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The secret behind your toddler’s ‘bad’ behaviour!

Sophie Pickles

Written by Sophie Pickles

8 min read

From throwing food on the floor, to biting, and tantrums at bedtime - knowing how to tackle ‘bad’ behaviour can be one of the biggest challenges parents face.

Child wearing an orange t-shirt crying while his dad holds him

It can, at times, seem like our little darlings are intent on making life difficult at every turn, but there is a very good reason for their dramatic mood swings and questionable ability to follow instructions.

From around 18 months of age, your child is leaving babyhood and entering a new phase - the wonderful world of the toddler. Independence is tantamount and listening skills can be, let’s say, selective at best.

There is rapid brain growth and development underway and a driving force to be self-sufficient. If the words, “Me do it!” are a daily or weekly phrase in your house - know that this is your toddler trying hard to learn to be independent while communicating their needs.

We are going to explore some of the most types of ‘bad’ behaviour in toddlers and give you some top tips on how to ride the storm and create calm, happy children.

Toddler Tantrums

Baby boy crying while holding onto the edge of his cot

Tantrums are the bread and butter of the stereotypical toddler.

Between the ages of 2 and 3 years old, your child is learning to navigate complex and often scary new emotions. The switch from joy to anger can be flipped at any moment and you may often see:

  • Meltdowns and an inability to talk clearly.
  • Saying the opposite of what they mean - no instead of yes, for example.
  • A sudden want for something that seemed abhorrent just a few minutes before.
  • Anger and throwing toys.
  • Frustration at not being able to complete small tasks.

“Imagine how it feels to be overwhelmed, out of control and surrounded by forbidden fruit when you simply cannot control your response,” says Sarah Ockwell-Smith, author of The Gentle Parenting Book.

When a toddler’s tantrum begins, they are not being defiant or manipulative. They simply don’t know how to stop. It is our job as parents to teach them how to recognise and regulate their emotions, teaching them effective ways to calm down. 

Top Tip!

Remain calm, talk your child through their emotions and respect the way they are feeling. Try saying: “You are feeling angry. I understand that you don’t want to leave the park. We need to go home now because it’s lunch time. We will come back tomorrow.”

Throwing Food

Toddler in a highchair eating pasta from a green bowl

Throwing food will often start as soon as you wean your baby onto solid food at six months. And it normally doesn’t abate until past the two year mark. While it is easy to see this as an act of disobedience, it’s actually part of a remarkable developmental learning process.

Experts in child development call this type of compulsive behaviour a ‘schema’.

Simply put, a schema is the urge to repeat a particular behaviour or action over and over again. It is only by working in this way that baby and toddler brains are able to understand and apply complex concepts.

“Children are hard-wired to create their own opportunities for learning and development, and as an action is repeated over and over again it supports the development of neural pathways in the brain,” explains clinical psychologist Dr Virginia Lumsden

Top tip!

Next time your baby or toddler throws food, try not to focus on the mess but instead marvel at the fact that they are working out the laws of gravity, developing spatial awareness and testing the theory of cause and effect. It won’t stop the mess but it certainly makes it a little more bearable!

Spilling water and throwing toys

Baby in a blue bathing tub outdoors, splashing water from a mug

Does your child pour water all over the floor and table on a regular basis?

Yup, mine too! Water is a common fascination for all young children and the act of tipping and pouring it out falls into the same schema category as throwing food.

Tipping out water is part of the trajectory schema, and is often also accompanied by constantly dropping toys from the high chair and throwing things across the room. We cannot stop these behaviours in children - remember that they are making important learning connections, but we can redirect the behaviour.

Top tips!

  1. If your child spills water:

    Put them in an empty bath with some jugs and cups filled with water. They can tip, spill and pour to their heart’s content! Wipe the floor after the play session is over rather than worrying about it at the time, and enjoy your child’s squeals and giggles as they indulge their interests!

  2. If your child drops toys from the high chair:

    Let them play! Participating in the game with them is half the fun and you will be fuelling their brain development as they understand that the same toy that they dropped on the floor, can be back on the highchair tray again! It may help to give a simple time limit: “We will play one more time.” Then signal the game is over by picking them up and moving on to something else.

  3. If your child throws toys:

    It is perfectly fine to discourage your baby or toddler from throwing certain objects. Redirect their play like this: “We can’t throw the glass because it will break. Let’s throw this soft ball instead.”

Tantrums at bedtimeToddler holding onto the edge of his cot, while throwing a tantrumIf your toddler won’t go to sleep at bedtime, you are not alone! Challenging bedtimes may increase as your toddler learns to assert their independence and voice their opinions.

One of the most common reasons for tantrums at bedtime is exhaustion. Days packed with learning new skills are tiring and your toddler may be overtired and finding it difficult to cope. Recognising over-tiredness and getting them to bed as quickly as possible is normally the best cure, along with maintaining a calm atmosphere.

Refusal to go to bed or classic ‘delaying tactics’ may be the result of your toddler exploring the boundaries you have set, and the limits to which they can be pushed. Establishing and maintaining a good evening routine will help your toddler to understand and follow the bedtime rules.

A study conducted for the Sleep Medical Review in 2017 found that creating a dependable bedtime routine had a wide variety of positive developmental outcomes beyond improved sleep.

These include greater language development, literacy, child emotional and behavioural regulation and parent–child attachment. These were all found to be added benefits of calm and consistent bedtime routines.

Top tip!

Create a solid bedtime routine and stick to it. In our house we use the highly successful tea time - bath time - story time - bedtime routine and it works exceptionally well. Make sure there is no screen time at least one hour before bed and keep the atmosphere calm and relaxed.

Kicking, biting and hitting

Toddler wearing a pink and navy top throwing a tantrum in the dining room while her parent is holding her under her arms

If your toddler suddenly becomes aggressive, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to deal with the situation.

Aggressive behaviour can occur as the result of big feelings - anger, frustration, disappointment. It is also a common occurrence when play turns a little too rough - common when toddlers are involved!“It’s super important to teach our kids that when someone expresses words like 'no!', 'ouch!' or 'stop!' that you always stop,” say Kristin and Deena from biglittlefeelings.com.

It's a good idea to say something like: “You are hurting me and that’s not ok. I am going to move my body away to keep it safe. We are going to stop playing this game now and we can try again tomorrow.”

Another angle is :“I can see that you are upset but it’s not ok to push someone else. Let’s check they are okay and then we can solve your problem together.”

Top tips:

  1. Remember to acknowledge your child’s feelings, letting them know that it is ok to feel angry, upset, annoyed etc.

  2. Set clear boundaries so that they know hurting someone else is not acceptable. For example, say you’re going to stop playing and then make sure you do stop.

  3. Talk about acceptable and kind touch and re-visit the play the following day.

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Parenting is no walk in the park! And we could all do with support and help in day to day life. The good news? We've designed the EasyPeasy App to support parents of 0-5 year olds which is full of tips and support to help youthrough tantrums, bedtimes and rainy days!

Along with practical advice, there are loads of fun, playful little games to help you connect with your child. Explore magical content from our partners Scouts, LEGO and NCT, and watch out for the exciting new parent community sharing feature, coming soon!

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