Challenging Behavior: What Helps and What Doesn’t
- Toddlers are not yet able to stop their impulses.
- Caregivers should keep calm, validate the child’s feelings, give choices, look for patterns, and direct toward acceptable behavior.
- A big emotional response, punishment, shaming, bargaining, or demanding an apology will not help.
Keeping calm and carrying on with ways to address challenging behaviors.
Toddlers have a reputation for being unreasonable. This is because they have strong feelings and are not yet able to stop their impulses. Their big emotions lead them to behave in aggressive ways: screaming, hitting, throwing things, and more.
Some ways to manage these tough behaviors:
One of the most important things you can do when your child is acting out is to stay calm yourself.
Stop the behavior.
For example, take your child’s hand—firmly but not roughly—and tell them, at eye level, “No hitting. Hitting hurts,” in a serious but calm voice.
Validate your child’s feelings.
Say, “You are angry that Pablo took your toy. It’s okay to feel angry. But I will stop you from hitting. Hitting hurts.”
Tell and show your child what they can do.Teach them better ways to direct their energy. If you stop your child’s behavior, but do not tell them what to do instead, they may keep doing the thing you want them to stop. Tell them they can say “I’M MAD,” jump up and down, stomp their feet, or hit the sofa cushions.
Look for patterns.
Using your child’s behavior as a clue, notice what times or interactions are stressful for your child. That way, you can predict when a blow-up might happen. You might figure out that your child melts down every time they need to get in their car seat. Once you know this, you can offer support. You might give them five minutes of notice before you leave the house. Or they can choose a special book or toy to bring in the car to make the transition easier.
Point out what happened.
There are many natural consequences to actions. Explain what happened. Say, “When you hit Carrie, it hurt her and she started to cry,” or, “When you threw the toy on the floor, it broke.”
Offer an acceptable behavior.
Help your toddler express their wants in a way that’s OK to you. Offer an alternative. Say, “It’s not okay to throw blocks. Someone might get hurt. You can throw these foam balls in the basket instead.”
Some things that won’t help:
A big emotional response from a caregiver.
The more upset you are and the more attention you give a behavior, the more likely the behavior will continue. This is because a big reaction—positive or negative—gets your child’s attention. That alone can be a reason they repeat the behavior.
Consequences given at this age don’t help much. Young children are still learning the rules and how to manage their behavior. Punishing can be scary for them, and fear doesn’t help them learn. Punishment also doesn’t teach children what they should do instead of the unacceptable behavior.
When a child is shamed for behavior they cannot yet control, they will only feel worse. Feeling worse will not improve their behavior or ability to self-regulate.
Too much bargaining.
When a child is allowed to negotiate often, they learn that it’s an effective way to get what they want. Having consistent rules helps children feel safe and secure.
Demanding an apology.
Toddlers who are asked to say “sorry” without fully understanding what they’ve done wrong, do not learn from their actions. It helps if you point out what happened during a calm moment—“When you hit Kennedy this morning, it hurt her and she started to cry.” Over time, they will start to understand the consequences of their actions. Someday they will make a heartfelt apology. It helps when parents model how to apologize and take responsibility for their actions too.
One last reminder to help you get through challenging times is to know you are not alone. Many, many toddlers have difficulty expressing their feelings in acceptable ways (and sometimes lash out at others). When your children challenge you, you may feel like you’re the only one, but that’s not the case. Every parent struggles with limit-setting at times. Knowing that challenging behavior is a typical part of toddlerhood can help you stay steady in the face of whatever your child serves up.