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Toddler Behavior and Development

Tanya M.
TANYA M.
Special Education Advocate/ Parent Consultant
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Join Tanya Milette, Special Education Advocate, for a Q&A all about toddler behavior and development. Tanya is here to answer questions about tantrums, preschool transitions, engaging activities and more!

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TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Behavior when frustrated
SUSAN, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD, 11 MONTH OLD

I have another question, thanks for joining us today!

My 15 month old can get frustrated while playing and being unable to do something or if I take him away from something fun he was doing. Sometimes when he gets frustrated he will take the toy in his hand and hit his head with it a couple times. Or he'll put his head to the wall or ground (not very hard) a few times even though he knows it hurts him. Is there anything I should be doing to help him? Is this normal?

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Susan, I am happy to be here and answering questions. I am sorry for the delayed response on my end, there have been a lot of questions today.

This can be normal and many children will experience this phase. It can last weeks, months or years. You do want to observe this behavior carefully. As he gets bigger he will also get stronger and could hurt himself. If it increases in frequency, severity or intensity, you will want to touch base with your pediatrician Children this age get frustrated easily because they have more in their brain than they are able to physically do or verbally express.

If he is frustrated because he cant do something he does not yet have the skills to do ( put that highest block on the tower, for example) teach him to ask for help. You can teach him to say "help please" or teach him the sign for help.

For ending a fun play activity, you can give him a warning. Try to say the same phrase consistently to signal the end of the activity. "All done now", "Clean up, please" or "Bye bye ball" might work well for this age.

Make sure to give lots of loving attention when he is not banging his head. Monitor for safety if head banging occurs but try to not give much attention. Scolding and punishment will not be effective because of his young age.

SUSAN

Thank you, Tanya!! This is so helpful!

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
When my 20 month old is acting up, how should I respond?
ASHLEY, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD

Hi Tanya - Thanks for answering questions today. When my 20 month old is being "bad", is he just too young to know any better? My 20 month old will do things like bite (not out of anger, just random), hit my daughter with a plastic bat, or just throw water out of the tub. For example, when he's throwing water out of the tub, and I say "no" but he just laughs and keeps doing it, should i just take him out of the tub? Thanks!

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Ashley, Thank you for the question. At this age, it can be a mix. He can both not know what it is right and wrong AND he can also be testing some limits. Kids at this age are not usually intentionally "being bad".

Children this age are curious about the world. And one of the ways in which they learn about the world is through their senses. Sometimes kids will put non food items in their mouth or sometimes they bite. While understanding that he is trying to understand the world, biting is not ok. You can tell "No biting" or "Teeth are not for biting" ( that is also the name of a helpful book). You can walk away from him and tell him "biting hurts Mommy".

In the tub, offer some new tub toys. Examples include plastic funnels, boats, and building materials made for the tub. Perhaps if his small hands are busy doing other things with the water, he will not be able to throw water out. That is more prevention-focused though. If he throws water, you can tell him" water is not for throwing". If he continues to throw water and is mostly clean, getting him out of the tub is a good option if you can do so calmly. If you are yelling or visibly upset, his behavior will most likely escalate. Tell him that you like his behavior when he is NOT throwing water. For example," I like how you are pouring water in your boat. Do you think it will sink?"

He is learning about the world and you are teaching him.

ASHLEY

Thank you.

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Our Q&A starts now!
TINYHOOD, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD

Welcome Tanya! Tanya is joining us to answer your questions about toddler behavior, including tantrums, transitions, activities, and more.

Tanya
TANYA

Thank you, I am excited to be here today with all of you.

KATIE

Hi Tanya!

My son is 12 months and he has these mini tantrums where if he doesn't get what he wants he throws his head back and usually ends up lying crying on the floor unless im right there to scoop him up. I don't want to enforce the behavior but I also don't want him to fall back and bump his head. Any suggestions on how to handle that?

Thank you!

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Katie, Great question. You are not alone, believe me. This is fairly common. And yes, I agree that you have to prevent him from injury. That being said, holding him and talking to him does not reinforce the behavior, but rather teaches him what is safe, appropriate, etc. If when he threw his head back and started crying you then gave him the object he wanted, that is reinforcing the behavior. Continue to prevent injury and talk to him. Be aware that children this age will understand a lot of what we say from the tone of our voice. Children this age are often able to be easily redirected so that is also something you can use in your toolbox. You can offer a safer or more appropriate option. There will always be things that our children want that they can't have, but hopefully he will soon learn what he can have, what other options are available.

