Toddler development

5 things to understand about toddlers before you try to tame their tantrums

Ignoring these aspects of toddlerhood can lead to frustration—for both you and your little one.

My 2½-year-old daughter, Zoe, is putting on her shoes. She proudly shows me her handiwork. “Nice job, Zoe,” I say. “Just let me switch them.” I pull on a Velcro strap. Zoe jerks her foot away and glares at me: “Shoes stay, Mommy.” I persist. “Bad Mommy. No.” Tears fall as she scoots away from me. I pick her up and put her in the wagon, mismatched shoes and all. As we head toward the park, I wonder: Should I have insisted? Should I have done something about the “Bad Mommy” comment? Should I have cancelled our excursion?

Turns out I walked right into a typical toddler scenario pretty much guaranteed to end in conflict. Zoe was trying to assert her new-found independence, showing me her new skill. I not only minimized her accomplishment, I started undoing her hard work without explaining, at her level, why the shoes needed to be switched. She did what toddlers do when they get frustrated: Lash out and cry.

“Parents need to understand that children are built to explore and experiment. And some of that behaviour parents may call misbehaviour. They are trying to be independent, but they don’t have the skills and get frustrated,” says Linda Gilbert, the manager of training, youth and family development at the YMCA of Greater Toronto. She adds that the focus at this age should be on managing behaviour, not discipline as such.

Denise Marshall, an early childhood educator at the University of Northern British Columbia Childcare Society in Prince George, BC, agrees: “What is ‘bad’ behaviour anyway? A child’s definition and a parent’s view are often very different: You tell your child to put a toy away. He doesn’t. You see it as defiance. He simply doesn’t want to stop playing.”

All our experts agree that children will “misbehave” when our expectations are beyond their abilities. For example, it’s not realistic to expect a toddler to follow a string of instructions, or to remember a rule after being told only once.

Gilbert explains, “You have to keep language basic. There’s so much happening in their brains. It’s necessary to repeat yourself, otherwise it will get forgotten.”

To keep expectations realistic, it’s helpful to understand the developmental aspects that affect toddler behaviour:

Social skills

At 18 months, toddlers are just starting to be interested in interacting with other kids, playing with them rather than side by side. But the rules of social play are not instinctive—kids need to be taught about taking turns and being gentle. In fact, aggressive behaviour, such as biting, is normal, says Gail Szautner, chairperson of the Saskatchewan Early Childhood Association and executive director of Children’s Choice Child Development Programs in Prince Albert, Sask. “It’s developmental. It’s how they react.”

Also normal is the reluctance to share. “Developmentally, they are just not ready for dealing with only one truck or always taking turns,” says Connie Delorey-McGowan, executive director and owner of Cobequid Children’s Centre in Lower Sackville, NS.

Self-control

A lot of the defiance that we attribute to toddler behaviour stems from their limited ability to control their impulses. Your daughter may know that chucking food off the high chair is a no-no, but try as she might, the urge to see her mac and cheese go splat on the floor can be overwhelming.

On the other hand, when a toddler’s impulses and desires are frustrated, the reaction can be intense. (And there is so much frustration in a toddler’s world: from the noodle that won’t stay on the spoon to the grown-up who doesn’t understand what she’s trying to say.) It’s very difficult for her to rein in her anger and resist the urge to hit, throw or have a tantrum.

Emotional regulation

Toddlers have a hard time understanding their emotions, let alone controlling them. And they don’t have the perspective or experience to realize that the deep sadness they feel over a broken cookie will soon pass. “Toddlers need help to identify and cope with their feelings,” says Delorey-McGowan. Along with your own reassuring cuddles, it can be helpful to introduce self-soothing techniques, such as hugging a favourite toy, sipping water or breathing deeply.

Empathy

“Toddlers have a budding awareness of others, but are self-centred,” says Delorey-McGowan. It’s for this reason that they struggle with empathy—they don’t understand that others react negatively to pain or frustration. This also explains why a toddler may react inappropriately to another child’s emotions, like laughing when a playmate pinches his hand in the toy chest.

Comprehension

How can a child follow instructions if he doesn’t understand what’s being asked of him? Language and attention skills are just developing in toddlerhood, so it’s important not to overestimate what kids can comprehend—that will just lead to frustration on both sides. Says Marshall: “Children can often understand what parents are asking, but it’s hard to follow directions the way we want them to. Adults need to guide them.”

Even if your child can understand what you’re saying, he may not be paying attention. “I don’t know any child who listens all the time. You have to get on their level and make eye contact,” says Delorey-McGowan.

This article was originally published online in 2008.