Toddler behavior problems and how to handle them
Throwing tantrums, hitting, biting, screaming, and other less-than-adorable behaviors are normal for toddlers. But you can discourage these behaviors and teach better ones.
The topics below are to understand why your toddler does these things and how to handle them.
Aggression, hitting, and biting
Reviewed by the Baby Center Medical Advisor Board
Why it happens
Shocking as it may be to you (and onlookers), aggressive behavior is a normal part of your toddler’s development. Still-emerging language skills, a fierce desire to become independent, and undeveloped impulse control make children this age prime candidates for getting physical.
“Some degree of hitting and biting is completely normal for a toddler,” says Nadine Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore it, of course. Let your toddler know that aggressive behavior is unacceptable and show him other ways to express his feelings.
What to do
Follow up with logical consequences. If your child gets into the ball pit at the indoor play center and immediately starts throwing the balls at other kids, take him out. Sit down with him and watch the other kids play, and explain that he can go back in when he feels ready to join the fun without hurting other children. Avoid trying to “reason” with your child, such as asking him, “How would you like it if he threw the ball at you?” Toddlers don’t possess the cognitive maturity to be able to imagine themselves in another child’s place or to change their behavior based on verbal reasoning. But they can understand consequences.
Keep your cool. Yelling, hitting, or telling your child he’s bad won’t get him to curtail his behavior — you’ll just get him more riled up and give him examples of new things to try. In fact, watching you control your temper may be the first step in his learning to control his.
Set clear limits. Try to respond immediately whenever your toddler is aggressive. Don’t wait until he hits his brother for the third time to say, “That’s enough!” He should know instantly when he’s done something wrong. Remove him from the situation for a brief time-out (just a minute or two is enough). This is the best way to let him cool down, and after a while he’ll connect his behavior with the consequence and figure out that if he hits or bites, he ends up out of the action.
Discipline consistently. As much as possible, respond to each episode the way you did last time. Your predictable response (“Okay, you bit Billy again — that means another time-out”) will set up a pattern that your child will recognize and come to expect. Eventually, it will sink in that if he misbehaves, he’ll get a time-out. Even in public, where you may be mortified by your child’s behavior, don’t let your embarrassment cause you to lash out at him. Other parents have been there too — if people stare, simply toss off a comment like “It’s hard to have a 2-year-old,” and then discipline your child in the usual fashion.
Teach alternatives. Wait until your toddler has settled down, then calmly and gently review what happened. Ask him if he can explain what triggered his outburst. Emphasize (briefly!) that it’s perfectly natural to have angry feelings but it’s not okay to show them by hitting, kicking, or biting. Encourage him to find a more effective way of responding — by “talking it out” (“Tommy, you’re making me mad!”) or asking an adult to help.
Make sure your child understands that he needs to say he’s sorry after he lashes out at someone. His apology may be insincere at first, but the lesson will sink in. The passions of toddler-hood can overtake a child’s natural compassion sometimes. Eventually he’ll acquire the habit of apologizing when he’s hurt someone.
Reward good behavior. Rather than giving your child attention only when he’s misbehaving, try to catch him being good — for example, when he asks to have a turn on the swing instead of pushing another child out of the way. Praise him lavishly for verbalizing his desires (“That’s so great that you asked to have a turn!”) and, in time, he’ll realize how powerful words are. Then give him a time-in by offering to push his swing or playing with him afterward.
Limit TV time. Cartoons and other shows designed for young children can be filled with shouting, threats, even shoving and hitting. Try to monitor which programs he watches, particularly if he seems prone to aggressive behavior. When you do let your child watch TV, watch it with him and talk to him about situations that arise: “That wasn’t a very good way for him to get what he wanted, was it?” (The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under the age of 2 watch no TV at all.)
Provide physical outlets. You might find that unless your toddler gets a chance to burn off his abundant energy, he’s a terror at home. If your child is high-spirited, give him plenty of unstructured time, preferably outdoors, to let off steam.
Don’t be afraid to seek help. Sometimes a child’s aggression requires more intervention than a parent can provide. If your child is unusually aggressive for more than a few weeks, if he seems to frighten or upset other children, if he attacks adults, or if your efforts to curb his behavior have little effect, talk to your child’s doctor, who may in turn recommend a counselor or child psychologist. Together you can determine the source of the behavior and help your child through it. Remember, your child is still very young. If you work with him patiently and creatively, chances are that his pugnacious tendencies will soon be a thing of the past.
