We have talked about this before but being a parent of a toddler is to be on a rollercoaster of emotions so it’s worth repeating.

We delight in their sense of wonder and then exhale in frustration as they once again go into full meltdown mode. We are encouraged by each new achievement and despair at yet another temper tantrum. There’s good news and bad news here. The good news is all these things, as well as hitting, saying “No!” to everything, and refusing to share, are completely normal, age-appropriate behaviours.

We often take these behaviours personally or see them as an act of rebellion. There’s another way to look at this. Why do toddlers misbehave? We know toddler coping skills are poor and become even worse when they are tired, hungry or frustrated. Let’s take a look and see what’s going on developmentally at this age to get some clues.

Curiosity: We need curiosity to learn. It urges us forward to explore the world. At this age curiosity can often translate into “bad behaviour”. What happens if I pull this cord? The cat howled when I pulled her tail. Will she do it again?

Miscommunication: Communication is tough for toddlers. As they struggle with learning language, it’s easier to kick over the tower of blocks than say “I’m not ready to head for a nap”, or to hurl a toy at a friend than to say “I don’t want my playdate to end”.

Immaturity: Little impulse control coupled with lagging skills (coordination, self-help, language…) leads to lots of frustration.  Emotions flood out in the form of tantrums, meltdowns and anger.

Desire for independence: Toddlers need to try to do things on their own. Getting dressed, pouring milk, climbing, are often accompanied by “I do it myself!” Newly developing skills means they can’t always get the job done, leading to more frustration. Not to mention that it’s time-consuming for us when it takes 10 times longer.

When we have an understanding of why behaviours happen, it helps us keep our cool and discipline appropriately. Toddler discipline is all about teaching good behaviour (in fact, discipline is Latin for “to teach”). Rather than punishing “bad behaviour”, we need to help teach the needed skills. We teach boundaries, “You can pull the skipping rope but not the cat’s tail.” We teach communication “You’re angry. You can say, I’m mad, but no hitting.” We allow more time and support for developing skills, “How about I start the zipper and you pull it up?” Toddlers learn through play, so pouring skills happen in the bathtub, at playgroup, and feeding the dog, in safe appropriate places. When spills happen, we focus on the problem. “Here’s a cloth. Let’s clean up the milk.” Because toddlers don’t understand concepts like danger, we often have to use distraction. “Whoa, that’s hot. How about we play playdough instead?”

Discipline helps toddlers develop self-control, learn to respect others’ belongings and feelings and provide a sense of security (your child actually feels safer knowing someone older and wiser is running the show, even though he’s itching for more independence). Learning to live with limits is also critical training for the real world (whether it’s the playground, classroom, soccer team, or workplace), where throwing blocks, hurling insults, and trashing other people’s things just won’t fly.