Toddler behaviors are exhausting!
They run away from you in parking lots.
They plug the toilet with the entire roll of toilet paper.
They throw a toy and hit their baby brother in the head.
They ask “Why?” three hundred thousand times a day.
All of this leaves YOU asking “Why?” WHY do you do the opposite of what I ask? WHY won’t you stop climbing on the table? WHY are you having ANOTHER tantrum?
Why? Why? Why?
Parenting toddlers is a draining and thankless job. Constant demands and difficult behaviors from our little ones can leave us drained and discouraged.
The key to dealing with toddler behaviors is understanding the why. When we know what toddlers are capable of, we reframe the way we respond to their behaviors.
Have you ever yelled at an infant because they couldn’t tie their shoes or fix their own bottle? Of course not!
The same holds true for toddlers. When we expect them to do things they aren’t able to do, we set them up for failure.
So the simple answer to the question “Why do toddlers act this way?” is that they can’t help it. They are just beginning to learn how to control themselves and how to communicate in a positive way.
Three things that will help you handle difficult toddler behaviors are:
—knowing what to expect from your toddler
—preventing difficult behaviors as you are able
—responding in the right way
In the following section, I’ve outlined four toddler behaviors you can expect, how to prevent some of them, and how to respond in each situation.
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Four toddler behaviors that wear you out, and what you can do about them
1. They lack impulse control
Even when these little ones understand what is expected of them, they often are not capable of doing it.
They know what their brain is telling them, but the connection between brain and body is not developed enough for them to always follow through. They may need more time to process the info and respond appropriately.
Self-control is a learned and developed skill. It comes more easily to some than others. Your toddler is not being “naughty” when they repeatedly push the shopping cart into your heels. They don’t yet have the ability to control that action.
I admit, this was tough for me to learn as a new mom. I brought my two-year-old to a parenting class and asked how to teach him to not run away when I got him out of the car. I didn’t like their answer: don’t expect that of him; he’s not ready. Just do your part to keep him safe and don’t give him the opportunity to run when it’s dangerous.
It took me some time to realize they were right. He was still developing impulse control and my job was to adjust my expectations and the environment to help him until he could manage on his own.
How you can respond:
If your little one is a climber, give them ample opportunity to climb safely, while also creating barriers to unsafe climbing situations inside your home.
If they often throw things impulsively, only have safe, soft toys available except for the times when you are actively playing with them.
If they run away in parking lots, either hold their hand, carry them, or move them directly from car seat to a stroller or shopping cart.
In other words, control the environment as much as possible to reduce unwanted behaviors and to keep your little one and others safe.
Also, rather than yelling or punishing your toddler for being impulsive, help them through the behavior by showing them the right thing to do and giving them a chance to practice.
2. Their main job is to explore and experiment
When you climb on an unsteady table, you will likely topple to the ground. When you run in the rain without an umbrella, you get wet. If you throw a stuffed animal to a grown up, they might catch it, but if you throw a metal car to a baby, you will probably hurt them.
These are all facts that we know to be true. However, a toddler doesn’t know these things. At least, not until they experiment and figure it out for themselves.
Their biggest question is, “What will happen if I do this?” They learn through experimenting and exploring their environment.
This reminds me of the “I wonder what would happen if…” sketches in the old time Sesame Street from so many years ago. The little girl had a balloon and she asked herself, “I wonder what would happen if I stuck this balloon with a pin and it popped and scared my baby sister…” (FYI—I couldn’t find this video on YouTube for you, but according to comments in a similar clip, I’m not the only one looking for it!)
Toddlers are going to push the limits and boundaries. They are going to explore and experiment. They want to see “what would happen if”, and they also want to see how you will react.
How you can respond:
Give them plenty of opportunities to experiment in a safe and fun way. Allow them freedom to explore within safe boundaries, even if it makes a mess and even if it takes you longer to get things done.
Keep valuables and breakables out of reach rather than expecting them to not touch.
Remain calm when they dump the whole box of cereal on the floor, and use it as a teaching time while also explaining why that wasn’t a good idea. Then keep the cereal box out of reach, am I right?
