The toddler stage (1-3 years old) is filled with joy, challenges and everything in between. Difficult behaviors often emerge during this time, including the dreaded “meltdowns” or as my old supervisor used to call it, kids “going boneless” during a tantrum at the grocery store.
Here are some practical ways to think about and respond to challenging toddler behaviors.
Types of toddler behaviors
I generally think of toddler behaviors in 3 categories, based on severity and requiring different responses. Understanding the different types of behaviors may help you prioritize which behaviors to work through first.
Aggressive or unsafe behaviors: These include biting, hitting, kicking or running away. These types of behaviors need to be corrected or addressed.
Annoying or unhelpful behaviors: These include whining, interrupting, screaming or not following directions. These behaviors still warrant a response, but that response may be actively ignoring them.
Developing behaviors: These include things like putting shoes on the wrong feet. These are skills that can be learned over time and do not necessarily require immediate attention.
At this age, the time from thought to action is miniscule – and the vast majority of behavior is not planned or intentional. When addressing problem behavior, it is helpful to identify potential triggers for behavior which could include things such as basic needs (hungry, tired), frustration, sadness or inability to communicate.
The 4 primary functions of all behaviors – yes, even those for adults – are:
To get something you want – Think getting that lollipop in the store.
To avoid or escape a nonpreferred activity – Think tantrum to avoid bedtime.
To get attention or a reaction – Think the toddler makes eye contact when doing something they were just told not to do.
Sensory overload – Think the major meltdown at the birthday party at that kid’s place with the giant animatronic mouse.
Sometimes it’s helpful to take a deep breath and think about the factors that could be contributing to your child’s behavior in the moment.
Tips for surviving toddler behavior
Reframe how you think about your child’s behavior. Viewing behaviors as exploration, instead of problematic, can provide the perspective that your child’s actions and reactions are part of their normal development. It’s expected for toddlers to explore their environments. However, toddlers don’t yet understand what could be dangerous or cause harm since they haven’t had those life experiences yet. Toddler behavior is a lot of trial and error since they’re learning what happens when they do things. Changing the way you think about toddler behaviors can also help change how you react to them.
Recognize your child’s capabilities and skills. A lot of times, parents may expect their child to already have a skill they haven’t developed yet. Stop and think: Is the task I’m asking them to do within their range of skills? If not, think about what support they might need to be successful and how to respect their desire to do things on their own in a safe way.
Set clear expectations ahead of time. Rather than reacting the moment your child acts out, practice going over behavioral expectations before you need them to show the behavior. Remember your child is learning rapidly, and even when they act out, it is a part of the learning experience.
Maintain eye contact when giving a direction. If you aren’t looking at, or within 3 feet of, your toddler when giving a direction you can assume they are unlikely to follow it. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s probably true. Proximity, clear and concise directions and eye contact are the key ingredients to successful direction delivery.
Change the environment to help your child be successful. Think about how you can use timers, visuals or the physical space to help your child demonstrate the behavior you’d like to see. For example, an active toddler may try to get up during a meal and not finish their food. In this instance, sitting in a highchair may help the toddler learn they can get down when they’re done eating. Plus, it means you don’t have to keep herding them back to the table and they often eat better when they are stationary during meals.
Give attention to behaviors you like. Your attention is a powerful tool. Celebrate the things your toddler does well – both big and small. If your toddler picked out their outfit that day, compliment their choice and thank them for being a great helper. Be genuinely enthusiastic and give labeled praise (e.g., “I love that you picked up your plate right away.”)
Selectively ignore behaviors that are not dangerous. If a toddler isn’t receiving attention for a problematic behavior, they are less likely to repeat it. This strategy is especially helpful for those category B behaviors, like whining, but needs to be done consistently to be most effective. That means, all family members must ignore these behaviors every time.
Model the behaviors you want to see. Your toddler is a little human sponge. They pick up on caregivers’ behaviors so modeling what you want them to do is a powerful tool for shaping your child’s behavior. One example is self-regulation. Many toddlers don’t yet know how to manage big feelings. This presents an opportunity to verbalize (out loud!) how to calmly handle situations out of your control. If you’re stuck in traffic, you might say to your toddler, “I’m taking a deep breath because we’re going to be late, and I have no control over the other cars.”
It’s OK to take a break. Sometimes, you may think “I can’t do this right now.” In that moment, take a breath and even walk away (if a trusted adult is close by) to regain composure. It doesn’t mean you’re giving up. It means you’re trying to handle the situation in the best way possible. If there are two caregivers in the home, you might decide on a secret signal you give each other if you need a break and for the other caregiver to step in to help.
Set routines. Long periods of unstructured time often lead to problem behaviors. It can be very helpful to structure your child’s day and develop routines they can begin to expect.
Talk to other parents. Call a friend and share toddler stories. All toddlers act out at times, so discussing your experience with other parents can help normalize what you’re going through. Remember though, sometimes advice isn’t wanted and you just want someone to listen. If that is the case, make sure you let the listener know that today you are just looking for someone to listen.
Don’t let the opinions of others get you off track. Family members, friends and people in public may have opinions about how your child should behave, but at the end of the day, you get to decide what is right for your family and your child. Try not to let those opinions take up too much of your time and energy.
While there are challenges associated with parenting a toddler, be sure to soak in the magical moments you won’t get back. Ask yourself: Do I want to spend my energy dwelling on the things that are hard, or do I want to focus on making core memories that will last a lifetime? Take moments to write down or commit to memory the magical moments – the ones with belly laughter, joy-filled activities and quiet moments at home.
If you’re seeking behavioral help for your child, a counselor, social worker, psychologist, behavioral specialist or your pediatrician can help with behavior management based on your child’s needs.