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Toddler Behavior: Why Do Toddlers Act Like That?

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Marissa is the writer of ThePracticalMommy and the blog Mommy Knows What's Best. She is a stay-at-home mom to four and was a teacher.

Why do toddlers act like that?

Why do toddlers act like that?

Once a baby stands up and takes those first few steps, she is no longer a baby but a toddler.

Once a baby stands up and takes those first few steps, she is no longer a baby but a toddler.

Toddlers Behavior: Mini Teenagers

Any parent of older children will agree with me on this one: toddlers are like teenagers, just smaller and less scary. They are in a learning and growing stage of their life after being in a quieter, simpler state of existence.

Toddlerhood is a stage that both surprises and scares parents, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Understanding Toddlers

Let’s begin by breaking down the word ‘toddler’. Toddler comes from the word, toddle, meaning to walk in an unsteady, unstable manner. What do toddlers do? They learn how to walk. Walking is the first step (no pun intended) in becoming a toddler. Once a baby stands up on his/her two feet and starts to move on her/his own, watch out! A whole new world has opened up to this child, and they will make it a daily goal to reach out and touch everything within their grasp. And if it’s not in their grasp? They will learn how to get it.

Young toddlers- the fast and the curious... "What, Mama? I'm just pulling down the blanket you just folded...."

Young toddlers- the fast and the curious... "What, Mama? I'm just pulling down the blanket you just folded...."

The Toddler Years

There is a vast difference between young toddlers and older toddlers. I know that for a fact now that both of my babies have entered this stage (and one is getting ready to leave it!).

Young toddlers: ages 1—2 years old (sometimes younger)

Young toddlers are less vocal and less mobile, but boy, are they quick to learn! You’ll be amazed at how quickly they learn to walk, then run, then climb. They are definitely more willing to test their limits and boundaries, especially since everything is so new to them once they start to move. They are also inquisitive, seeking all things that they have never experienced before.

Case in point: my daughter’s obsession with the stairs. Just barely a toddler herself, my daughter has learned very quickly that stairs are exciting. Well, they must be, since her mommy, daddy, and big brother all use them with ease all day long. As soon as there was an opportunity (aka her daddy leaving the door to the hallway open) she took off for those stairs and reached the fourth one before she was caught. She giggled and giggled even when she was being reprimanded. It was a lot of fun for her!

That is what makes young toddlers dangerous. They see something new but do not understand the consequences of trying that new thing out should something go wrong. This is a great time as a parent to begin using safety precautions around the house and diversion tactics. Safety precautions include installing baby gates, locks, outlet covers and corner guards, storing chemicals in a high or locked cabinet, being careful with foods that may cause choking, etc. Diversion tactics, taking attention away from the toddler, can be used when the toddler finds an interest in something that is potentially dangerous and the parent shows them something else that is safer and more fun to play with or do (i.e. toddler is interested in the hot radiator but the parent shows the toddler a fun toy that makes noise).

"Look! I put on my own hat. How are hats made? Who makes them? Where do they make them? Who wears them? Why is my juice red? What makes it red? What does red mean? ........"

"Look! I put on my own hat. How are hats made? Who makes them? Where do they make them? Who wears them? Why is my juice red? What makes it red? What does red mean? ........"

Older Toddlers: ages 2 years-4 years

Older toddlers are more vocal than young toddlers. Once a toddler has mobility mastered and the vocabulary to explain his/her world, he/she will gain a greater sense of independence. No longer will the child need to be coddled and cradled in his/her parents’ arms. He/she will want to be free doing what he/she wants to do at the time he/she determines.

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That independence can often mean trouble (think tantrums), but it is also the best time to teach the toddler about almost anything. My son, once he aged to this point, became very inquisitive about everything. “Mama, why does the refrigerator make that noise?” “Mama, what letter does ‘umbrella’ start with?” “Mama, how do the tires on your car spin?” Each time he asks a question (and I’ll talk about the million question marathons in a minute), I am able to teach him about the things he may not have been able to understand when he was his sister’s age. I can explain how the motor in the refrigerator works. I can point out letters and show him how to draw them. I can show him how the axle in a car works.

In essence, I can become his greatest teacher, and not just in the small stuff. Older toddlers will pick up on a lot of their parents’ mannerisms, speech, habits, etc. My son basically observes every move I make, every reaction I have, and every word I speak. I have to be very careful about what I do or say, because at any time, my little ‘mini-me’ will be imitating me. I find that this is a great opportunity to exhibit good manners, anger-management skills, correct speech, higher level vocabulary words, sportsmanship and healthy eating habits. Hopefully, these lessons will be ingrained in him as he grows and matures.

