20 Ways to Cope With Challenging Toddler Behaviour

One of the questions I’m more commonly asked is “what does gentle parenting look like when it comes to dealing with challenging toddler behaviour?”  There really isn’t one simple answer to that, it really depends on the the uniqueness of the child, the parent(s) and their situation and of course it depends on what has been done and why too. The following tips however are good starting points:

Happy toddler with balls

  • Seek to understand what normal toddler behaviour is. There are quite a few books now that detail the brain development of an under three year old. The chances are that your toddler is actually behaving perfectly normally for their age. Knowing something is normal makes it a lot easier to deal with.
  • Understand how a toddler’s brain develops and what they are therefore physically capable of doing and understanding. e.g; did you know that toddlers are incapable of understanding other’s feelings? or why sharing is important? they just don’t have the brain capacity! Similarly toddlers do not have the ability to regulate their emotions and behaviour as we do, they literally ‘flip out’ during a tantrum and even if they wanted to control their feelings and calm down, they can’t. They need your help for that.
  • Try to see things from your toddler’s point of view. How might they be feeling? How were they feeling before the tantrum? during? after? Empathy for your toddler can be eye opening!
  • Try to avoid situations that trigger the unwanted behaviour – eg: if your toddler always tantrums during your weekly food shop consider internet shopping and having the shopping delivered. Small changes can make a big difference.
  • Try to ensure your toddler has enough sleep, both at night and in the daytime, tiredness is a big trigger for toddlers. Try to avoid taking your toddler out and about (particularly with stimulating classes) when they are tired, it won’t be fun for anyone. In general I think most families could do with scaling back organised activities with their toddlers. Toddlers need ‘chill out’ time just like we do.
  • Instead of ignoring your toddler during a tantrum, try to comfort them. A tantrum is scary for them – they can’t control their emotions like we can, a big hug is often much more effective and positive in the long term than the usual ‘ignore it’ advice. If your toddler doesn’t want to hug you don’t be offended, just be there for them when they are ready.
  • Communicate at your toddler’s level – literally, bend down so you are at eye level with them and use simple words and short sentences. Don’t forget a hug is communication too – you are saying “it’s OK, I’m here for you, I love you”.
  • Describe the behaviour you want from your toddler e.g: “we use gentle hands” rather than what you don’t want e.g: “don’t hit people”. Your toddler’s brain processing works differently from yours, if you keep repeating “don’t do this” followed by the undesirable behaviour you may as well be telling your toddler to do it!
  • Understand that your toddler is absolutely not doing this to manipulate you or wind you up – granted it feels like that sometimes, but they really aren’t, they are going through such a tricky time, their behaviour is their way of expressing it – it is absolutely never plotted and planned to embarrass you.
  • Give your toddler as many choices as you can, e.g: lay out 3 different outfits in the morning and let them choose, it’s amazing how a bit of control can improve a toddler’s behaviour, after all they don’t have much control over any other aspect of their lives.
  • Play can be wonderfully helpful at helping your toddler to feel in control of their world and also as a way to help them release scary emotions, try painting their anger, modelling their sadness out of playdough etc…Try to never direct their play, as frustrating as it is when they are painting a tree pink when you know of course it should be green, or when they put the puzzle piece in the wrong way round for the 20th time – it is important they do things themselves, their way.
  • Give names to your toddler’s feelings – e.g: “I can see you are angry”, “that really made you sad when he took your toy didn’t it?” it will help your toddler to understand what they are feeling and later, when they are more vocal, they will be able to tell you how they are feeling.
  • Model the behaviour you want from your child. If you want them to be calm and respectful you should act that way with them, being shouty and bossy will very quickly make them shouty and bossy too! A tough one to remember when they are mid tantrum and you feel your anger levels and the volume of your voice rising!
  • Humour can really diffuse a situation, as can the unexpected – suddenly getting down onto the floor and pretending you are an elephant or pulling a silly face whilst your toddler is angry can help them to release the grip of the emotions over them.
  • Never, ever care what other people think. Don’t be tempted to chastise or punish your toddler when they ‘mis-behave’ in public just because a disapproving old lady is tutting at you. Her opinion doesn’t matter and anyway – what does she know? science doesn’t agree with her, despite her protestations of “he needs a good spanking, children in my days never behaved like that.”
  • Try to spend as much quality time with your toddler as possible, reading or playing together (preferably letting your toddler lead the play) or just generally ‘horsing around’ – very often a toddler’s unwanted behaviour is their way of expressing you aren’t giving them enough attention, particularly if a new sibling has arrived recently.
  • Never, ever hit or bite back. Most toddlers go through a phase of biting and/or hitting and it is just that – a phase – if you retaliate what are you really teaching them? that’s it’s OK to physically hurt someone. Far better to show them how much they hurt you, gently remove them and say “that hurt, if you want to hit something you can hit the cushion – but not mummy”.
  • Choose sensitive caregivers. If your child is at nursery, pre-school or kindergarten look beyond the decor, facilities and reports and ask how they manage unwanted behaviour – does it fit with your mentality?
  • Do explain your ethos to your partner, so often parents play ‘good cop, bad cop’ and dads tend to not read or research as much as mums which means that whilst you think they are being unsupportive of your parenting decisions what is probably happening is they just don’t know as much as you and don’t understand why they shouldn’t shout or smack.
  • Try to break the hold your own childhood has over you. If you were shouted at or spanked as a child it’s so easy to automatically respond to your child in the same way. Be the generation that breaks the chains of authoritative disciplinarian parenting!



By Sarah Ockwell-Smith – Our resident Baby and Toddler Expert.

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