up rock is developing their brain, which receives information from their inner ear’s vestibular system, visual system, and proprioceptive system (muscles and joints). Wow! No wonder little ones need to move.

Picking Up Sticks, Raking Grass or Leaves

During the summer, there is always yard work to be done. Give your toddler a small rake and let them help rake the grass. In the fall, they will enjoy raking leaves into piles. Make sure you have some fun jumping in the pile of leaves listening to them crunch. You could also let your little one load up a wheelbarrow or wagon full of sticks. They love rides in the big wheelbarrow.

Toddler girl wearing a red, white, and blue long sleeve one piece swimsuit, ear muffs, and rain boots raking grass clippings.

Watering Plants

Let your toddler help you water the plants. Fill the watering can or bucket together to see how much weight your little one would like to carry. This is one job where you can let them take the lead and water the plants.

Feeding the Pets

If you have pets, get your toddler involved when it is time to fill up their feed bowls. They can scoop the feed and carry the bowl. Both of those activities provide proprioceptive feedback for your toddler. The resistance on the scoop as they push it into the feed bin and the weight of the bowl as they carry it to their pet.

Toddler aged boy pouring a scoop of food into the dog bowl. The dog is waiting in the right corner of the image.  Pouring the food into the dog bowl may be challenging for toddlers with vision difficulties.

Reading Books with a Weighted Blanket

When the brain is over-stimulated, it sends out signals causing us to seek quiet, calming activities. At the end of a busy day, reading books with your toddler snuggled up in a heavy or weighted blanket can calm their sensory system. Snuggling is always a wonderful way to spend quality time with your little one.

Toddler Eye Exams are Recommended

The American Optometric Foundation recommends an eye exam any time after nine months of age. Today’s technology does not require your toddler to respond during the exam to identify vision difficulties. The eye doctor will assess eye movement ability and eye alignment. You will learn if your little one has astigmatism. amblyopia (lazy eye), or another eye condition known to negatively impact learning and moving.

If this is your toddler’s first exam, you can make an appointment with either an ophthalmologist or an optometrist.

  • Ophthalmologists specialize in eye disorders, eye health (prevenetion of vision loss), and eye surgeries.
  • Optometrists also assess eye health. When concerns are found, optometrists refer patients to an ophthalmologist or a retina specialist. Most optometrists focus on prescribing glasses.
  • Developmental optometrists or neurorehabilitation optometrists specialize in developmental vision difficulties and assess visual processing skills and vision therapy.

What should you expect at the first exam? The American WebMD shares helpful information about what to expect at your toddler’s eye exam. Eye exams do not require your little one to verbally respond to complete testing.

Even when there is excellent eye health and eye alignment, individuals of all ages can still experience other types of visual processing difficulties. Thus, do not ignore your concerns or your toddler’s behavior. Schedule an appointment with a pediatric developmental optometrist or pediatric neurorehabilitation optometrist.

It is important to understand that there are numerous different types of visual processing skills. Thus, little ones can display a wide range of behavioral, learning, and emotional difficulties.

Vision Therapy at Home or/and In-Office

I have personally seen life-changing improvements in learning, self-care, motor coordination, and emotional health in clients of all ages who received therapeutic glasses and vision therapy. Yes, both. Eyeglasses push stimulation along the visual neural pathways. However, the brain still needs therapy to teach both eyes to work together when focusing on objects near and far or looking from one place to another.

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