Toddler Behavior

Toddler Behavior - it's challenging. They're not called the "terrible two's" for nothing.

As a parent, you know that the problems often start about 18 months and some children have issues beyond the 3rd birthday, but the principles are the same whatever the age of your child.

On this page, you will find:

  • Dr Maud's tips for managing toddler behavior - these are my suggestions for making life with your toddler easier and ensuring that he develops the behavior you find acceptable. It is probably best to read them all but if you want to jump to one in particular, click on the link:

If you want to understand more why your child behaves as he does, you might find the page on toddler discipline helpful to start with.


Dr Maud's Tips for Understanding Toddler Behavior

Before I go through my 10 top tips for behavior management, I want you to also consider this - there is only one person you can reliably change and that's you. But when you make small changes in what you do, the ripple effect can be huge and you can see changes in those around you. So, first and foremost, if you want your child to change what they do, ask yourself 'is there something I could change about the way I'm handling this'. I'm not suggesting for a moment that you are the cause of your child's problems, but in my experience, when the parent changes what they do or how they react (even just a little bit), it can have very positive results for everyone.


Remember he's only a child

You are dealing with a child. He doesn't have common sense and he can't reason. If you expect that he does have common sense or can reason, you will be very frustrated.

Your child is exhibiting normal toddler behavior. He doesn't have a malicious streak - he's just doing what children do. Some children will be more likely to respond to reasoning and rules, whereas other children are just having fun.

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It's all about the "Here and Now"

Children live in a short time frame. The upside of this is that toddlers don't bear grudges. The downside is that they won't remember that they were "out-of-control" earlier when Dad comes home.

So any management of toddler behavior needs to be immediate. Your child won't get it if you wait to discipline him until later. Positive reinforcement needs to be immediate as well.

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Be clear and consistent

Your child needs to get clear messages from you and you need to be consistent. It's no use laughing about a particular toddler behavior one day and then the next day being cross about it. Both parents need to be giving the same message, as well.

Your child doesn't understand subtleties or mixed messages. Make sure your body language doesn't give a different message from what you're saying.

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Don't sweat about the small things

Give your child a break. He's not going to behave perfectly all the time. Don't nag at every little thing. Concentrate on the big stuff (the toddler behavior you find unacceptable) and get that right.

Remember, childhood is about having fun and learning new things. Learning new things involves getting it wrong from time to time. Be there to support your child through those times, not to make it harder for him. Knowing your child's energy type and working with that will make things so much easier for you and I highly recommend Carol Tuttle's book, 'The Child Whisperer'.

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Consider the behavior not the child

Your child will exhibit unacceptable behavior and be "out-of-control" from time to time. That doesn't make him a "bad" child. When you are unhappy with your toddler's behavior, make it clear that it is the behavior, not the child, that you don't like. So say "hitting is unacceptable" or "hitting is bad" but not "you are bad".

No child likes being always told he is bad or naughty - if that is all he's told, he will believe that to be the case and if that is all anyone expects of him, eventually, that is all anyone will see - you child will act out the script you give him.

Give your child alternatives, so for example, say "I don't like you speaking rudely like that. I like it when you are polite and say please".

Rather than speaking about good and bad, consider speaking to your child about choices and explain that the choices they make can be helpful or not helpful for them depending on the consequences. If they make an unhelpful choice, ask them what alternative choice they could have made (help them out if they can't come up with one). Teaching that everyone has choice and choices have consequences is helpful to children. Learning that they can change the choices they make is invaluable later in life.

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It's not a democracy all the time

Not everything that happens in your family is by consensus. You are the parent and you know what is best for your family. But how you best get that across to your child will depend on his nature.

For the some children, you can explain what you expect and show him you respect his thoughts about the issue, but that doesn't mean that you have to go along with him if it's not right for the family as a whole. For other children, a more direct approach works best. You have to know your child. However, you can always give him an impression of control, eg. so you could offer your child the choice of 2 garments to wear. Your child will appreciate having some say.

It is ok for you to decide what toddler behavior is non-negotiable for you and your family, such as learning to be respectful of others.

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Don't fight with your toddler

It is a fruitless exercise getting into an argument or fight with your toddler. You are the adult and you have to resist. Not only that, your child will forget about any fight very quickly whereas you are more likely to have feelings that linger - which is a lose-lose situation for you.

When your child says "I hate you" as a toddler will do, either ignore it completely or answer as my sister does, calmly and casually, "that's a shame. I still love you." Potential fight over. If your toddler continues, just ignore it completely. This is particularly true for the child who loves a reaction, so you need to avoid giving a reaction for any behavior you don't want to see.

If what your child is doing leaves you with an emotional charge, take some time alone and consider what may be triggering that charge - emotional triggers oftentimes are something from the past, even childhood. Recognizing that is important so you child doesn't bear the burden of your past.

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Positive Reinforcement Works

Positive reinforcement is the best form of child and toddler behavior management. Give lots of positive attention for behaviors you want to see.

We are so good at criticising but less good at giving positive feedback. Your child needs positive feedback. So, when he is being "good", tell him, make a fuss about how good he is and how much it pleases you. By definition, "good" is anything that is not unacceptable, so be generous with your praise. Give positive reinforcement for all toddler behavior that is not unacceptable - "good boy for tidying up", "good boy for coming when I called you", "good boy for helping your sister" - be specific about what behavior you are talking about, don't just say "good boy".