Have a good variety of toys and household objects on hand that they can learn from. STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) toys for toddlers can teach them basic concepts such as cause and effect, building, and numbers through play. Check out some ideas this post, Best STEM Toys for Toddlers—Ultimate Guide!
3. They need a sense of control
Toddlers have spent their entire lives being controlled by other humans. They have had little say in what they wear, when they eat, or where they go.
There is still so much they can’t control yet. But now that they are developing a sense of self, they may desire to be in charge.
You may hear their cries of “I do it!” several times each day. They want to pour their own milk, buckle their car seat, put on their clothes, and a million other little things you’ve been doing for them since birth.
Now that they are learning their place in the world, they will naturally want to have some control over their life.
How you can respond:
Create an environment that is structured and safe, while allowing them to “help” as much as possible.
Tell them what they CAN do instead of what they CAN’T. For example, when your little one wants to help put the glasses away in the kitchen cupboard, give them the job of putting away silverware instead.
Give them opportunities to make decisions for themselves as much as possible, including choosing what to wear, eat, etc. Keep it simple, though! “Do you want to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt?” “Would you like apples or grapes?”
4. They are learning to express their emotions
Sometimes we forget these little ones have only been on the planet a few short years. Until now the only way they knew to communicate was through crying. Now they are learning there are other ways to express their needs.
They throw themselves on the ground. They kick and scream. They throw things.
They are not doing these things to be difficult. They are experimenting with different ways to express their emotions or to get their needs met.
And remember the part about impulse control? When toddlers have big feelings, they often lack the ability to control those emotions in a positive way.
Our job as parents is to let them know we are here for them in the hard times, and to model and teach better ways to communicate their feelings and needs.
How you can respond:
Empathy works—it can’t stop the tantrum once it’s started, but it could help to prevent it.
Empathizing with your toddler and validating their feelings can go a long way towards helping them feel better about a situation. “I know you’re sad that you can’t have a popsicle right now. Wouldn’t it be great if you could have all the popsicles in the world? Which color would you pick first?”
Then maybe distract them with something else. That’s one of the great things about toddlers—they’re easily distracted!
Keep your own reactions in check. I am the first to admit this is really hard! I mess up sometimes. We are all human, right? And we will mess up. But I try to use those moments to model appropriate ways to make amends by apologizing and showing some love. And the best part? Toddlers are great at forgiveness. They are always quick to forgive, give hugs, and move forward.
Toddler Behaviors Might Seem Terrible, But…
My toddler is in the terrible twos! They’re so naughty all the time, I can’t stand it! Have you heard these words coming from your mouth? Or just had them in your thoughts, even if you didn’t voice them out loud?
Instead of seeing the “terrible twos”, begin to look at toddler behaviors through new eyes. Rather than thinking your toddler is giving you a hard time, realize what that actually means: your toddler is having a hard time.
They are learning how to navigate their world in a new way. Give them as many opportunities for success as you can! Toddlers need to live in a world where they are not constantly feeling like a failure but they are being empowered to grow with a positive sense of self.
Reframing difficult toddler behaviors will change the way you respond to your little one every time. And as you begin to adjust your expectations and help your little one through those tough moments, you will see a shift not only in your mindset, but also in their behaviors.
Additional Resources to Help With Toddler Behaviors
Looking for more ideas to help you handle those crazy toddler behaviors? Check out these amazing resources!
How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen, by Joanna Faber and Julie King. This book is excellent! So many helpful suggestions for connecting with our little ones, understanding what they’re going through, and dealing with difficult toddler behaviors. This is kind of like the toddler parent bible. There is so much to learn and take in that I refer back to it often to review and practice using the tools.
The Toddler Brain, by Laura Jana. I have heard this author speak at a conference, and she is great! She talks about how to help our little ones develop their social/emotional skills in an appropriate way, using their strengths instead of focusing on what makes them “difficult.”
Parenting Littles Book Club. This is a Facebook group that I run, full of parents who are encouraging one another as we read some of the most well-known and loved books on parenting little ones. Come join us for some great ideas and inspiration!
For more ideas, check out my post on How to Get Your Toddler to Listen. Then sign up below to get my free printable, Ten Ways to Gain Your Toddler’s Cooperation. It’s an easy reference chart you can go to anytime you’re struggling with your toddler.