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Toddler Behavior: Why Do Toddlers Act Like That?

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Toddlers Be Like Mini Teenagers

Any parent of older children will agree with me on this one: toddlers are like teenagers, just smaller. After living a quieter, simpler state of existence, they are breaking out into a learning-and-growing stage of life.

Toddlerhood is a stage that both surprises and scares parents, but it doesn’t have to be that way. If you understand why your toddler is acting out, it will make all the difference for you both.

Why do toddlers do that!? Learn how to understand your toddler better.

Why do toddlers do that!? Learn how to understand your toddler better.

Understanding Toddlers

Let’s begin by breaking down the word ‘toddler,' which comes from the word toddle, which means to walk in an unsteady, unstable manner. What do toddlers do? They learn how to walk. Walking is the first step (pun intended) in becoming a toddler.

Once a baby stands up on their two feet and starts to move on their 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.

The Toddler Years: What to Expect

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

Young Toddlers: 1 to 2 Years Old

Young toddlers are less vocal and less mobile, but boy, are they quick to learn! You’ll be amazed at how fast they learn to walk, then run, then climb. They are definitely testing all their limits and boundaries, and everything is 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 stairs. Just barely a toddler, my daughter has learned 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 is an opportunity (aka her daddy leaves the door to the hallway open), she takes off for those stairs and reaches the fourth one before she is caught. She giggles and giggles, even when she is being reprimanded. It is a lot of fun for her!

That is what makes young toddlers dangerous. They see something new but do not yet understand the possible negative consequences. Toddlers want to learn everything the hard way—by doing it themselves.

It's time to install safety gadgets. This is a great time for a parent to begin installing safety precautions around the house. It's time to install baby gates, locks, outlet covers, and corner guards; it's time to store chemicals in a high or locked cabinet and be extra careful with foods and other small items that may be choking risks.

It's time to learn some diversion tactics. Diversion tactics—taking attention away from the thing the toddler is fixated on—can be used when the toddler latches onto something that is potentially dangerous. The trick is to show them something else that is safer and more fun to do (i.e., the toddler is interested in the steaming hot radiator, so you step in with a fun toy that makes noise).

Older Toddlers: 2 to 4 Years Old

Older toddlers have bigger vocabularies, so while a young toddler just screams, an older toddler will scream words. Once a toddler has mastered some mobility and learned the basic vocabulary needed to explain their world, they will gain a greater sense of independence. No longer will the child need to be carried in their parents’ arms. They will want to be free to do whatever they want to do whenever they want.

Tantrum time and million-question marathons. That independence can often mean trouble (think tantrums), but it is also the best time to teach the toddler about almost anything. At this age, my son is 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 (I’ll talk about million-question marathons in a minute), I am able to teach him about the world. 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.

Everything is a learning experience. In essence, I can become his greatest teacher, and not just about the small stuff. Older toddlers will pick up on a lot of their parents’ mannerisms, speech, habits, and more. 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 for Picky Eaters

Gone are the good old days of spooning some healthy, colorful veggies into your baby’s mouth and getting a smile in return. Once toddlers gain vocabulary and 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, toddlers develop a stronger opinion about what they like and don't like. They tend to like sweeter or more savory foods (think fruit or cheese) than bitter-tasting food (broccoli).

I remember reading that toddlers have taste preferences like this to keep them alive. Back in the time of pre-recorded history, humans learned that bitter-tasting stuff could be poisonous and should be avoided. Of course, we now know this isn’t always the case, plus we no longer let our kids wander freely in the wild.

This is when you need to become a good role model with food and keep encouraging your toddler to eat the healthy things they need to grow properly. You can even be a little tricky and find ways to give your toddler 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.

Tips for Potty Training a Toddler

Around the age of 18 to 24 months, toddlers are usually ready to potty train. Readiness varies from one kid to the next, but 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.

To determine your child's readiness, read Teaching Your Toddler to Use a Potty—8 Signs They're Ready.

For potty training tips, see 5 Tips for Effective Potty Training.

And check out My Review of the Fisher Price Cheer for Me! Potty Seat for Toddlers.

Normal Toddler Behavior: Wanting to Be a Big Kid

My son, an 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, anything that is manageable 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: Interpreting Non-Verbal Cues

Until toddlers develop the vocabulary necessary to function in this world, they use non-verbal cues to express 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 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 nap time? Watch to see if they are droopy-eyed or rubbing their 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 offer the word the toddler needs by asking, “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 a 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. When the child points, it is important for the parent to offer the proper words aloud so that the toddler learns the language they need to get what they want. I ask her, “Do you want to go to bed?” and watch for her reaction.

Toddler Behavior Issues

Negative non-verbal cues. Biting, pushing, pulling, and hitting are negative kinds of non-verbal cues. It all begins in the young stage of toddlerhood, and it doesn’t quite end until late toddlerhood. Acting out physically is a way for a toddler to express frustration since they are unable to use the proper vocabulary to explain how they are feeling. They are also ways to get attention and test boundaries. What is a parent to do?

What to Do If Your Toddler Is Acting Out

If your toddler acts out physically with another person or child, it is best to address the situation calmly.

  1. First, ensure that the other child or person is okay. If you first address the toddler, they will learn that biting, pushing, pulling, or hitting is a surefire way to get attention.
  2. Next, address the toddler. You can say something simple like, “We do not hit/bite/pull/push. We are nice to each other.”
  3. The toddler should then apologize to the child or person (if it’s a young child, they could give a small hug, shake hands, or sign ‘sorry’).
  4. If appropriate, they should then receive a punishment, which can be a time-out or the loss of a privilege.
  5. Always attempt to figure out why the toddler acted out. Did they want to play with a toy that a sibling or friend had? Did they feel left out of a game? Were they tired or bored? Were they trying to get attention? All of these reasons are great teaching opportunities. At those times, you can verbalize the toddler's feelings to help them learn the right words. Use this as an opportunity to teach the concepts of sharing, being fair, taking turns, transitioning from one task to another, and getting attention in a positive manner.

When Your Toddler Asks a Million Questions

Asking questions is one of an older toddler's favorite activities. 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 there 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 might be random or might stem from observations (and sometimes both, 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 is my favorite time 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 toddler's daily routine. Those little tornadoes of activity eventually need time to relax and build up more energy for the rest of the day. A little break helps to refresh their mental and emotional abilities, possibly preventing 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, having them nap at the same time almost every day. Even though now my son doesn’t always sleep at this time, 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 extremely important for giving my 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

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 what you wish for, 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.

© 2012 Marissa

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 home...lol.

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 truth...lol

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 walking...watch out world...here 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 :)