Parenting Tips: Eating and Potty Training

Toddlers and Food: Gone are the good old days of spooning some healthy, colorful veggies into a baby’s mouth and getting a smile in return. Once toddlers gain a sense of independence and learn to make their own decisions, one of the first choices they make is to boycott all healthy food. Okay, that is an exaggeration; let’s say toddlers boycott most healthy food. My daughter is currently in this stage, spitting out and sometimes throwing veggies from her plate. Why is this? At this stage of life, toddlers develop a stronger sense of taste. They tend to like sweeter or more savory foods (think fruit or cheese) than bitter-tasting food (broccoli). I remember reading somewhere that toddlers have taste preferences like this to keep them alive. Back in the time of the cavemen, bitter-tasting stuff could have been poisonous and thus avoided. Of course, we now know this isn’t always the case, plus we no longer let our kids wander freely in the wilderness.

This is when you need to become a good role model with foods and keep encouraging toddlers to eat the healthy foods they need to grow properly. You can even be a little tricky and find ways to give your toddlers healthy foods without them knowing it! Eventually, toddlers learn to like these foods again. My son is at the stage where he is more willing to try different veggies but he’s still hesitant when it comes to peas, green beans, squash and broccoli (poor broccoli!). Someday he’ll like them again.

Potty Training: Around the ages of 18-24 months, toddlers are usually ready to potty train. Once they’ve mastered walking and have the ability to communicate when it’s time to ‘go,' parents can encourage toddlers to use the potty instead of using the diaper. For more on this, see my potty training tips and a great potty chair to use.

Normal Behavior: Wanting to Be a Big Kid

Being Big Kids and Helping Out : My son, being and older toddler, said to me one day, “Mom, a boy at the park called me a little kid. I’m not a little kid! I’m a big boy!” It’s hard to hear those words when you’re a little kid trying to live in a big kid’s world. As a parent, it’s my job to help him feel like he’s a big boy while he’s still just my little boy. At this stage, he can help with a lot of things: getting changed into his clothes, putting on his own shoes, cleaning up his toys, making his bed, folding towels, setting the dinner table and pulling weeds in the garden. Basically, he can do anything that isn’t too complicated that he can do with his little muscles and his toddler mentality. Even if he doesn’t do it right (which is 95% of the time), he’s still trying, which makes him feel like a big boy. And the bonus for me? He’ll keep trying, getting better and better at everything, which is perfect for when he’s old enough to do his chores on his own.

Getting Toddlers to Talk

Non-Verbal Cues: Until toddlers develop the vocabulary necessary to function in this world, they use non-verbal cues to tell their parents what they want, what they don’t want, how they feel and what is interesting to them. One of the best non-verbal cues is the smile. Smiling is a way to show satisfaction with something or approval of something. A smile may appear when you bring out a favorite toy or you dance around the living room like a fool.

Just as quickly as it appears, though, a smile can vanish. In that case, it’s time to look at the eyes. A toddler’s eyes can reveal sadness, fear, surprise, sleepiness or boredom. Did you just dance around for more than 30 minutes? Your toddler may be bored with you and may want to move on to something else. Is it naptime? Watch to see if he/she is droopy-eyed or rubbing the eyes. Did you yell loudly while dancing? The smile may have disappeared and the eyes may have widened quickly because you have frightened your toddler.

Another non-verbal cue is finger pointing. My daughter does this all the time now as she is still learning the words she needs. She’ll walk into the kitchen, say “Mama” to get my attention, and then point to the refrigerator while also signing ‘please.' When I open the refrigerator, she’ll point to the milk or juice and sign please again. The key for parents here is to say the word the toddler needs and ask “Do you want the ______?” while also touching the object. When she points into the refrigerator, I say to her “Do you want the milk?” and I touch the gallon of milk. If she is still pointing, I ask again “Do you want the juice?” and I touch the juice bottle. If she puts down her finger and smiles, I know I got it right. Even though she can’t speak the words, she still can recognize them at this stage and her reaction shows me she understands.

Sometimes the toddler will point a finger to indicate an intangible object or idea. When my daughter points up, I know she wants to go for a nap or to bed. When she points to the door, I know she wants to go outside. Even with this kind of pointing, it is important for the parent to use the proper words aloud so that the toddler picks up on the language necessary to get what he/she wants or needs. I ask her “Do you want to go to bed?” and watch for her reaction.

