Toddler behaviours can be difficult to understand. But, when you know whether or not these behaviours are developmentally appropriate, it’s easier to help your child deal with their big emotions and teach them effective ways of expressing themselves.
We look at common scenarios you might encounter and how to best deal with the situation.
Scenario 1: Tantrums
Your tot asks for a treat for the third time today and it’s close to dinner time. When you explain that she can’t have one right now, she throws herself on the floor and an epic meltdown ensues.
This may seem like a petty response to you, “but frequent tantrums are often the result of something that’s troubling your child that she doesn’t yet have the emotional or verbal capacity to express,” says Nadia Khan, a grade 000 teacher at FasTracKids Pre-school in Parkmore, Johannesburg. It could be she’s picked up on your anxiety, or perhaps there is a new sibling in the house and she isn’t getting the attention she needs. Nadia says kids can bottle up frustrations and explode at seemingly unrelated times. By figuring out what the environmental stressor is, however, you can address that by helping your child express themselves more effectively.
Scenario 2: Crying
It’s nearing bedtime, so you let your tot know it’s almost time to go read in her room. She immediately bursts into tears and can’t be consoled.
Nadia explains this behaviour is often the flip-side of a tantrum. “Don’t underestimate your child – she does have the capacity to manipulate you,” explains Nadia. Your child may cry as a response to not getting her own way, but as the parent you will need to decipher if your child is genuinely upset about something or just knows mommy and daddy’s “soft spots”.
Nadia says that once you understand where the crying is coming from, simply telling your child that it’s naughty behaviour won’t help. “Always comfort your child first,” she advises. “But then explain that they need to stop crying because it’s not going to change the fact that it’s bedtime. Be firm and continue with the routine.”
Scenario 3: Back-chat and cheekiness
You ask your child to help clean up her toys, and she rolls her eyes.
Nadia says that while this kind of behaviour is normal as your child starts testing the limits, it shouldn’t go unchecked. “The first thing you need to do is realise that your child is most likely copying behaviour she sees around her. So, take some time to look at how you and your partner interact with each other,” she suggests.
Jo Frost, also known as Supernanny, says minor transgressions should be ignored, but the naughty step can be used for more serious offenses. But before you do, she says you should ensure you give a warning and clear explanation as to why the behaviour is disrespectful.
Both experts agree that the parent should never laugh or give any form of positive affirmation for rude or cheeky behaviour.
Scenario 4: Aggressive behaviour
You’re rough housing with your child, but he suddenly gets quite serious and hits you.
Nadia says it’s important to note that this behaviour is age appropriate and many children act out this way because they are unable to express their emotions verbally. However, this is only the case before the age of 2 ½ years. For an older toddler, hitting can often be a result of feeling overstimulated and not having anywhere to place their energy. It can also be a sign that something is upsetting them, such as parental stressors.
Look into sensory issues before disciplining and try to get to the bottom of what is upsetting your child. However, you should try to physically stop the behaviour when you can by gently catching their hand when you see he’s going to hit you. Explain clearly why you can’t allow him to hit you.
Scenario 5: Ignoring you
Your little one is playing calmly and you ask him to come to the table because dinner is ready. But, no matter how many times you ask, he continues playing and doesn’t respond.
Your child is engrossed in what she’s doing, and you shouldn’t perceive this as rude behavior. However it can be a form of defiance. In the moment, go down to your child’s level to get his attention and explain that you’re going to take him to the dinner table now and he can come back and play afterwards. “If you really want to get to the bottom of why your child is ignoring you, don’t try to do it right then and there,” advises Nadia. “Perhaps, when you’re putting him to bed and he’s calm, ask him why he doesn’t answer you when you speak to him and explain why you need to be able to talk to him about what he wants and needs.”
More about the expert:
Nadia Khan is a passionate teacher and mother of two girls. She currently teaches preschool children at FastTracKids preprimary in Johannesburg and believes strongly in learning through play.
Marianne is a freelance content creator and copy editor. She has been part of the Living and Loving team in various capacities over the last six years, but since becoming a mom to a boisterous boy, she has found a special interest in parenting issues including discipline, education and early childhood development. When not running after, and negotiating with, her three-year-old, you’ll find her experimenting in the kitchen.