KATIE

Ok that is great to know that my picking him up is not reinforcing when he tantrums over not getting what he wants. One more question for you... sometimes he tantrums to be picked up. For example, if I'm in the kitchen making his lunch or really, doing anything for a brief period that does not directly involve him he'll stand at my legs and cry/whine. I talk to him sweetly and tell him I just need one minute but within 10 seconds he's on his way to throwing his head back and I'm scooping him up to prevent a fall. Should I approach this type of situation differently?

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Katie, You can start to teach him to say "up please" in these situations. Or if he is still preverbal you can teach him a sign for up ( typically pointing an index finger upwards). Tantrums to be picked up are because he might not know how to say that that is what he needs. So teaching the communication is vital to reducing these kinds of tantrums. Toddlers perceive time differently from adults. For him, "one minute" often feels a lot longer than it does to you or me. For the specific situation of you needing to prepare his food and him needing you, perhaps he is not quite hungry but needs extra love. Perhaps he is really curious and maybe he can sit in his high chair while some food is poured at the table where he can see ( for example pouring cheerios or chopping fruit). Are there ways for him to "help" ? Perhaps asking "can you put this on the table?" Prevention can sometimes be your best friend when it comes to tantrums. One final thought here, when my girls were this age, I introduced magnets. They were occupied with sticking them on a cookie sheet/the fridge/the dishwasher etc. This was helpful when I absolutely couldn't hold them in the kitchen for safety reasons.

KATIE

Hi Tanya! Thanks so much. This is very helpful!

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Handling outbursts?
PAULA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD

Thanks for taking questions today! Our 3yr old is getting better about expressing her emotions but still struggling. When she isn't able to communicate or we can't understand what she is saying through the crying she screeches! Once she starts to calm down I will ask if she's tired or hungry because that's usually when they are worse but the screaming can go on for a long time. It can be when we need to leave somewhere or for something else she wants that we can't give her. How do we prevent the event and when it happens what can we do, say, or do nothing to de-escalate the situation?

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Paula, thanks for asking this question and being patient with me while I answered a few questions that were ahead of yours.


Its great to hear that she is getting better at expressing her feelings and overall communicating what is going on. It is also great that you have started noticed the correlation between being tired/hungry and her behavior. In terms of prevention, being aware of those vulnerable time is a huge step. Kids this age usually need to eat frequently and sometimes tire more easily than we realize so being aware of those times of the day for her can be huge in prevention.

When you need to leave somewhere, try to give a warning. "In 3 minutes we are going to leave the playground" or "our time at the library is almost done". Let her know ( before she gets upset) that she will get to go back to this place she does not want to leave. If possible let her know when. To help prepare yourself and make transitions less stressful, if you anticipate it being difficult for her to leave, allow for extra time. So if, for example, you know you need to be out of the door by a certain time but you anticipate it being difficult to leave, plan for extra time to reduce some of your stress. Start the process earlier than you normally would.

The children's book "Sometimes you get what you want" by Lisa Brown and Meredith Gray can be a useful conversation starter. It talks about how sometimes the child gets to make various choices, ( when to play, when to stay, where to sit, etc) but sometimes they don't get to choose.
Another children's book suggestion is "On the Go Time" by Elizabeth Verdick which talks about all the times a child has to leave and what they can do , like be a super helper.

Staying as calm as possible will also help her to de-escalate. Yes it is hard, but it will help her learn to better regulate her own emotions and will break the yelling cycle that sometimes occurs.

When she is yelling, using a whisper can also stop her yelling. Get down on her level, and make eye contact. In your best whisper voice tell her that you hear her, that you know that she is upset. etc. Whispering will often get her to stop yelling, even for a brief moment.

Another book suggestion is "voices are not for yelling". Acknowledge her appropriate volume throughout the day even when she is not upset. Continue to acknowledge her feelings when she is upset. This is a difficult moment, but as her communication skills increase even further and you try a few of these suggestions, the yelling should decrease.

PAULA

Thank you so much! These are great suggestions and I will look into these books!

Tanya
TANYA

You're welcome Paula!

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Twins and potty training
ANNIE, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD, 4 YEAR OLD

Hi Tanya,

We have almost 2 and a half year old twin girls. With minimal effort on our part, one twin has basically mastered potty training, always going when we ask and asking to sit on the potty when she needs to. We rarely have a wet diaper. The other twin is most of the time terrified to sit on the potty (we have a Minnie Mouse potty that sits on the floor and one that goes on the regular toilet - she's afraid of both) and has yet to even pee once. We aren't worried and really aren't pushing it and giving her praise even when she agrees to sit on the potty. Any suggestions for how we tackle the developmental difference here?

