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.
Why toddlers run away
No sooner do you lift your toddler out of the car, set him down on the sidewalk, and turn to wrestle his stroller out of the trunk than he suddenly darts away. When you finally catch up with him it’s clear that he doesn’t want to ride in the stroller today — he wants to walk on his own.
That’s the desire at the heart of this problem. He’s not running away to be bad on purpose or to defy you. He simply has a new sense of independence combined with legs that can run. “Toddlers love the feeling of being free and running around,” says Patricia Shimm, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development in New York and co-author of Parenting Your Toddler. “You can encourage it as long as you can control where they run.”
What you can do about it
No amount of teaching will ensure that your toddler is always as cautious as he should be, so it’s vital that you take responsibility yourself for keeping him safe. That means being hyper-vigilant about always creating an environment that’s safe for your child.
Stay close to him. If you’re in a safe, open space where you can see your toddler and he can see you, it’s okay to let him run ahead of you. Most of the time, if you don’t yell or run after him, he’ll stop on his own, turn around to see your reaction, and run back to you when he sees you’re not coming after him. But don’t take any chances if you’re in a crowded area or around cars. “You have to keep up with your toddler,” says Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “Children this age love to hide, and letting them out of your sight is just too risky.” You’d never forgive yourself if he were lost in the crowd.
Show him where he can run. Let your toddler explore a safe area (like a park, where he’s safe from cars and you can see him from a distance) freely and at his own pace. Even in a park there are places you’ll want to stop him from running: into the bushes, for instance, or through the mud. But he’ll accept these limits more easily and learn to police himself more quickly if there are lots of places that he is allowed — and even encouraged — to run. The message you want to convey is that running is fine as long as he runs in the right place at the right time.
Engage and entertain him. Toddlers often try to cut loose when they’re out doing errands because they’re bored or miss your attention. Try to engage your little one in the chores you do together to make them more fun. One mom’s secret: “I ask my daughter to help me push her stroller. It makes her feel like she’s doing something important.” Another mom says: “I con my toddler into holding my hand by saying that I don’t know where I’m going and I’ll get lost otherwise. Now that he’s slightly older he’s glad to help — while falling on the ground laughing at me.” Try slowing your child down by bringing along his favorite pull toy. “This is also wonderful for your child’s motor skills,” says Leiderman. Or, ask him to help you pick a bunch of bananas or show you where the apples are. “Toddlers love to be helpers,” says Shimm.
Explain how you expect him to behave. Tell your toddler how you expect him to behave before you begin an errand. But make sure you really spell it out for him. Instead of saying, “Can you be a big boy and hold my hand?” say, “Remember, you need to hold my hand when we’re in the mall.” “Expressions like ‘big boy’ often backfire,” says Shimm. “Toddlers turn around and say, ‘I don’t want to be a big boy!'”
Encourage him when he does well. When he resists the urge to run wild, reinforce his good behavior by telling him what he did well. But again, be specific. “It’s not enough to say, ‘You behaved like such a big boy today,'” says Leiderman. “Encourage his actions by saying them back to him. Say, ‘I really appreciated that when I called you, you came back to me.'”
Keep him in his stroller. While the running-away phase lasts (it usually resolves itself between the ages of 18 months and 2 ½ years), it’s best not to let your child walk until you can leave crowded streets for somewhere more child-friendly, such as a nearby playground. Strollers are invaluable for keeping your toddler close, and since he must be strapped in to ride safely, it isn’t like you’re “tethering” him the way you’d tether a dog. Plus, there are plenty of ways to make your little guy feel like a passenger instead of a prisoner. “Bring a toy for him to play with,” suggests Shimm. “And take him out of the stroller when you stop for lunch.” But keep his needs in mind. “Sitting for long periods of time can be quite challenging for some toddlers,” says Leiderman. If you know your little guy isn’t good at it, try to find a way to do your more time-consuming tasks without him.