Praise (positively reinforce) the behavior you want in a positive way, not in a double negative way. So say "good boy for talking quietly" not "good boy for not shouting"

I was in the supermarket the other day and heard a mother telling her little girl, "that was very good listening". Perfect positive reinforcement. Even better, give reinforcement for your child just being himself - so he knows he doesn't to earn love, it's there for him regardless. For example,congratulate your child on being such fun and for having such great ideas.

You might even want to consider using a reward chart to modify toddler behavior - read more.

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Ignore Behaviors You Don't Want

Ignoring, or more correctly failing to give reinforcement, works for behaviors you don't want like tantrums and breath holding attacks. Your child's motivation is to get attention (and sometimes he doesn't care how) - if he doesn't get attention, he will try something else. Sometimes ignoring is as simple as avoiding eye contact with your toddler.

You have to be consistent, though. If your child thinks that there is a possibility of attention, because he got some last time, he'll keep trying for a while. That is intermittent reinforcement and it is very strong, so make your reinforcement work for you not against. This means you need to persevere - your child will.

If you're not sure why your child behaves as he does or what's in it for him, read the ABC of Understanding Toddler Behavior.

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Use Time-Out for "Out of Control Behavior"

Time-out is a very effective tool for changing toddler behavior, although like all behavior management techniques, you may need to modify it for your child's nature- read more. It is actually "time out" from positive reinforcement. It doesn't have to be as long as a minute/year of age. It can be for a few seconds. You child doesn't have to go to a special place either - it may be just you holding their hand and not giving any attention. It may be that you get your child to go and run around the backyard for a couple of minutes to release pent up energy - do what is going to work for your child.

Once your child knows you mean business, because you are clear and consistent and follow through on what you say, you will be able to get the behavior you want with the 3-2-1 warning of time-out, which is very handy, especially if you are at the supermarket.

Don't nag at your child. If you want him to do something and he doesn't, tell him the consequences (for example, time-out) and follow through on it. If the matter doesn't warrant time-out, it doesn't warrant nagging about, so let it go.

If you are going to "give in" to your child, do it quickly, don't let it drag out. Even better, learn to identify potential issues and redirect them to another activity.

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Model "good" behavior

Show your child how you want him to behave - it's very powerful. If you don't want your child to swear and curse, don't do it yourself.

Teach your child what your family principles are - say "we say thank you in our family" or "we don't swear in our family" and then make sure that is the case.

If your child is whingeing and whining, say "just ask, you don't need to whinge". and then act on the asking. It is important for children to learn how to ask for their needs

Watch your language when speaking to your child. Avoid giving negative comments, especially inadvertently. I hear a lot of people saying to their boys 'Stop crying like a little girl". First this does not allow you son to feel free to express emotion and secondly it suggests that girls are somehow weak. I'm sure when these comments are made they are often meant light-heartedly and are not meant to have a negative impact. But children are like sponges mopping up information and they don't need to take on limiting beliefs

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Specific Toddler Behavior Problems

Read more about these specific toddler behaviour problems:

If you want to read other visitors' stories about what worked (and even what didn't work) in dealing with toddler behavior problems, click here.

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  • 'The Child Whisperer" by Carol Tuttle. This is one of my favourite books for parenting as it describes a system of energy profiling which you can easily learn so you understand your child's nature. Knowing this allows you to parent your child true to them. You can find more information by clicking here.
  • The Child Whisperer website - click here
  • Consistent Parenting Advice- Discover the simple but profound difference clear, firm and consistent parenting advice will bring to your family. Read how to enhance your children's happiness, self esteem and responsibility while at the same time being enabled,as a parent, to increase and develop your own emotional maturity
  • Talking to Toddlers Audio Course - If you prefer to listen than read information, then you can hear about great ways to change your child's behavior and avoid the terrible two's with an audio course called "Talking to Toddlers" - it comes with a full money back guarantee, so if it doesn't work for you, you won't have lost anything. You can instantly download in MP3 format or order CD's.
  • The great thing about "Talking to Toddlers" is that it not only gives strategies for dealing with a willful two year old, but it gives strategies for communicating more effectively with all ages. To find out more, Click Here!

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  • Green C. Toddler Taming. Doubleday. 2001. ISBN: 1 86471 053 5
  • The Child Whisperer by Carol Tuttle

To go to the top of the Toddler Behavior page, click here

To read about Reward Charts, click here

To read about Time Out, click here

To really understand your toddler's behavior, click here 

To read about other visitors' experiences and insights, click here

To share your "terrible two's" experience, click here

To read about sleep problems, click here 

To read about temper tantrums, click here

To read about Breath Holding Spells, click here

To read about managing the child who won't eat, click here 

To read about how to manage Biting and Hitting, click here 

To read about normal child development, click here 

To return to the Home page, click here

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Dr Maud MD

Dr Maud MD (MBChB, FRACP, FRCPCH), a specialist pediatrician, provides health information and medical advice for parents of babies and toddlers. Read more about Dr Maud.

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