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Understanding a Toddler's Behavior

Understanding a Toddler's Behavior

Your sweet baby is approaching toddlerhood and you're wondering what to expect. Toddlers sometimes get a bad rap, with labels such as "the terrible twos," but these misnomers are often the result of a lack of understanding. The toddler years are a time of immense growth and development in all areas – physical, cognitive, and language. Along with this rapid growth comes an increased desire for independence, yet the executive function and social-emotional skills necessary for delayed impulse control, positive social interactions, and understanding choices and consequences are still maturing. Knowing why your toddler behaves a certain way and knowing how to help your child can make the toddler years a happy time for both of you.

Toddler Behaviors & Changes

  • Increased Motor Skills. Newborn babies are completely helpless, with very little control over their own bodies. Imagine their delight as they learn to sit up, crawl, walk, and then run, hop, and jump. Toddlers love to experiment physically, trying increasingly difficult feats of skill and strength. They jump off stairs, climb on counters, mow over siblings, or knock things over – not to intentionally frustrate you, but to see what else their bodies can do. Accept this trait as a healthy, normal part of toddler development and offer your toddler the physical activity she craves, within safe limits. Go for a daily walk, preferably to a playground or natural space where your child can safely explore their world.
  • Learning Through the Senses. Babies and toddlers first experience the world through their senses. This is one of the reasons toddlers love to explore, leading to some difficult toddler behaviors like ransacking your kitchen cupboards or tasting non-food items. Recognize this characteristic and provide opportunities for sensory exploration, with some boundaries. For example, allow your child to explore one cupboard in your kitchen stocked with stackable plastic dishes and lids. Set up an area outdoors for sand or water play; offer hands-on art materials, such as play dough or finger paint. Play in nature every day if possible.
  • Concrete Here and Now Thinking. Toddlers understand what they can see and touch. Abstract concepts and logic are not yet part of their mindset. At the same time, toddlers are capable of feeling intense emotions, yet lack the cognitive skills to process those emotions and handle them appropriately. Imagine how frightening that might feel! To help your toddler's development through this period, first, create a consistent, predictable routine that your toddler can depend on. Set clear limits and use simple language to explain your expectations. Give advance warning before a change, knowing that your toddler doesn't really understand the concept of minutes and hours. For example, "We're going to eat breakfast and then we're going to school." These tips can help you keep up with your toddler's development, making both you and your toddler happy. Toddlers have a limited understanding of yours, mine, and ours, assuming instead that everything is "mine," which is why they have such a hard time sharing. Model how to share, but realize that learning this skill takes time. Put away favorite toys when friends come over or have a few duplicate toys for toddlers.
  • A Need for Independence. Toddlers have very little control over their lives. They are told what to eat, when to eat it, what to wear, when to go to bed, and what to do throughout the day. No wonder they sometimes feel frustrated! Recognize your toddler's desire for independence and you'll have an easier time navigating your toddler's "me do it" stage. Offer choices whenever possible. For example, "Do you want to wear your red shirt or your green shirt?" "Would you like peas or carrots for lunch?" As long as your toddler is safe, try to allow a certain amount of latitude and don't sweat the small stuff. Of course, sometimes you must say no, which can lead to a toddler meltdown. When this happens, try distracting your child or calmly and quietly hold your child until he calms down, talking softly and reassuringly ("I can see you are really angry. Let's just sit here a few minutes and you can tell me how angry you are."). 

Remember, toddlers aren't trying to be "naughty." Most of the time, they're merely trying to figure out this big, confusing world. Give yourself and your toddler a break and know that this stage of exploration and testing limits is setting the stage for healthy growth later.

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