Trying to get a handle on a toddler’s behavior can be frustrating. They are tiny humans equipped with the same big emotions, but lacking all of the coping skills and knowledge of boundaries that help humans adjust to the changes in their environment.
If you have fallen into the trap of endless ‘counting to three’s’ or it seems like your toddler spends half of his or her day in time out, it might feel like nothing is working. What is the mystery behind getting a toddler to improve his or her behavior? Is it a lost cause? Is your child more challenging than other toddlers?
Understanding Toddler Behavior
Toddlers misbehave for a number of reasons and effectively disciplining poor behavior hinges on identifying the cause of the behavior. Some poor behaviors are attention-seeking and no number or duration of time outs will punish the need for attention out of a child. Other poor behaviors are the result of unclear boundaries.
Common causes of poor behavior in toddlers:
# 1 - How to Correct Impulse Control Behavior Problems in Toddlers
Imagine attending a play date at the park with your toddler and you witness your precious little one walk up and kick another child for seemingly no reason at all. Toddlers are often overcome with the impulse to engage and how that impulse plays out depends a lot on the child’s personality.
The goal of correcting impulsive behavior is to teach the child how to control his or her impulses. Impulse control is a learned behavior. Telling them that a behavior is inappropriate does no good if they are not taught how to control the impulse to do it.
Try taking a pause to let the impulse pass. Help them learn to recognize the type of nervous energy that leads up to impulsive behavior and practice breathing exercises. Take a moment to slow down and count to five while slowly breathing in and out should be all the time that your little one needs to refocus.
Let natural consequences play out. Impulse control issues stem from a lack of control so punishing this behavior with yelling or a time out is not likely to have much of an impact. Instead, allow natural consequences like cutting a play date short serve as the correction.
#2 – Attention-seeking Behavior Problems
When your toddler misbehaves, pay attention to what is going on in the environment around that time. Do they only misbehave when you are around to see it? If so, the behavior problem might be an attempt to gain your attention.
Even parents who think they are spending enough time with their children might notice some attention-seeking behavior issues. This is because the type and amount of attention each person needs varies. Unfortunately, toddlers cannot yet communicate their social and emotional needs to us.
Focus on positive attention. This could mean that you try to reward good or desired behaviors with extra attention while ignoring undesired behaviors. Or, it might also mean that you make an effort to spend a little more quality, one-on-one time with the child.
The most important times to give your attention to a child are in the first twenty minutes of the day after they wake up, the first twenty minutes after they arrive home from their daily activities and the last twenty minutes before they go to bed.
For toddlers, develop regular morning and bedtime routines that allow for some quality attention. You might read a story at bedtime or share a snack after school. Even if it is just for five minutes, the positive attention that he or she is receiving at this time can be enough.
Resist the urge to get upset. One of the problems with addressing attention-seeking behavior is that the behavior itself is infuriating which often causes parents to yell, scream or otherwise punish their children. The reward center in the child’s brain that is looking for attention cannot discern between positive and negative attention so they will continue to engage in attention-seeking behavior as long as they are receiving attention for it.
#3 – Unclear Boundaries
Toddlers have a lot to learn about the world around them. Social norms and expectations that govern appropriate and inappropriate behavior have to be learned. While much of this learning occurs naturally by observing parents and other family members, it is also important to actively teach toddlers about boundaries.
To put it simply, let them know when a behavior is inappropriate. Be very clear about what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and try to explain why in a context that a young child might understand. Even if they don’t fully understand the reason behind it, they will begin to learn that no means NO.
#4 – Frustration
The mind of a young child might be like a sponge. They will likely impress you with the capacity that they have for learning. But that should not be taken for granted. No one is born knowing everything. Communication skills, coping skills, socialization skills, and emotional skills are all learned behaviors.
Take the time to ask them what they need. Tantrums and meltdowns are often the result of frustration. From your toddler’s point of view, they are unhappy but may not know why they are unhappy or what to do about it. Instead of immediately doling out a punishment, take a step back and ask them what they need. If the behavior is caused by underdeveloped communication or coping skills, you can talk about their feelings and suggest more appropriate behaviors for the future.
The Takeaway Message
Yelling, time outs and harsh punishments have limited effectiveness with toddlers because they don’t understand what they have done to receive these consequences. Finding the root cause of a behavior problem and addressing the underlying issue will have a much greater impact on your toddler’s development than sitting in timeout over and over again. We are all just humans trying to learn how to navigate our world.