How to Decode Toddler Behavior

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I can’t tell you how many SOS emails regarding toddler behavior fill my inbox. While most parents know that toddlers don’t come frontloaded with frustration management skills and temper tantrums are to be expected, toddlers engage in any number of other behaviors that leave parents wondering when a toddler crosses the line from “normal toddler development” to “help!”

Toddlers learn and grow at a rapid pace, but they’re all over the map.

While some toddlers are highly verbal and begin to express feelings, others do things like hit, kick, scream, and bite. For the record, all of that falls under the “normal toddler development” category.

While it might be tempting to find some magic behavioral correction system to nip these behaviors in the bud, it’s important to note that toddlers are still new at being human. They’re trying to figure things out as they go, and they don’t always get it right. Neither do adults, if we’re being honest.

Instead of looking at behavioral missteps as a problem, it helps to focus on the hidden meaning beneath the behaviors and what you can do to help.

Aggressive behavior

Hitting, kicking, biting, and excessive yelling are all signs of frustration. It’s hard work being a toddler. Imagine how you would feel if you spent five minutes carefully stacking blocks only to have them come crashing down before you were ready and you don’t even have the words to communicate your feelings? It’s frustrating!

The best things you can do are empathize with your child and provide a replacement behavior. Try this: “I can see that you’re super frustrated about that tower crashing down. It’s not okay to hit people. Hitting hurts. Let’s try stomping our feet instead.”

Kids use physical aggression because it releases the pent up negative energy. Without a suitable replacement, they stuff their emotions and experience even greater frustration.

Averted gaze

Parents experience their own frustration when their kids won’t look them in the eye. It feels disrespectful in nature.

Many kids avert their gaze when they’re feeling embarrassed or when they simply need time alone. They’re not ignoring you to frustrate you. In the case of embarrassment, they don’t know what to do with those feelings. If they need alone time, they might worry that you’ll interrupt their play.

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Be sure to acknowledge two important things: We all make mistakes and feel embarrassed sometimes, and we all need alone time. You can help your child best by giving her the words to label her feelings or to speak up and say, “I just want to play alone right now.”

Mealtime meltdowns

When the peas are launched across the kitchen, parents gear up for a mealtime battle. Picky eating is always a hot topic among parents of toddlers, as toddlers are widely known for their ever-changing likes and dislikes at the table. Mealtime meltdowns completely unrelated to the actual food in front of them are also common.

Feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, or over-stimulated all contribute to questionable table manners for toddlers. Move the mealtime up, stick to a routine, and focus sleep.

Bright lights, lots of animals

If your otherwise wonderful sleeper suddenly wants every light on and a crib or bed full of stuffed animals, try not to worry too much. As toddlers grow and learn about the world around them, they do develop fears. That’s perfectly normal. The world can feel big and scary to a small child.

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Add extra nightlights, keep the door open a crack, and create a relaxing bedtime routine to help ease your toddler’s nighttime fears.

Hiding when company arrives

Toddlers are often put on the spot when friends and family come to visit. What does a cow say? What does a sheep say? Where’s your belly button? Well-meaning parents love to have their toddlers show what they know, but this can be overwhelming for little ones. Some toddlers don’t actually enjoy showcasing their many talents, and making a run for it seems logical in the moment.

Little kids can be anxious in social situations, and that’s okay. To help ease the urge to run or cling in the face of company, give your child the gift of a quiet introduction. Hold his hand, model how to greet company, and allow him to watch and observe before joining the fun.

What do you think?

How to Decode Toddler Behavior

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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