Thanks!

Tanya
TANYA

Dear Annie, Thank you for the question. I apologize for the delay on my end, there are a lot of questions to get through today. It's great that you have started the potty training process with your girls.

Potty training is very individual. Even though they are twins, I am sure that you have seen differences in other areas of their development. They are individuals and you have to remind yourself of that frequently.

Does your daughter who is more afraid like minnie mouse? It sounds obvious but perhaps she needs her own potty with a different character? Additionally she might be afraid of the big toilet, so perhaps try to place the floor based potty in another room where she typically plays. Continue to give her praise for all of her efforts and continue to offer her opportunities to try to sit on the potty. She may not be ready yet and that is okay. If she is afraid, you don't want to force it and make it worse. Given her age, you could even back off a little and maybe offer it only once a day. Wait a 2-3 months and try again to offer more often, etc. Some families have good luck with a sticker chart, but if she is still fearful, she might not be ready for the sticker chart yet. Visit your local library for potty books and make them available without forcing her to read them. Our favorite was the "The Potty Book for Girls" By Alyssa Satin Capucilli.


For your other daughter, continue with what you are doing and if she talks about her sister not yet using the potty, you can say things like " We are all different. We all learn things at different times." Or "she will learn when she is ready" etc

Just remind yourself that they are different even though they are twins and that sometimes, they will be in different developmental places.

ANNIE

Thank you! I think we will try putting the potty in the playroom and see how that works.

Tanya
TANYA

Yes we had a potty in the living room with both of ours.

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
17 month old daughter
DANIELLE, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD, 2 YEAR OLD

Our 17 month old daughter has been biting and hitting for the last few months, although most recently she has just been hitting. She often hits children her as or smaller - sometimes right when she sees them and other times clearly over frustration around sharing a toy. When I'm holding her and someone else comes to hug me (everyone from a friend of mine that she doesn't know well to my husband / her father), she very often will hit them. Sometimes I think it comes down to what she deems as her "personal space" but that doesn't justify all of her hitting.

Additionally, she has particularly bad behavior around my husband when I'm also in the room. She has a clear preference for me which I know will change over time but it is upsetting to see her swat at him.

When we correct our daughter, we try to avoid the words "no hitting" as we have been advised that all she hears is "hit", so instead we ask for her to use her "gentle hands". We also do a time out when she does act up, taking her away from the situation, holding her hands and counting to 10. She rarely seems to mind this "time out" and it does not seem to be changing her behavior, but it feels like we have to do something to correct the bad behavior.

What can we do? Thanks so much for your help!

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Danielle, Personal space can definitely be an issue. at 17 months she can't tell us that she needs it. Have you tried putting her in a carrier for the situations where someone comes to hug you? I loved an ergo in back carry position when my daughters were this age. It gave both a sense of security ( because she was literally on my back) and that personal space. Sometimes it can be over whelming for children when people get to close to them. But they can't say "whoa I am really overwhelmed right now" so it comes out as a swat/hit.

In the case of hitting children her age or younger she may showing you that she needs support to play, that she does not really know how to interact with her peers beside hitting. In that case you will want to be down on her level to facilitate a positive interaction. Perhaps you can gently remind her to wave hello. Perhaps you can help her offer to give the other child a "high five".

Great advice on using "gentle hands". She may need some assistance in understanding exactly what that means. That this can be done in a playful way when she is not hitting. You can also look at the book "hands are not for hitting" which I have used both in the classroom setting and in a home. It uses language around what hands are for and then repeats that hands are not for hitting, as the title implies.

In terms of your husband, does she associate him with your departure? Does she think when he is there , you are immediately leaving? I would suggest spending lots of high- quality family time together, where she sees you two interacting with each other and where the three of you are also doing something together. A Saturday at the zoo, or playing ball and making sure to roll the ball to Daddy too. When you read to her, invite your husband to sit with you and then ask him to read the next page. Take turns reading the different pages to her. And last but not least, show him lots of love. Remind her that Daddy likes her gentle hands and show how she can use her gentle hands with Daddy. You are right, it is a preference and it will change.

Good luck with the hitting and please let me know if you have further questions.

