Toddler - sitting on ground

Toddler behaviour

What’s normal?

Is my toddler normal?

The hardest part about being a parent is not knowing whether your child is “normal” or not. As a psychologist and having dealt with children as a parent, a teacher and in my current role, I have come to the conclusion that there is no such thing! Is it “normal” when a toddler can speak in two languages? Is it “normal” that a toddler is a late walker? Is it “normal” that a toddler has exceptional reading skills? So I now refer to “average” behaviour – where a large majority of children display a particular behaviour at a particular stage. The following information is to be viewed as a guideline, but remember that there is always a wide range of “average”, (which is why our Maternal Infant Welfare Nurse gives us percentiles on our baby’s height and weight).

The research about toddler behaviour

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who studied the cognitive (thinking) development of children. He suggested that children up to the age of 2 are at a “sensorimotor” stage (which simply means that they learn about the world using their senses). He suggested (and it is widely agreed) that toddlers are extremely egocentric (they can only see the world from their own point of view).

Another researcher, Erik Erikson, suggested that there were two stages that children go through by the age of 3. He states that the first phase is “oral sensory” (where everything goes into the child’s mouth). He believed that the way that a child passes through this stage will lead to their future trust or mistrust of the world. During the next phase, the child learns to walk and talk and understanding various bodily functions, and this is a time where we may develop shame and doubt if they do not experience success in this area.

Regardless of the research, from our point of view as parents, toddlerhood is a time when our little ones are trying to become more independent. They want to explore their world and it is up to us to allow them to do that, but at the same time give them some consistent boundaries. Everything is new and exciting to a young child, and their innate curiosity and interest can be refreshing to us as parents. But it is also a time of frustration – for both the toddler and the parent. The child has a natural desire to soak up information and ask questions, but at times they do not have the language ability to communicate their desires. This causes them to be upset and in turn may lead to a tantrum. Parents become annoyed because their child is having a tantrum and they do not know why.

Parenting tips to help manage toddler behaviour

There are some things for us to keep in mind to get through this stage in the healthiest manner. Firstly remember – this is a child. They do not have much ability to reason and they are unable to purposefully do anything “naughty” at this age.

It is the behaviour not the child. If your child is displaying inappropriate behaviour, keep in mind that it is not the child but his or her actions that you do not approve of. Many of us spend a great deal of time telling our children what they should not be doing, but perhaps not enough time saying what they should be doing. Be specific and state it is short sentences where possible.

Use positive reinforcement. Make sure that you notice when they are doing something correctly and praise them for it.

Do not argue with a toddler! Often we fight with our young ones, but we need to be the adults. It is futile to keep the fight going because we want to change the child’s mind. They are probably not listening (or not able to process what we are saying), and we are just increasing our levels of stress!

In short, a toddler wants independence. They are curious, eager to learn, and often become frustrated. They look to us for consistent boundaries and to teach them how to live safely and happily in the world. We need to teach them appropriate toddler behaviour (such as manners, positive behaviour) and give them opportunities for them to learn how to interact with others. They require us to look after their physical needs (e.g. Changing nappies, feed and nurture them, hug them, etc.). They respond well to routines (e.g. sleep, food, behaviour, etc.), and with a lot of love and attention they will become well-adjusted children, teens, then adults.

If at any stage you are concerned about your toddler’s development ask your Maternal Infant Welfare Nurse or make an appointment to see your local doctor or paediatrician. They will either allay your fears or point you in the right direction to find help.

For more information see Social Development.

By Sally-Anne McCormack M.A.P.S.

Dip T (Psych Maj); Postgrad Dip Psych (Ed); B Ed: M Psych (Ed & Dev)

Sally-Anne is a Melbourne psychologist, former teacher, and mother of 4. She has 2 websites: www.psychonline.com.au and www.parentsonline.com.au.

Managing behaviour in a positive way

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