Why it happens
Your 2-year-old thinks that the world and everything in it (including her parents) exists for her benefit. Not only that, but her short-term memory isn’t well developed, which means your child’s impulse to say things right now before she forgets actually has a physiological basis. Therefore, the very concept of interrupting makes no sense to your toddler. She can’t grasp that there are other people and activities that sometimes require your attention or capture your interest. This perspective also means that whatever directs your attention away from her (a phone call, for example) is by nature threatening.
Having your child obliviously break in every time you’re chatting with a friend or scheduling an appointment is exasperating, but if you keep her worldview in mind, you’ll realize that she’s not purposefully trying to drive you insane. And don’t worry, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. By the time your child is 3 or 4, she’ll begin to understand what an interruption is and what the request “Please don’t interrupt” means, and her short-term memory will develop enough that she’ll be able to hold on to a thought (for a couple of minutes, anyway).
What to do
At this age, your best strategies are to reduce the number of situations in which your child’s likely to bust up your conversations, and to divert her attention whenever she does interrupt. Here’s how:
- Pick the right locale.You can minimize your frustration by asking friends to meet you in a place where your child can play while the adults chat. A park with a sandbox is ideal — though your backyard might work fine.
- Tag team.If you and your partner are getting together with another couple with a child, the perfect solution is for two of the adults to watch the kids while the other two socialize for half an hour or so and then switch roles. Also, while it might sound like an extravagance, getting a babysitter to watch your toddler while you take a coffee break with a friend can do wonders for your sanity.
- Read and teach.A fun way to introduce the concept of polite behavior is to read your child such books as The Berenstain Bears Forget Their Manners, by Stan and Jan Berenstain, Babette Cole’s The Bad Good Manners Book, Aliki’s Manners, and the classic (and still charming)What Do You Say, Dear? by Sesyle Joslin, with delightful illustrations by Maurice Sendak.
- Schedule phone calls.Rather than battling it out every time the phone rings, the easiest solution is simply to make and return calls while your child is napping or after she’s in bed for the night. Another tried-and-true solution: letting her watch TV or a favorite video, giving you a few uninterrupted moments. If you prefer not to use the TV, try redirecting your child’s attention. You might want to keep a box or drawer of special toys or art supplies that get used only during phone calls. Or fill a sink with water and plastic cups for her to play with (as long as you can watch her), offer her a toy phone so she can talk with an imaginary pal, or invite her to participate by saying “hello.” (Use this last suggestion judiciously if she’s the gregarious type!) If your child tends to wander — or her attention does — putting a playpen stocked with interesting toys near the phone may be your best option. Getting a cordless phone can also help, as it’ll let you move to a quieter room yet continue to watch her through an open doorway. On a sunny day you might try taking both the phone and your child into the backyard, where she’ll find enough to do to grant you a few moments of peace. If your child isn’t generally squirmy or if she’s in a placid mood, holding and cuddling her while you talk might work; it will reassure her that she’s important to you even when your attention is focused elsewhere.
- Model the behavior.Toddlers copy enthusiastically, so take advantage of this by setting a fine example for your child. If you and your partner tend to cut each other off, work on ending that habit. Also, try not to interrupt your child when she’s talking to you. Any time you forget and break in on her (or anyone else), stop yourself and say, “Sorry. I interrupted you. Go on.” With a little luck, your child will not only absorb your good manners but your ease in graciously admitting to a mistake. You’ll also make your job easier down the road if she frequently hears you use “pardon me,” “please,” “thank you,” “you’re welcome,” and “excuse me.” While she can’t yet put the principle behind these civilities into words, she’ll sense it — because she’ll find that it’s pleasant to be around people who use them.
- If at first you don’t succeed, persevere.At times you may feel discouraged — your toddler butts in for the fourth time while you’re having a heart-to-heart with a good friend, or she waves a toy truck in your face while you’re trying to wind up an important phone call. But don’t give up; it’s important for both you and your child that she learn the basic social graces, and it won’t happen overnight. Participating in polite, respectful conversation is an important step toward becoming a social human being. What’s more, if you don’t curb her habit of interrupting, your powers of concentration will eventually become so fragmented that you’ll no longer be able to finish a thought whether she interrupts or not.