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Screaming and hitting!
NINA, PARENT OF 3 YEAR OLD

Our 3.2 year old has generally had a great temperament and follows instructions well.
Since a month or so, he has started yelling, loud screams (my neighbors down the street can hear him).
He also hits us or his baby brother (13 months) if he gets upset.

We've been talking and explaining to him,.but is there anything else we should be doing?

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Nina, Thank you for question. I want to let you know that I appreciate your patience as I worked through several other questions today.

Are there any changes at home? A new home or someone staying with you? Significant changes to the daily routine in terms of schedule or who provides the childcare? Sometimes it can be hard for a child to process these changes. And if that is the case, please add more information in the comments and I will add more information about these specific changes.

Assuming that there have not been any significant changes. this can be normal . For some children "three" is a more difficult year than two. This is normal. Yes, the yelling and screaming are normal. And so is the hitting.

The number one thing to do is for you to try not to yell. If you yell at him for yelling or screaming, it does not teach him anything and probably will only make him yell more.
I know from both personal and professional experience how hard it can be to maintain your cool when a small child is yelling at you. But it will help him stop yelling sooner. In fact in the moment when he is yelling, some children have responded very well to whispering. You can get down on his level, make eye contact and whisper that you know he is upset but that yelling is not ok, that you are willing to help him, etc. But whisper. The whispering will throw them off guard, typically creating a pause in the yelling.

Teach him to start to verbalize his feelings. Instead of just screaming, he can learn to say, " I feel angry" or " I feel sad". Then you can acknowledge his feelings and go from there. You can show that you understand his feelings and firmly state your position again. Over time, his ability to articulate his feelings will lead to less yelling.

When he is not upset, talk about voice volume in a playful way. Ask him to show you his whisper voice. Ask to hear his loud voice, then show him playfully how that voice hurts your ears. Ask him to find a "just right" voice. Acknowledge when he does use appropriate volume ( even if he is not upset, you can tell him that you like his just right voice)

For hitting, try to observe more. When exactly does he hit? Does he hit his brother if he feels that his brother is going to play with or disturb something he was working on? Does he hit his brother to seek attention ? Does he hit is brother only when upset with you?

Tell the 3 year old that hitting is not ok. Then give lots of attention to the younger child, comforting him and soothing him and making sure that he is ok. And maybe even holding the younger one.While doing this do not interact with the 3 year old. Keep eye contact on the younger child. When your three year old is calm, explain that he hurt his younger brother and that is not ok. Explain that he needs to help his brother feel better. In the beginning he will need suggestions to do this. ( appropriate suggestions for this age may include drawing a picture for the younger brother, or giving him a hug or quick tickle). He may need assistance with this and that it is ok. After he tries to help his brother feel better, and he ( the three year old ) is calmer, remind the child that we do not hit. In the beginning this will feel like more work than time out. In my experience though, this has been more effective in the long term.

You may also want to check out the book "Hands are not for hitting" by Martine Agassi, Ph.D ( it also appears to be on youtube). "Voices are not for Yelling" by Elizabeth Verdick is another book in the series you may find helpful.

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Destructive when corrected
S, PARENT OF 4 YEAR OLD

My 2.5 year old will immediately look for something to throw or hit or knock off a table when corrected. For example, if she is playing with something that is not a toy or climbing on something that she shouldn't and I tell her no, or don't touch that. I try to catch her before she does this but it doesn't seem to be having an effect. Any suggestions on dealing with this?

Tanya
TANYA

Dear S, Thank you so much for your question. ( And your patience,as there were a lot of questions before yours)

I think it is helpful to understand that children at this age have these behaviors to communicate something to us that they otherwise can't ( or don't know how to ) say. So while trying to catch her before destructive incident is a good idea, it is also necessary to consider what what she might be trying to communicate. For example, if she is playing with something that is not a toy, she might be saying " I am curious about this, what is this, how does it work? Tell me about this object" or she might be trying to say " i need play time" You will be able to get a sense of this quickly, as you know her best.

If climbing on something she might be saying " i need more physical activity" or "look what I can do". Check her daily schedule and make sure that she has plenty of physical activity and opportunities to climb on appropriate structures.

The throwing or knocking is an expression of her frustrations. When correcting her behavior, acknowledge her feelings. Phrases like " I know you really want to play with that" or " I know climbing is so fun" can be helpful. And then the BUT. "But playing with scissors is unsafe and I have to keep you safe" "But climbing on the book shelf is unsafe". In this situation, it can be easy for parents to have a very emotional response. Do your best to remain calm as your expression of your frustrations will only further trigger an emotional response with your daughter. I know from both personal and professional experiences how difficult this can be. As you acknowledge her feelings and and she begins to start verbalizing her feelings and needs better, hopefully there will be fewer and fewer destructive episodes.

