As parents, we worry that every single thing we do will impact our kids for the rest of their lives, and with good reason. The lessons that we teach them early on helps to shape every aspect of their future. We want those lessons to be as positive as possible so we can raise happy, healthy children that make good choices later on. I think the biggest challenge for all of is how and when to disciplining our kids, especially when they’re in the stubborn toddler years. Today, we have a special guest piece from two professionals who will help us navigate those tricky water and learn what to do when toddlers misbehave, but first, let’s talk a little about WHY toddlers act up!
What’s the Deal with Misbehaving Toddlers?
Misbehaving toddlers: we’ve all been there! Whether your tiny tot throws an epic tantrum in the privacy of your own home or in the middle of the grocery store for the whole world to see, it’s virtually impossible to escape the toddler years without some sort of outburst. The good news? Misbehaving toddlers are absolutely normal. In fact, acting out is a natural part of child development. Why? Let’s look at some of the more common reasons, then we’ll get into how to handle misbehaving toddlers.
1. A breakdown in communication
Your tot is just learning to communicate with you, so there are bound to be a few snags. As parents, we pride ourselves on being able to speak “toddler,” but let’s be honest: 50% of the time, we’re completely guessing at what our kids are trying to tell us!
Tantrums can occur when signals get crossed between you and your tot. When your toddler throws his favorite teddy bear across the room and stomps his feet at nap time, he’s trying to say, “I’m not tired yet,” or maybe even “I’m too tired to sleep!” He doesn’t have the words to explain his feelings quite yet.
2. They’re mad that you’re keeping them from exploring
Toddlers are naturally curious little beings who are just learning how the world works. They don’t yet understand that the world can be a dangerous place and that you’re trying to keep them safe. To them, when you pull them back from the edge of cliff (figuratively, although sometimes literally!), you’re keeping them from seeing what’s on the other side. When you say “no,” to them you’re not only keeping them from exploring, you’re hampering their need for independence. It’s a double whammy.
3. They simply aren’t mature enough to contain their feelings
This is probably the most common reasons that toddlers misbehave and it kind of goes along with the other reasons. If toddlers aren’t mature enough to communicate their feelings, they’re certainly not old enough to recognize, understand, and contain those emotions.
As we grow and learn, we develop kind of a filter that teaches us what (and what not) to say and do. Sure, we get fuming mad when someone cuts in front of us in line at the grocery store, but we know that stomping our feet and screaming about it isn’t exactly socially acceptable. Yes, some adults do it anyway, but they’re a whole different matter. Most of us know that we can’t pitch a hissy fit in the middle of a store just because someone did something we don’t like. Your toddler, on the other hand, is still learning that.
4. They don’t feel good
As an adult, I get grumpy when I’m sick, and I have all my “filters” in place. Your toddler doesn’t really understand that colds, belly aches, and other illnesses are just a part of life, and that when we get them, we need to rest. All they know is their little bodies don’t feel very well and it’s making them unhappy.
Now that we understand some of the reasons toddlers misbehave, let’s learn how to properly diffuse (and maybe even prevent) those tantrums! I give you Dr. Laurie Berdhal and Dr. Brian D. Johnson to share their insights.
Got an aggressive toddler? ► Try these positive parenting tips
How You Approach Toddler Misbehavior Impacts Future Mental Health and Behavior
By Laurie Berdahl, MD and Brian D. Johnson, PhD
The terrible 2s and 3s is a time when we test our parenting skills and our kids test our patience. But how we respond while our little ones make required small gains in independence impacts how our children feel and act in the future.
The most crucial foundations for emotional health and prosocial behaviors are close relationships with parents while growing up. These begin when infants and toddlers receive sensitive responses to their needs, positive face-to-face interactions, and nurturing touch from caretakers. But misunderstanding normal toddler behavior can lead to frustrated, confused, and angry parents and children. Here are 5 common mistakes that parents make with toddlers that can cause trouble.
5 Ways to Deal with Kids Who Misbehave (Positive Parenting Tips)
- Expecting toddlers to do things their bodies and brains aren’t developed enough to do. Recognizing when expectations aren’t realistic and not pushing them to do things they aren’t ready for prevents future emotional and behavioral problems.
- Believing that emotional behavior is intentional. Toddlers normally use emotions to communicate because they’re too young to regulate their emotions and verbal skills aren’t well developed. Thus, although unpleasant, crying, screaming, and fussing are normal. In fact, something could be wrong if they don’t happen.
- Seeing normal aggressive behavior as bad behavior. Just as for emotions, toddlers aren’t developmentally capable of managing their frustration, so hitting, biting, and throwing things are normal reactions. Aggressive toddlers shouldn’t be punished, but simply redirected to a new activity or removed from the setting while caretakers protect safety and possessions and say, “We don’t (hit, or throw things when we’re upset).”
- Not understanding that toddlers misbehave on purpose as part of normal development. Even when they can control their behavior, intentional disobedience is necessary and normal in toddlerhood to begin developing into unique individuals.
- Expecting consistent obedience. One- and two-year-olds aren’t capable of consistently following commands and requests. Three and four-year-olds can do what caretakers ask only about half the time.
How to survive the toddler years while promoting good mental health and behavior:
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1. Focus on bonding rather than behavior
Spend much more time and energy on forming a close relationship than on getting good behavior.
2. Stay calm!
Be calm even when your child isn’t. When you’re angry or frustrated, respond how you’d like them to respond.
3. Help them verbalize their feelings
Help them recognize and talk about emotions: “You’re upset because you can’t have ice cream right now. Use your big boy words and say, ‘I’m mad,’ but we don’t scream.”
4. Show empathy and understanding
Show empathy for their frustrations: “Yes, it’s sad when we have to go to bed, but morning comes again soon.”
5. Reward with praise
Reward good behaviors with praise: “You’re playing so nicely with her—what a good girl you are.”
6. Teach them the right way to seek attention
When they’re frustrated, teach them to ask, “Can I have a little attention please?” and then give it to them. Young children are often naughty just because they want your attention, so providing it can prevent misbehavior.
7. Limit screen time
Even G-rated programming is full of aggression, so limit media exposure to age-appropriate educational shows and co-view to ensure appropriate content.
Reduce stress and anger while preventing future behavior problems by simply keeping expectations for toddlers realistic. These early years will be much more fun when you aren’t wasting time trying to change normal behaviors before tots are ready to learn how.