Play “Catch me if you can.” One 21-month-old’s mom told us, “When our son runs away, rather than chase after him or yell at him, we call his name in a funny, animated voice and say, ‘Hey, can you catch Mommy?’ Then we turn and slowly ‘run’ the other way — we only go a few inches, but it’s enough to entice him. He immediately comes running. We let him catch us and then we scoop him up and make a big deal out of his accomplishment. We clap and celebrate and then go on with what we were doing.” This is a great way to turn the situation around — as long as you scoop your child up before he asks you to catch him. “Toddlers love to be caught because it makes them feel secure,” says Shimm. But you don’t want to make this a two-way game in a busy public place where your toddler could easily get away from you.
Use a carrier or harness. If you or your toddler needs a change from the stroller, two other safe options are a backpack-type carrier (if you can carry him comfortably) and a toddler harness. Some people feel that a harness demeans or imprisons toddlers; others feel that they’re the best possible means of providing freedom and safety. “Most children don’t mind wearing harnesses as much as other adults mind looking at a child in one,” says Shimm. If you’re uneasy about the idea, don’t try to compromise with a wrist strap. If your toddler is walking at its 3-foot extent on a crowded sidewalk, someone could easily walk between you without noticing and send him flying.
Take him home. Taking your toddler home because he’s made a break for it won’t necessarily help him understand that he’s done something wrong. He might see going home as a reward, or miss the connection altogether. Still, if you’re really anxious and terrified about how he managed to get away from you, it’s a good idea to take him home until you feel better. “Do what you think is best,” says Leiderman. But don’t assume your toddler will see the link between his running away and your returning home immediately. He may be too young to understand this as a consequence instead of a normal chain of events.
Don’t waste your time on warnings. It’s an age-old tactic for parents to give their children three warnings before punishing them for whatever they may be doing wrong. But there’s no sense in trying this on toddlers — they’re too young to understand the significance of a series of warnings. “For children this age, one warning is fine, but a countdown is futile,” says Shimm.
Teach him safety stories and songs. Read your toddler books about the importance of staying close to you, or make up a song about safety to press the point home — but only after you’ve tried everything else. “These types of activities are a last resort because children learn best by doing and playing,” says Leiderman. “There are so many more wonderful ways to teach your toddler to stay near you when you’re actually out and about.”
Why toddlers scream
Believe it or not, your toddler’s volume is turned way up not because she means to annoy you, but because she’s full of that wonderful toddler joie de vivre. She’s exploring the power of her voice, and experimenting with what she can do with it. Why must she always cut loose when you’re at the supermarket or the bank? “There’s a lovely echoing effect when you scream in big open spaces,” says Roni Leiderman, associate dean of the Family Center at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. “And if the behavior is reinforced, toddlers know they can get more attention from their parents if they scream in public.”
Some toddlers scream whenever they want their parents’ attention. It’s their way of saying, “Hey, look at me.”
Others scream when they want something they can’t have — like a piece of candy. In that case, the shrieking means, “I want my way — give it to me now!”
What you can do about it
Screaming at your toddler to lower her voice won’t help — it’ll only send the message that whoever’s loudest prevails. Your best bet is to avoid situations that’ll tempt your toddler to raise her voice — and to divert her attention when she does scream.
Here are some ideas on doing just that:
Run errands on her schedule. It’s not always possible to work around your toddler, but whenever you can, make sure she’s well-rested, with a full stomach and an empty bladder, when you leave the house.
“If you were tired and hungry you wouldn’t have the patience or energy to go grocery shopping in a cold supermarket, would you? The same is true for your toddler,” says Leiderman.
Stick to noisy stores and restaurants. When you have your toddler in tow, stay away from quiet, intimate, or formal places.
Instead, go where other families go. You’ll be less embarrassed when your child screams in an already loud restaurant, and less likely to reinforce her behavior by trying to cajole her into settling down.
Ask her to use an indoor voice. If your toddler’s screaming because she’s happy, try not to comment or criticize.
