7 Toddler Behaviors Decoded

7 Toddler Behaviors Decoded

Sometimes, navigating my toddler’s behavior feels like a navigating a minefield. One wrong move, and the meltdown begins. Note: Every move is a wrong move.

Even though my education and career have focused on supporting parent-child relationships, there is nothing like having my own children to make me feel totally incompetent when the screaming won’t stop. I find myself losing patience and saying things I never in a million years thought would come out of my mouth. I know better, but there are times when I just can’t seem to apply any of my knowledge amidst the intensity of the moment. Of course, I am super skilled at correcting my husband when he says these things–

So that I don’t feel too alone, I have taken a brief survey of some teachers, parents, and social workers about the baffling toddler behaviors they have encountered. Now, in a rare calm moment, I will attempt to shed some light on what the behaviors could mean and how an adult could respond productively.

Please keep in mind that these examples are just ideas informed by my studies and experiences. Any parent could probably write a book for each of these behaviors, but I am going to try to keep it to a few lines for the sake of everyone’s sanity. Parents are the true experts of their children, so you’ll really need to filter any of these explanations and suggestions through your own understanding of your child. Take what you can use, and leave the rest!

Behavior #1: Child hides in the corner of a room while pooping.

Translation: I want privacy.

Your response: Offer privacy. You could say, “The bathroom is a great place to find privacy when you are pooping. Let’s try it in there.” If your child resists, it’s ok to let him stay where he is. You have done enough for now by opening the dialogue and introducing the concept of privacy.

Boy hiding his eyes

Behavior #2: Child covers eyes when in “trouble” or flat-out denies knocking over the glass of water, even though you saw her do it.

Translation: If I can’t see you, you can’t see me. And if you can’t see me, I don’t have to be in trouble. I didn’t mean to do the wrong thing; it happened before I had a chance to think about it. I really just want you to be happy with me.

Response: Kneel down to your child’s level and make some contact, i.e. put a hand on child’s shoulder. First, reassure the child: “Sally, it’s ok to make a mistake, and everybody does it sometimes. I will love you no matter what.” Then, provide a natural consequence: “Let’s offer to help James rebuild his tower” or “Please get a towel so we can dry this spill together.”

Behavior #3: Child regularly becomes sad or angry when another child interacts with you. Aggressive behaviors may follow.

Translation: Pay attention to ME. I am supposed to be your special person. Please don’t make me share you!

Response: This is a great situation for a proactive plan because you may be able to predict when other children will be around. At preschool pickup, for example, you could make a plan with the teachers that you will scoop up your child with lots of kisses the moment you walk in the door, before anyone else approaches you to start a conversation. While holding your child, you can begin to engage with others. If you are consistent with this approach, the behavior will likely disappear on its own (someday!) when your child feels more secure or grows out of this phase.

Behavior #4: At mealtime, child asks for more food or a different drink or less butter on the already-buttered toast and is then done with lunch before you have had a chance to sit down and eat your first bite of food all day.

Translation: Why aren’t you sitting with me? Why are you always working on something? Why are you paying attention to other things/people? What else can I ask for to get you to look at me?

Response: My knee-jerk response to this one is, “Gah!!! I am hungry, too! Please just give me a minute!” Better approach: “Today, we are going to eat together, and I need your help. Please put these blueberries in the bowl while I make our sandwiches. When everything is ready, we will bring it to the table so we can sit down and eat together.”

Behavior #5: Child has a tantrum and starts screaming and kicking out of the blue when you are in public.

Translation: I am tired, and there is too much going on. Also, I just asked for a lollipop 10 times, and you ignored me. I don’t want to go home and I REALLY don’t want to nap, but this place is exhausting.

Response: Change scenery ASAP. Head toward home if physically possible. You can say, “Wow, this place is really tough for both of us right now. Let’s get out of here and try again later!” If you’re mid-grocery shop, it depends how important finishing the trip at that moment is for you. Maybe a quick excursion to the deli counter will provide enough distraction, but you might actually need that lollipop. We’re all just trying to survive.

Behavior #6: Child wants to run around naked/refuses to put on pants/won’t get dressed, and you’re not going to be able to leave the house until next week at this rate.

Translation: I am freeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! Also, this feeling of total control and power is so gratifying!

Response: Cry. And then try to think about how putting on pants will naturally give your child something he wants. “OK, my naked wild child! They won’t let us into the playground without pants, so choose which ones you want” or “Can you imagine how uncomfortable your carseat will be if I have to put you in there naked? We need to protect your body! Do you want green pants or stripes today?” Or if you’re just planning to stay inside, you could roll with the nudity. Philippe will eventually get a crumb stuck where it doesn’t belong and opt for pants on his own.


Behavior #7: Child bites people, spits at people, chews hair, opens diaper and plays with poop, lies on belly to rub private parts on hands, or does anything else that leaves you totally speechless and embarrassed.

Translation: Things are getting really tough for me. I’m physically and/or emotionally uncomfortable and exhausted. I might be anxious and stressed or I might just be bored. I might have the words to tell you how I feel, but I just can’t find them right now. I have three choices: explode, check out, or make my own fun.

Response: These behaviors tend to be discussed less often because many see them as taboo, but they can be just as prevalent and developmentally appropriate as the above list. While any physical discomfort (like super itchy skin from eczema) and emotional concerns must be addressed first, you can offer more socially acceptable alternatives to these behaviors to help children cope in the moment. For example, you can clip a teether to your toddler’s shirt and remind her to bite that (instead of a person) when you see her getting antsy. You can offer something with similar sensory qualities, like playdough, to a child who plays with his poop. And you can remind a child who uses masturbation as a coping mechanism that she is free to continue in her bedroom, where she has privacy, or choose a different activity to play with you. And of course, you can never underestimate the power of this basic question: “Do you need a hug?”

With all of these behaviors, and especially with #7, the behavior is the child’s way of communicating feelings. As such, the feelings need the majority of your attention, and the actual behaviors need little to none.

I have only skimmed the surface here, so if you are interested in learning more about toddler social-emotional development and effective strategies for addressing challenging behavior, CSEFEL has some wonderful free resources for families with very simple steps and easy-to-read handouts at this link: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/family.html.


Sarah McLanahan, M.S.Ed., LICSW, lives in Gloucester, MA with her husband and two daughters. She has worked for several years supporting families of very young children through the daily highs and lows that accompany the transition to parenthood. With her own family, she tries to make sustainable and healthy choices when time and budget permit, a journey you can read more about on her blog, Tales of Expansion.

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