What is Your Toddler Really Thinking?

Young boy deep in thoughtIf you’re parenting a toddler, there are probably many times you feel completely baffled by his/her behavior. One minute he’s loving and compliant, and the next minute he’s terrorizing the entire household (or supermarket!). Needless to say, it can be overwhelming. The good news is that you’re far from alone if you think you have missed the class on understanding your toddler. Even the most competent parents can feel inadequate as they navigate their way through toddlerhood for the first time!

Is it really misbehavior?

One of the biggest mistakes most parents make when it comes to toddlers is frequently misinterpreting their behavior. Toddlers are in the beginning stages of making sense of a very complex world. It’s easy to assume your little tot is blatantly misbehaving when he’s just being curious or experimenting with his newly discovered sense of independence and individuality. Understanding how he sees the world will help you become a better parent and meet his needs more effectively.

Four driving forces

There are four primary desires that drive you toddler. These are 1) to be loved, 2) to get attention, 3) to assert his independence, and 4) to explore and learn about the world around him. Almost everything he does is motivated by one of these four things.

Defiance vs. lack of understanding

Your toddler doesn’t understand the difference between right and wrong, or good and bad, yet. If he’s not doing as you say, it’s not that he’s intentionally defying you; rather, it’s because he doesn’t yet understand (or remember) the rules, and also because he’s trying to assert his independence.

Center of the universe

From your toddler’s point of view, the world revolves around him. He can’t yet see things from your perspective, nor have empathy for others. He thinks about what he wants and doesn’t yet understand that his actions impact others. So, if another child has a toy he wants, he may grab it from her. He’s not trying to be hurtful or mean; rather, he thinks the world should cater to his wants.

Living in the moment

Toddlers truly live in the moment. When your toddler becomes demanding and wants something NOW, it’s because he can’t think ahead yet. His inability to wait for something can be very irritating, but he’s not trying to be impatient. This is why he may repeat the behaviors you just scolded him for the day before. He sees the knobs on the stereo and can’t resist turning them – again. He’s not trying to disobey, he’s just living in the moment; and right now, the knobs are just too tempting!

“I want what she has!”

Toddlers learn by imitating the behavior of others. This is another reason why your toddler always seems to want whatever toy (or food, etc.) another child has. His insatiable desire to learn in this way can give you a lot of headaches, until you understand the drive behind this behavior.


“I like this game!”

You’ve probably tried to get your toddler dressed, or into the bath tub, only to have him run away from you. Suddenly, you’re chasing your giggling, half naked tot all over the house. While this is irritating for you, in his mind it’s merely a very fun game of “Can Mommy catch me?”

Major melt down

It’s not uncommon for toddlers to have a major melt down (a.k.a. tantrum) when you’re at the grocery store, or in the car while you’re out running errands. While you’re mortified with embarrassment, he’s thinking that he’s bored, hungry, or tired.

Jekyll and Hyde

Toddlers are just beginning to learn that they’re separate from you. This is the reason why your toddler goes back and forth between wanting to do a task (e.g. climb the stairs) by himself and having you do it (e.g. carrying him) for him. He waffles between wanting to assert his independence (rejecting your control over him) and clinging to or relying on you (which feels safe and secure). This budding sense of autonomy is the basis for the “battle of the wills,” which is the hallmark of the terrible twos.

Hopefully this has given you a better idea of what your toddler’s really thinking when his actions are confusing, frustrating, and irritating. Rather than being quick to punish what seems like blatant misbehavior, remember that your little one has a very different (and very limited) perspective of the world. Understanding what he’s thinking will help you teach and guide him more effectively.

What do you think?

What is Your Toddler Really Thinking?

Tell us what you think!


  1. Leah says:

    Thank you! VERY helpful!

  2. Jeanne says:

    Love this article! So helpful!

  3. MAMASEXXY says:


  4. Janice says:

    This subject of what children think, is important in development and emotional support. I made effort to teach this to my daughter to help everyone out during that phase.


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