Toddlerhood brings newfound independence, offering opportunities for exploration along with a desire to assert control over the widening boundaries of their environment. Because toddlers have not yet learned to regulate their emotions, they can be overwhelmed by the continual cycle of excitement and frustration that characterize this lively stage of development. These overwhelming emotions, coupled with strong opinions and still-forming self-control skills are often expressed as challenging behaviors. In this article, we explore common behaviors of toddlerhood and share tips for responding with patience and compassion to children struggling to navigate their big feelings.
Common Toddler Behaviors
Toddlers have high levels of energy and enjoy running, jumping, climbing, and exploring the world around them. As they learn to move their bodies, they begin to gain a sense of independence and notice that they are separate from their caregivers. This makes toddlers eager to try new things and assert more control over their environment. At the same time, toddlers do not have the language skills to communicate their needs or control emotional reactions when they are frustrated or disappointed.
Those who care for toddlers might notice strong opinions and big feelings. When toddlers become overwhelmed, you might observe hitting, pushing, or other aggressive behaviors. At this age, children sometimes whine, yell, or throw tantrums when they don’t get their way. These boundary-pushing behaviors can be frustrating for caregivers.
Janet Lansbury is an expert in infant and toddler development, a parent coach, and author of the best-selling book, No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame. Lansbury highlights how toddler behavior is impacted by developing cognitive and emotional regulation skills: “sensitive, intensely emotional, and severely lacking in impulse control, toddlers often have ‘unusual’ ways of expressing their needs and feelings…The simple explanation is the unfortunate combination of an immature prefrontal cortex and the turbulent emotions of toddlerhood. More simply: children are easily overwhelmed by impulses bigger and stronger than they are.”
Common toddler behaviors can feel challenging, but it’s important to remember that they are actually developmentally normal for children of this age. ZERO TO THREE explains, “It is a toddler’s job to be defiant…while their desire to be their own person is coming into full gear, toddlers have not yet mastered self control. They are still driven by their needs, wants, and impulses, not by logic and reason. For better or worse, toddlers’ most frustrating behaviors are usually quite normal and developmentally appropriate.”
Responding with Patience and Understanding
When toddlers are acting aggressive, or demonstrating challenging behaviors, it can sometimes feel like they are being intentionally defiant. It is important to remember that their behavior is not personal. Janet Lansbury adds, “defiance, aggression and other limit-pushing behavior are our children’s way of letting us know their impulses have taken hold. Self-control has left the building, and they need to be able to depend on ours as back-up. This can only happen when we’re tuned in, not turning them away in anger or judgment.”
It is important that we have tools that will enable us to respond in the moment with compassion and support when toddler behavior is challenging. ZERO TO THREE makes the following recommendations:
Validate feelings. When children are experiencing big emotions, it is important for us to acknowledge their experiences: “I know you don’t want to get ready for a nap. It’s hard to go from playtime to rest time.”
Offer choices. When toddlers are having a hard time listening, it can sometimes be helpful to offer choices. This gives children a sense of control, which can help to reduce defiance: “Do you want to sleep with the teddy bear or a different stuffed animal for your nap today?”
Use humor. Being silly can be a great way to diffuse tensions and lighten up the mood. You might read a bedtime story in a silly voice, or put the child’s blanket on your head. Humor can help everyone cool off after a moment of frustration.
It is also important to remember how powerful it is for children to see adults model emotional regulation. Even when children are defiant, it is our job to remain as patient as possible and remember that their behavior is part of what happens when they are unable to handle their strong emotions. We can help toddlers by offering love and support, and by sharing tools and modeling behaviors that can guide them through big feelings.