Toddlers : Behaviour
Updated: Feb 5
Once your baby is between 12 months and 3 years, they are now a toddler! Your child is turning into a bundle of curiosity – asking questions and developing a mind of their own.
Your toddlers do as you do. Your child will pick up appropriate behaviours as you model them. As their communication skills are still developing, children generally respond far better to the things you do, over the things you say. For example, if you want your child to speak softly, then speaking quietly yourself is more effective than saying “shush”. From 12 months toddlers are experiencing major behavioural milestones, such as the ability to empathise. Consequence and cause and effect are becoming more and more relevant to your child. Showing and/or telling your toddler how you feel will help them identify and mirror similar emotions and will help equip your child with the ability to cope. Expressing your feelings “I’m getting upset/I feel sad about” shows you your child’s behaviour affects you. Starting a sentence with “I” helps your child see things from your perspective.
One of the most effective ways to encourage positive behaviours, is through positive reinforcement. Catching your child being good and expressing your appreciation is referred to as ‘descriptive praise’. An example of this is praising your child for picking up their toys, instead of waiting for the toys to tumble and reprimanding your child. The general ratio of 6:1 is recommended, meaning one reprimand to every six praises.
It is important to remember that your toddler is growing steadily but is still so young. Sharing will be a skill they begin to develop, though children of this age tend to play alongside other children instead of ‘with’ another child. They will start to understand the concept of taking turns but may still become upset or throw a tantrum if asked to wait their turn.
Generally, from around their first birthday, toddlers approach a huge behavioural milestone which will mean they may begin to do what you ask of them! By this age, many children may be beginning to control their urges – you may notice a shift in behaviour as they develop the ability to self-regulate.
Self -regulation is basically a child’s abilities to change their behaviour and follow directions. Obviously, not all the time, but as they grow so does their ability to stop themselves from doing something they want to do (like painting the walls!) or performing tasks they do not like (like picking up their toys) even when adults are not around to ask them to.
This wonderful stage of development is one of the most important milestones in life. Without it, children would have a near impossible time learning how to function, learn, play, or get along with people life in general. Every child develops some sort of self-regulation, though every toddler is different. As with any development, some children develop this ability earlier than others, just as some children are shy and others are outgoing, differing personality traits will lead to a differing level of self-regulation development.
There are two types of self-regulation, the ‘Dos’ and the ‘Don’ts’. ‘Dos’ include doing things or finishing things your Toddler does not want to do i.e. “please clean up your toys”. ‘Don’ts’ is telling your child things not to do when they really want to do them is “Don’t throw daddy’s keys please”. Children deal with “Dos” and Don’ts” very differently, however studies have shown that toddlers are generally better at following Don’t requests than Do’s. This is probably due to the fact that most children hear “Don’ts” more often and at an earlier age than Dos.
As your toddler ages their ability with self-regulation will generally improve to the point where your child will internalise your guidance – meaning your toddler may act in ways that they think you would expect, even if you are not present.
It is important to always remember that your child may be showing signs of behavioural development and then may suddenly regress or have off days where there seems to be no obvious progress. This is normal, and these skills grow over time, so remain patient and allow your toddler to develop at their own pace.
Over the past 12months you will have heard your baby cry – a lot. You will have grown to recognise differing cries and their meanings, and your baby’s expectations as to how you react to these cries.
From 1 year onwards your toddler will still cry when they are tired, hungry, or uncomfortable, but they will be learning to develop some control over their crying as they learn to communicate their feelings more easily.
When your newborn or baby cried you instinctively went to soothe them, however toddlers sometimes require a varied approach to their crying, to avoid bad habits forming. An example of this is if your toddler cries when he is put down, and you pick him back up again, this may reiterate to him that tears will entice you to act.
How to Respond to Toddlers Cries
If your child is crying, regardless of their age, it’s important to check that they are not injured or unwell. If you are unsure or concerned don’t ever hesitate to get advice from your relevant healthcare provider.
If you determine your toddler is physically ok, then the following may help you to try and work out the reason your toddler is crying:
If your toddler is angry, perhaps taking him somewhere quiet to calm down may help.
If your toddler is tired, then some quiet time and rest may help wind them down
If your child is frustrated, you may wish to try and work out a solution together or by suggesting alternatives.
A change of scenery may be all your toddler needs, if they are agitated or bored taking them for a walk outside, giving them a bubble bath or even putting on some music and dancing around together may be all it takes to lift their mood.
