Managing Your Toddler's Frustrating Behaviors

Topic Overview

Young children between 12 months and 24 months of age may throw fits, act selfishly, and rarely mind. This behavior often develops out of frustration from not being able to communicate, master skills, and be as independent as they want to be. Assertiveness and irritability are normal behaviors for toddlers.

Because toddlers are actively absorbing and exploring the world around them, many quickly reach a point of sensory overload. This seems to happen at the most inconvenient times, such as while shopping for groceries.

A newfound sense of autonomy and independence prompts the toddler to test limits—including yours. For example, your toddler plays with the radio dials then looks at you for a response. When there is no response, she repeats her actions. She wants to know what she can do and cannot do. Be patient and set firm, fair, and consistent boundaries to help your toddler to understand what behavior is appropriate.

Oftentimes, toddlers have fits or temper tantrums because of internal conflicts. Toddlers may become frustrated by wanting to accomplish something independently but not being able to. Also, they often have two opposing desires—wanting both to be independent and to feel taken care of. Toddlers' tempers can become especially fragile when they feel tired, hungry, or bored or when they want your attention. They do not have the language skills or physical capabilities to protest a situation they don't like in an appropriate manner.

Toward the end of the second year, tantrums usually occur less frequently as toddlers gain more self-control and become comfortable with their abilities. They become less frustrated and are able to show more restraint and less of a knee-jerk response when you say "no" or otherwise challenge their control. This behavioral improvement is related to brain maturation, especially development of the cerebral cortex. Recognize that these tantrums are for the child to work out, not you.

But you can try the following strategies to help manage your toddler's challenging behavior:

  • Minimize conflicts as much as possible. For example, put things your toddler shouldn't touch out of reach. Try to prepare your toddler in advance for circumstances they may not like, such as, "We are going to put away the toys soon."
  • Choose your battles. Focus on the most important, like making sure car seats are used and bedtimes followed. If not, your home will become a battleground, and your toddler can become overburdened.
  • Set limits but have realistic expectations. It generally is considered too early to start disciplinary measures such as time-outs. Other strategies can help teach your child limits, such as using a firm voice, looking your child in the eye, and sometimes physically removing him or her from a situation. However, realize that your child's behavior, no matter how troublesome, has a purpose in furthering growth and development: The toddler is simply trying to make sense of the world.
  • Offer limited choices. For example, instead of asking, "What do you want for lunch?" limit options by asking, "Do you want a peanut butter sandwich or a bowl of soup?" This works well at the dinner table or the play table and gives your toddler a sense of independence, perhaps decreasing those times when he or she won't cooperate.
  • When you see a dispute or tantrum coming, distract or redirect your toddler to prevent a meltdown.
  • Compliment your child when he or she behaves well. Approval helps your child learn proper behavior and reinforces a positive sense of self.
  • Provide opportunities for your toddler to interact with others. When these interactions are positive, children learn that they have behaved in acceptable ways and become more self-confident.

Although you may sometimes feel exhausted, remember to reassure toddlers that you love them and it's their behavior you don't like, not them. Reward good behavior with praise and attention.

One of the most important parenting tools to use with your toddler—indeed, with children of any age—is modeling good behavior. Children learn from what you tell them, and even more so from what they see you do. Interacting with others in a loving, open manner and dealing with frustrations calmly will give your toddler the best model to emulate.

For more information about behavior issues and how to respond to them, see the topic Temper Tantrums.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Michael J. Sexton, MD - Pediatrics
Specialist Medical Reviewer Louis Pellegrino, MD - Developmental Pediatrics
Last Updated May 11, 2009

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