But if it’s really getting to you, ask her to use her “indoor voice” and stop yelling. Lower your voice so she’ll have to quiet down to hear you, and calmly say, “I can’t stand the screaming, honey. It’s giving me a big headache.”
Make a game out of it. Try indulging her need to be loud by saying, “Let’s both shriek as loud as we can,” and then join her in letting it rip.
Then turn down the volume by saying, “Now it’s time to see who can whisper best.” Then, like a Simon Says game, switch to other movements, such as putting your hands over your ears or jumping up and down. This’ll make screaming seem like just one of many fun things she can do.
“If you’re in public you can make the game quieter even sooner by saying something like ‘Oh, you sound like a lion! Can you sound like a kitty cat?'” says Leiderman.
Acknowledge her feelings. If your toddler’s screaming because she wants your attention, ask yourself whether she’s genuinely uncomfortable or overwhelmed.
If you think the environment you’re in — say it’s a huge supermarket packed with people — is too much for her, rush through your shopping and leave quickly. Then make it a point to shop at smaller markets (or visit the big ones during off-peak hours) and work your way gradually up to the larger, fuller ones again.
If you think she’s just a little bored or cranky, acknowledge her feelings. Calmly say, “I know you want to go home, but wait just a few minutes, we’re almost done,” and push on. Not only will she be comforted that you know how she feels, it’ll help her learn how to put her feelings into words.
If you know your toddler’s shouting because she thinks she can get you to hand over a cookie that way, don’t give in. You’ll only reinforce her behavior by giving her what she wants when she screams.
Instead, calmly say, “I know you want a cookie, but we have to finish this first. You can have a cookie when we get home.”
Don’t bother saying that she can have the cookie later only if she behaves better immediately — by the time she gets it, she probably won’t recall what she did to earn it. Simply offer her a cookie later at home.
Keep her occupied. You can make errands more fun for your toddler by engaging her in an activity. Two tactics to try:
Play a game. One 15-month-old’s mom told us, “I just talk to my son when we’re out running errands. I tell him what I’m doing, what’s going on around us, and who’s nearby. I’ve learned that he’s quiet when he’s busy.”
Ask your toddler to help you pick things off the shelves at the supermarket. Or, make up a song about what you’re doing. “Just singing, ‘We’re looking for bananas, bananas, bananas!’ makes it more fun for your child,” says Leiderman.
Offer toys and snacks. Just be sure to give them to your toddler before she screams.
If you wait until she’s screaming to give her a cookie, you’ll reinforce that behavior by sending the message that she gets what she wants when she raises her voice. Offer her a snack or toy while she’s being quiet, and see if you can’t give it an extra twist.
One mom’s secret: “I bought my son a little bowl that has a rotating lid so he can’t dump the food out. He’s entertained by trying to get the snack out. Then once he does, he’s too busy chewing to shriek.”
Another mom says, “My son has a toy that stays in the car, so it’s more special to him than the toys he has in the house and it really holds his interest when we’re running errands.”
Finally, ignore the onlookers. For many moms the most difficult part of coping with a toddler who loves to scream is brushing off other people’s dirty looks.
Here’s how one second-time mom handles it: “My 12-month-old daughter screams at the top of her lungs. She isn’t hurt or frustrated — she just wants to scream. At 12 months old, she doesn’t understand why she shouldn’t do this.
“When I was an inexperienced mother, this would have embarrassed me. Now I just think, what difference does it make? I’ve finally realized it doesn’t matter what other people think.”
And if that’s not enough to convince you that you’re not alone, take this ex-onlooker’s advice: “I never thought I would be the one saying this because my husband and I used to be the ones who glared, but I say let them stare!
“Obviously, if you’re someplace like a church or quiet restaurant where your child’s screaming is truly disruptive, take him outside for a while. But in a place like the grocery store, let them look. They’ll get over it!”
Read more advice from other moms on how to cope with a screaming toddler.