Teaching toddlers to work and play nicely together  is a lifelong lesson.

Teaching toddlers to work and play nicely together is a lifelong lesson.

Behavior Issues

Biting, Pushing, Pulling, Hitting…: Biting, pushing, pulling, and hitting are negative kinds of non-verbal cues. It all begins with the young stage of toddlerhood, and it doesn’t quite end until late toddlerhood. Biting, pushing, pulling, and hitting are usually ways for a toddler to express some frustration since he/she is unable to use the proper vocabulary to explain how he/she is feeling. They are also ways to get attention and test boundaries. What is a parent to do?

For all instances, it’s best to make sure to separate the toddler from the incident a bit and that the other child or person is okay. If you first address the toddler, he/she will get the attention that he/she might be craving and could learn that biting, pushing, pulling or hitting is a sure-fire way to get that attention. Next, you address the child. You can say something simple like “We do not hit/bite/pull/push. We are nice to each other.” The toddler should then apologize to the child or person (if it’s a young child, he or she could give a small hug, shake hands or sign ‘sorry’) and then receive his/her punishment, which can be a time-out or the loss of a privilege.

You should also attempt to figure out why the toddler acted as such. Did the toddler want to play with a toy that a sibling or friend had? Did the toddler feel left out of a game? Was the toddler tired or bored? Was the toddler trying to get attention? All of these reasons are great teaching opportunities. At those times, you can teach (or reteach) the concepts of sharing, being fair, taking turns, transitioning from one task to another and getting attention in a positive manner.

Questions x 1,000,000: Asking questions is one of the most favorite activities of older toddlers. Since they now have the words to express themselves, they want to find out as much as they can to fill up their little toddler brains (or they just want to find the breaking point in their parents’ sanity).

What is that bug? Why is my hair on my arms? What are those spots on your face? When can I go to the park? Why do I have to go to bed? Where does the sun go at night? Why is that lady so big? How did that man get so old? When can I go see my friends?

Those are some actual questions from my son. As you can see, the questions are random or they are from observations (and sometimes all in one breath). Either way, they all can be used as teaching opportunities. I can tell him about a bug. I can explain why people have hair on their arms. I can explain that everyone is different and how it’s not always nice to point out other people’s imperfections (especially when it’s a loud question with the person’s hearing….).

Of course, there are times when I can no longer take the questioning. Most of the time, I create a diversion and send my son on a mission in another part of the house. Other times, I pretend I’m an answering machine: “I’m sorry. You have reached Mommy’s brain, but no one is there at this time. Feel free to ask your question after the beep and she will answer you after dinner. Beep.” Once in a while, my response is simply, “Go ask Daddy. He really likes to answer your questions.”

Toddlers and Naptime

Naptime: This is my favorite topic when it comes to toddlers (and the only time I can get anything done, like writing!). At this moment, both of my toddlers are napping upstairs in their rooms. Yes, my older toddler still takes naps!

Naptime is an essential part of a daily routine for toddlers. As little vessels of activity, they need some time to relax and build up more energy for the remainder of the day. This relaxing also helps to restore their mental and emotional abilities as well, possibly preventing any meltdowns or tantrums later in the day.

Both of my kids have been excellent nappers since they were infants. It helps that I have been consistent with it, letting them nap at the same time almost every day. Even though now my son doesn’t always sleep when he’s napping, he’s still relaxing as he reads a book or plays quietly with his stuffed animals in his bed. No matter how it happens, naptime has been so effective in giving both kids the opportunity to recharge their systems for more playing and living for the rest of the day.

Toddlers grow up before you know it!

Toddlers grow up before you know it!

Toddlerhood: Just Another Fun Bump in the Road of Life

Toddlerhood, just like the teenage years, can definitely be a challenge, but it is such a great time in a child’s life for discovery and learning. The independence that grows and makes toddlers do what they do can be scary to parents, but don’t worry. Just like all other ages and stages, toddlerhood too shall pass.

Be careful, though. You’ll miss it when it’s gone. I know I will.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Was this helpful? Do you have toddler tips to share? Have any toddler stories of your own?

Marissa (author) from United States on March 26, 2012:

tammyswallow, thanks so much for your comment! You should make a shirt like that; it'd be awesome. I just recently found a shirt that my son wore when he was two that said "My parents are exhausted!". I think I'll be putting it on my daughter soon... :D

Tammy from North Carolina on March 26, 2012:

Great hub with some excellent advice. My toddler turns 3 in April. I really want a t-shirt (or special prize) that says "I survived the terrible two's." Adorable hub!

