Imagine landing on an unfamiliar planet, inhabiting an unfamiliar body. That’s essentially what toddlers experience. They’re learning about themselves, other people, and their surroundings, and their brains and bodies are growing more rapidly than at any other time in their lives.
It’s no wonder then that their behavior can be perplexing or downright challenging to us. They’re trying to make sense of feelings, physical sensations, language, and relationships, all while learning about rules and expectations. Whew!
The next time your toddler’s behavior leaves you scratching your head, take a minute to think about the “why.” What is my toddler trying to figure out or master? What big emotions is my child feeling? How can I reduce my child’s frustration or make this easier?
7 TODDLER BEHAVIORS AND WHY THEY HAPPEN
The Behavior: Dumping Toys, Shoes, Books, Etc.
The Why: Toddlers are passionate about exploring, discovering, and learning. Rotate toys instead of putting them all out at once. Use labeled, organized bins to make clean-up a snap. Remove or put locks on things that are off limits.
The Behavior: “No, No, No!”
The Why: Toddlers are learning to become their own individuals and exerting their opinion is part of that process. They also get to make very few decisions about their day. Acknowledge that their opinions matter, but give toddlers simple reasons for your request. Then offer limited choices so they feel they have some control in the situation. For example, “I hear that you don’t want to put your shoes on. It’s cold outside though. You need shoes to stay warm. Would you like to wear your boots or your sneakers?”
The Behavior: “I Do It Myself”
The Why: Toddlers are gaining confidence and independence, but their skills sometimes lag behind. They don’t understand abstract concepts like time or schedules, and they are fully immersed in the here and now so rushing them through tasks can create friction and frustration. Try to build time in your day to allow for “slow.” Show your child a few tricks to simplify daily tasks like putting on shoes.
The Behavior: Hitting, Pushing, or Biting
The Why: Toddlers get frustrated easily because they are learning to communicate and also learning to control their emotions. They often express themselves through physical means. Set clear rules about behavior, and teach your child alternatives, e.g., “You’re mad because you want the toy car. You can’t hit, but you can say, ‘Can I have a turn?”’ Sometimes toddlers hit because they’re hungry, tired, or overwhelmed. Watch for signs of fatigue and take a break before your child starts swinging.
The Behavior: "It's mine! Mine! Mine!"
The Why: Toddlers are learning social skills and do not yet know how to share. Model how to share, put away beloved toys (or have multiples), and keep your expectations realistic.
The Behavior: Tantrum
The Why: Toddlers don’t have a lot of control over their lives, and everything is hard – from putting on shoes to trying to reach a cup that’s just out of reach. At the same time, they’re still gaining language and can’t always tell us what’s wrong. Show empathy, take a deep breath, and stay calm. Offer a hug or give your child some space (depending on what they need). If you’re in public, remove your child to a quiet space.
The Behavior: Constant Motion
The Why: Toddlers are naturally energetic and exuberant, and can you blame them? They’ve only recently mastered walking, running, climbing, etc. Make sure your child has opportunities throughout the day for active play.