It is very difficult sometimes to not give in to a child who is crying because they want something that you do not want them to have. Stand your ground fairly and calmly. This behaviour tends to lead to more crying and demands from your child if they believe it will get them what they want.
When toddlers throw tantrums, it is a sight to behold. They can come on suddenly and be viciously fierce. Children between the ages of one and three are particularly prone to these episodes, which can escalate without warning over the most minor things. When your toddler throws a temper tantrum, you will know about it! They may scream, cry, kick, throw themselves to the floor, throw items, lash out, even hold their breath until they turn blue or faint.
These tantrums are due to pure frustration. Your toddler is yet to have the necessary communication skills to express their feelings. Your child is beginning to understand many of the words he hears, but his ability to use them himself is still developing. This, paired with a surge in brain development and other social milestones associated with this age, can lead to high levels of frustration and subsequent tantrums.
Children as young as 6 months old but generally between the ages of one and six years, may have breath holding spells. They usually occur when your toddler is angry, uncontrollably crying, extremely upset, or could be due to your child going into shock following a minor accident or trauma. Some cases are associated with anemia, and your GP can do a simple blood test to determine this.
During a spell, children will cry and when they catch their breath, they may hold their breath without breathing, usually for anywhere between 30-60 seconds, before breathing again and crying and/or screaming. Some children may hold their breath until they lose consciousness, and their body will generally kickstart again around a minute later. In rare cases some toddlers may have jerky movements like a seizure. Consult your doctor for more information or advice and if you are ever concerned or unsure, do not hesitate to call your GP or an ambulance.
There are many ways to cope with a breath holding spell, and what works for one child may not work for another. It is important to see a doctor following your toddler’s first spell, so they can rule out any more serious conditions as well as provide advice on what to do during an attack.
Testing Behaviours & Discipline
The greatest misconception about discipline is that it is a form of punishment. Discipline is about teaching and learning appropriate behaviours, not about fear, harm, or a loss of control. You may start to focus on discipline with your child once they reach 12 months of age. Babies younger than that will not understand or benefit from discipline as they have little sense understanding or consequence.
This isn’t to say a 12month old is fully aware of their behaviour, hence why discipline is an ongoing path to take, not a quick fix. There are certain controversial methods of corporal punishment such as spanking which is considered to be a prime example of short-term compliance – fear or pain may cause your child to ‘behave’ in the way you wish them to, but which may have many long-term negative effects compared to a more respectful, consistent approach which models positive behaviours.
When your toddler insists on misbehaving even after you have given them chances to correct their behaviour, you may need to start implementing some consequences, remember there should always be a distinction between punishment and discipline. Once your toddler starts to realise there will be very real consequences to their behaviour, and by modelling this good behaviour yourself, your child should begin to realise that being naughty does not pay off. Many parents believe a healthy balance between both positive reinforcement and consequence is the most effective way to teach and discipline your child.
Ensuring the consequence is relevant to the severity of the crime is also very important, as is responding immediately so your child knows exactly what you are/were expecting of them. Telling your toddler, they are having no dessert tonight, since they purposefully broke their sister’s toy this morning, will have absolutely no positive impact. But reacting calmly, at the time of the offense, will quickly indicate to your toddler that you expected of them, or what they did that was unacceptable. Modelling positive behaviour might not be effective enough and you may need to implement consequence to discipline and teach your child to correct their behaviour. Choose your battles too – if they have been cheeky and you can clearly see they are testing their behaviours and the consequences are not overly severe, sometimes you make let it go. This is not a cop-out … it may just not be a big deal and could deem a lighter response – i.e. “you’re being cheeky, so the tickle monster is going to come and get you!”. Toddlers love being silly, they love to laugh and play – so sometimes if you can’t beat them its far more fun to join them!
During these toddler years, your child will be tackling major milestones which will no doubt be incredibly challenging for you and your Toddler. But remember there are so many wonderful traits being developed every day too. As your child grows, they will connect with you over more and more things – they will laugh, communicate, play, and learn from you. They will be shown how to treat people, how to react to things and how to cope. With these lessons comes natural frustration but just being there for them will help them through these first crucial years and will help model their behaviours throughout the rest of their lives.
raisingchildren.net.au. (2020, October 30). Temperament: what it is and why it matters. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/temperament
raisingchildren.net.au. (2019, June 7). Self-regulation in young children. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/toddlers/behaviour/understanding-behaviour/self-regulation