Marissa (author) from United States on March 23, 2012:

jpcmc, that's awesome! Have fun with her. They do grow up so fast. :)

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on March 22, 2012:

My doaghter will be 10 months in a few days ThePracticalMommy. I'm already childproofing everything. It's alittle exciting actually.

Marissa (author) from United States on March 21, 2012:

cloverleaffarm, kids are fun! Someday I'm sure I'll be saying that when I (okay, if I) have grandkids. ;) Thanks for reading and commenting!

Marissa (author) from United States on March 21, 2012:

jpcmc, your daughter is already that old! Oh my gosh! I remember when you mentioned that your wife was pregnant with her. Congrats!! You'll love when she hits that stage, but if I were you, I'd childproof the house now. It's much easier to put the locks on when she isn't as mobile than when she's right behind you, getting into everything anyway! ;) Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Marissa (author) from United States on March 21, 2012:

angela p, looks like you'll be moving into teenage territory soon! Good thing you were well trained in toddlerhood. ;) Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Marissa (author) from United States on March 21, 2012:

teaches12345, charming would definitely describe my son. One smile and he's able to make me forget that he just jumped from the couch to the ottoman... :D Thanks for the vote up!

Marissa (author) from United States on March 21, 2012:

Aw, Ruchira, I don't know about THE mommy, but I'll take it. ;) Thanks so much for being so sweet!

Healing Herbalist from The Hamlet of Effingham on March 21, 2012:

Hi Practical, to me, it's like watching my son grow up all over again. She looks so much like him! I would do it again. Love kids. Always wished I had more. The only difference is you don't have to take them

JP Carlos from Quezon CIty, Phlippines on March 21, 2012:

Such a comprehensive hub. I can't wait for my daughter to toddle around. The new found freedom allows them to explore their surrounding. childproofing the house is defnitely a must.

angela p from Richmond, Virginia on March 20, 2012:

Great advice. You have got it all covered. I have four kids with the youngest now 3 and the next one turning 5 on Monday. The other two are 9 and 12. I am moving out of this stage but oh how well I remember it. Voted up and useful. Great hub..

Dianna Mendez on March 20, 2012:

Great coverage on this age group. Many parents have so many questions as their child enters this stage of life. They can be a handful and yet, so charming. Voted up.

Ruchira from United States on March 20, 2012:

LOVED it and you made me re-live my kids' childhood :)

Your tips were the truth and ONLY the

You are hereby designated as THE mommy. Such a beautiful hub, great cute pix, and sound advise.

Voted up and sharing!

Marissa (author) from United States on March 20, 2012:

cloverleaffarm, is it different seeing toddlerhood as a grandmother? I know my mom says she loves seeing my kids at this stage, but she wouldn't want to relive it herself with her five kids. :D Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Healing Herbalist from The Hamlet of Effingham on March 20, 2012:

Ah, once they start out I come. Great hub with lots of great info. Been there, done that, but I see it all over again with my granddaughter. Toddlers can be a lot of fun! Vote up, useful, and shared.

Marissa (author) from United States on March 20, 2012:

savanahl, thanks for reading and commenting! :)

savanahl on March 20, 2012:

I really enjoyed reading this. It really helps to understand their behavior so you can know how to deal with them appropriately. Thank you for sharing.

Marissa (author) from United States on March 20, 2012:

algarveview, I think stairs are a giant challenge for toddlers, which makes them so much fun. If you've ever looked at stairs from the perspective of a toddler, you'd see how large they are and how mysterious that upstairs world becomes (even if they've been carried up there hundreds of times). :)

I'm glad you think this is a good guideline for parents of toddlers! Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

Joana e Bruno from Algarve, Portugal on March 20, 2012:

Very interesting hub, my children are almost four now, I recognized so many things you mentioned. Around our house naptime is sacred, a bit of time to get things done and to recharge for round 2 (me and them alike), also had a few scares with stairs - what is it about stairs? - and it's really something how fast they are between 1 and 2. Good guideline for toddlers' parents. All the best for you and your children.

Marissa (author) from United States on March 19, 2012:

Zakmoonbeam, thank you very much for your comment! I'm glad this hub was useful to you. Good luck with your toddler! :)

Michael Murchie from Parts Unknown on March 19, 2012:

What a brilliant Hub! My little girl has just hit 13 months, and reading this has helped me understand better what she is going through as she develops further.

Thank you for a great read, with really useful advice. I will be sure to show this to my wife also :)

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