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Understanding toddler behaviour

Toddlers are full of fun and energy but they as they grow, develop and explore, they can really test your patience to the limit!

Find out where to get advice, guidance and support to help you respond to and deal with the challenges and demands of looking after a toddler.


Read time: 2 minutes

Your toddler's beginning to understand they're an individual. Demonstrating this is very important to them. 'No' and 'me' are how your toddler tells you they can do things for themselves!

It's important to know that your toddler's memory is much shorter than yours. That's why they'll do the same things over and over. Even when you've asked them not to! Your reminders are how their memory develops. As frustrating as you might find it, this is normal toddler development!

Your toddlers understanding of time is also very different to yours. They can't wait because they only understand now! Again, this can be very frustrating, but it's normal toddler development.

Your toddler is not trying to be difficult. Toddler's cannot think like that! Your toddler is trying to learn about the world in the only way they can.

Being a toddler is tricky. Your toddler needs you to help them learn about themselves and their world.

Toddler behaviour

Toddler behaviour is their way of letting us know how they're feeling. And sometimes those feelings can be pretty explosive!

Toddlers are all individuals. They react to things in different ways.

Some get very excited over even the small things. Others are very laid back, even when things are pretty exciting!

Some toddlers are very social and love being with others and meeting new friends. Whilst others are shy and find being with others, particularly strangers, overwhelming. Just like adults!

Some toddlers can concentrate for a long time and are happy to keep trying to do something. Others feel frustrated and upset very quickly.

What toddlers have in common is they struggle to manage very strong feelings. They can even find them scary.

Knowing your toddler's temperament will help you understand their behaviour. And help you manage it in a way that works for your little one. Managing toddler behaviour is about helping them to manage their emotions. Or handle experiences they find tricky or overwhelming.

Top tips from the NHS for managing tricky behaviour in toddlers and young children

Read time: 2 minutes

There are many reasons for tricky behaviour in toddlers and young children. Often, it's because they're tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated, or bored.

If it's causing you or your child distress or upsetting the rest of the family, it is important to deal with it.

Do not give up

Solutions take time to work. Get support from your partner, a friend, another parent or your health visitor. It's good to have someone to talk to about what you're doing.

Be consistent

Children need consistency. If you react to your child's behaviour in one way one day and a different way the next, it's confusing for them. It's also important that everyone close to your child deals with their behaviour in the same way.

Try not to overreact

This can be difficult. When your child does something you don't want time after time, your frustration can build up.
It's impossible not to show your irritation sometimes but try to stay calm. Move on to other things you can both enjoy or feel good about as soon as possible. Find other ways to cope with your frustration, like talking to other parents.

Talk to your child

Children don't have to be able to talk to understand. It can help if they understand why you want them to do something.

Be positive about the good things

When a child's behaviour is difficult, we can overlook the things they do well. Tell your child when you're pleased about something they've done. You can let your child know when you're pleased by giving them attention, a hug or a smile.

Offer (the right kind!) of rewards

You can help your child by rewarding them for good behaviour. For example, praise them or give them their favourite food for tea. If your child behaves well, tell them how pleased you are. Be specific. Say something like, "Well done for putting your toys back in the box when I asked you to."

Do not give your child a reward before they've done what you asked. That's a bribe, not a reward!

Look after yourself

Whatever you do, your toddler won't behave perfectly all the time. If your toddler sometimes misbehaves it doesn't mean you're doing a bad job – it's just a part of growing up! Remember, parenting is a tough job, so don't forget to be kind to yourself!

Challenging behaviour often leaves parents feeling rubbish and tired. If you are feeling helpless and unsure of the best approach to take, don't worry. There are many helpful websites and support services. Try to stay positive, and if you feel you need a helping hand, reach out. And remember to look after yourself.

Information from external websites

These webpages will all help you understand your toddler's behaviour:

This NCT article 'The Good, the Bad and the Cuddly Behaviour' will help you understand how and when children start to know the difference between good and bad behaviour, and as a parent, what your role in supporting how your little ones act.

Action for Children has a couple of short but very useful articles on understanding and managing your child's behaviour and how you should respond to challenging behaviour. Both have top tips to make life easier for you and your toddler.

Action for Children also have a helpful article on how you can help build your toddlers resilience. If your toddler finds new situations and new people scary, and think trying new things is too hard this article gives some good tips on how you can help.

Family Space Barnardo's have a really helpful page on managing toddler behaviour. It talks you through the Pause for Thought system, which you might find useful.

Struggling and need to talk?

Action for Children offer 1:1 chat with a parenting coach (Mon - Fri). If they are closed you can leave a message and a parenting coach will get back to you within 3 working days.

Family Lives has a free, confidential helpline, offering emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life. Call the Family Lives helpline on 0808 800 2222 (Monday to Friday from 9am to 9pm and on weekends from 10am to 3pm).

NSPCC has a free, confidential helpline for parents looking for advice. Call 0808 800 5000 (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends).

The Surrey Children and Family Health Advice Line is available from 8am to 5pm, Monday to Friday (excluding Bank Holidays). They can provide support on all aspects of child health, development and parenting for families with children from birth to 19 years old. Call the Surrey-wide 0-19 Advice Line on 01883 340 922

Face-to-face support

You could also talk to your health visitor or your GP.

Useful videos on toddler behaviour

In this NSPCC video parent's give their advice on how to cope with tricky behaviour.

EHCAP shares a fantastic video that uses the hand model to help you understand what is happening in the brain when we lose control of our emotions - as useful for understanding your own emotional responses as it is for understanding your toddlers!

In the NHS video 'How much does my child understand about being naughty?' a health visitor explains whether your child understands about being naughty.

The Families Under Pressure video collection offers a great series of short top tips videos on managing behaviour and help with negative emotions. Perfect for when your family leave you feeling frazzled!

Helpful tools and apps

Is your toddler's behaviour leaving you feeling stressed out or frazzled? Why don't you try downloading Thrive, a game based NHS assessed app designed to help you manage stress and anxiety.

You could have a look at the Being, Belonging, Becoming leaflets on Surrey's Family Information Service (FIS). These information cards contain tips on how to help your child to become independent, sociable and happy.

The NSPCC recognise that all parents can come under pressure or stress from time to time. The Positive Parenting guide shares practical advice and tips for parenting techniques that work well for children of all ages – from babies to teenagers.

Surrey's Family Learning and Adult Learning teams have developed a family wellbeing resource, with lots of tips on looking after yourself and your family during these challenging times.

You might want to look at the book The Whole Brain Child by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson. It uses what is known about children's developing brains to suggest strategies to make parenting easier and your relationships with your children stronger.

Online parenting guides

Surrey residents get free access to an online guide that include top tips from childcare, education and NHS health experts

How to register

Registration is quick and easy. Go to the OurPlace website and use the access code 'ACORN' to get your free guide.

Access to the guide is unlimited with no expiry date, so you can return as and when you need and want to. Why not watch the Child and Family Health video to find out more.

Community support, courses and local help

Choose the area you live in for local services. Please note that due to coronavirus (Covid-19) very few community services are currently running.

BETA: We would really appreciate your feedback to help us improve and grow the service. We're listening!

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Date published: 22 Apr 2021