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
Seperation Anxiety
KATRINA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

My
16 month old isvery very attached to me. I visit my momweekly and the whole visit my daughter is glued to me and if I go outside or in basement for a minute , she screams blue bloody. She should be used to grandmas house bynow but it is terrible and ends in me cutting my visit short due to her screaming. :(
How do i work on getting her more independent etc?

Tia!!

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Katrina, thank you for the question. This is very common with toddlers and even some young preschoolers.

I would recommend putting together a short and simple photo album for her. Include pictures of your mom, of the inside and outside of your mom's house, perhaps a picture of her playing happily there and maybe a picture of you, your mom and your daughter all together. Have it available to her throughout the week on non visit days so she can see "gramma" more often.

Another option might be to use facetime or some other type of video-based call to increase the amount of interactions she has with her grandmother.

You can slowly start to encourage her to be near you but not on you. Perhaps she can play on the floor next to you instead of on your lap. Hopefully that goes well. Over time, you can slowly start to increase the distance between you and her. Eventually leaving the room but she is not ready for that just yet. Some families also have experienced success with the child bringing a favorite toy or lovey from home.

Be supportive and nurturing and recognize that it takes time. Perhaps consider planning shorter visits until she gets more comfortable. The process takes time but hopefully some of these suggestions resonate with you and your daughter will feel more comfortable at "grandma's" soon.

TANYA ADDED A NEW COMMENT!
3yr old whining/sharing
KATRINA, PARENT OF 5 YEAR OLD, 3 YEAR OLD

Thank you for answering questions
I have a 2part ?
The whining is getting worse
Tips on how to get it to stop?

2. Tips on explaining sharing. My daughter has been hime with me since birth. She has a 16 month old sister and she does not like sharing. She starts preschool in the fall and i am afraid she is going to be terrible sharing

Tanya
TANYA

Hi Katrina, Thank you for your questions.

Both of these are typical in three year old children.
Whining can be especially difficult for parents to cope with. Sometimes there is an explanation for the whining, as I am sure you know. Children can be whining to communicate a strong desire or their emotional state (tired, frustrated, etc). I think it is important to consider the whole child and what might be driving the whine and acknowledge their emotions. You can tell your child in a calm and supportive voice that you would like to help them but that you are having difficulty understanding them because of the way that they are talking. Ask your child to tell you again in a calmer voice. Most children will eventually get to a point where they can restate without whining. This takes time though.

You can also talk with your child about her emotions by labeling what you observe. For example " I hear that you are using a whining voice. I wonder if you are feeling upset right now." You can than acknowledge her feelings After doing this a few times you can begin to teach your child to label her feelings. You can also teach her what to say or do when she is upset instead of whining.

Sharing is hard for all three year olds. Most three year olds need some help in learning how to share. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that she is still an ego- centric phase of development, meaning that she thinks mostly of herself. It is hard to consider another person's wants when you are developmentally only able to consider yourself. That being said, there are a few things that we can do to support their development in this area. It might be hard for her to share with her sibling, but will she share with you? You can play together at snack or lunch by offering her a bite of your food and then asking her to share something from her bowl or plate with you. Keep fun and even be silly. If she does share with you during this play, make sure to praise her and let her know how much you like it when she shares, and thank her for doing so, with lots of big smiles. Be sure to let her know that when she shares that you feel happy. Most kids will have an easier time sharing with a grown up than a sibling. You can also set up some activities for everyone to do together. Block building will be frustrating for your three year old to do with your 16 month old. But perhaps rolling a ball back and forth. Encourage her to roll the ball to you on one turn and then on the next turn encourage her to roll the ball to her sister. If she rolls it to you instead of her sister, you can say " We need to give _________ a turn now". You can also encourage her to give her sister a turn with whatever the object is for a set amount of time. For example, "It is time to give ______ a turn now. Can she have a turn for 1 minute?" As above, be sure to positively acknowledge any attempts at sharing. As children develop, they learn new social skills, increase language and all of that changes how they play. My suspicions are that by this time next year, she will be better at sharing with other children. Again, this is very common in three year olds. When I taught in preschool classrooms, we worked on this throughout the year. Most preschool teachers should be comfortable in facilitating sharing.

KATRINA

Thank you!!!

Tanya
TANYA

You're welcome.