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Understanding your toddler’s behaviour

As your toddler grows more independent, they’ll start to test the limits of what they can and can’t do. Tough as it may be – for you both – this stage is an essential part of learning and adjusting to social situations. By allowing your wee one to develop in this way, you’ll help them to discover new abilities, but also that what they want to do may sometimes be unsafe, and could also hurt or upset other people.

The boundaries you create are vital to help your kids feel safe and make the world that little bit easier to understand. No child can feel confident if they have unlimited freedom or responsibility. But, they will test the boundaries you set. This is the way they start to understand themselves and the world. While there isn’t one right way to go about things – every parent, child and family is different – there are a few tried and tested tricks that can help make it easier to deal with your toddler’s behaviour.

Tip #1: Be clear about your rules

Each family has its own rules – often unspoken – about what is and isn’t okay, so the first step in helping your child to behave well is to decide on what your rules are. Then make sure your child knows what they are and remind them often. Having a set of rules creates structure and boundaries which help to make toddlers feel safe and secure.

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Tip #2: Be consistent

When you have a set of rules in place, it’s a good idea to make sure all adults who may help look after your children use the same rules. Conflict can arise when parents, and others who care for your child, follow different sets of rules, which can be really confusing for little ones. The same goes when you allow your child to do something one day then tell them off for doing the same thing the next. When you say ‘No’ make sure you mean it.

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Tip #3: Expect them to behave well

Although it may not always seem like it, children love to please their parents. If you expect your wee one to behave badly, chances are they will. But if they know that you expect them to behave well, they’re much more likely to try to please.

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Tip #4: Be realistic

You can’t expect a toddler to know that the ornament you left within arm’s reach isn’t a toy to bang on the floor. Try to think ahead to avoid these kind of accidents. Put things you don’t want them to touch out of temptation’s way.

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Tip #5: Try saying yes

How many times have you said no today? Always being refused can lead to a build-up of frustration. Next time your toddler asks you a question, think about whether you could say yes instead. For example, ‘Yes, you can do it tomorrow,’ or, ‘Yes, after we’ve been shopping.’

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Tip #6: Be clear and specific

Try to make sure that your little one understands exactly what they are being asked to do. Instead of saying, ‘Please can you tidy up now,’ try, ‘Pick up your books and put them on the shelf now, please.’ If there’s no choice about something, don’t confuse things by letting them think they can decide. Instead of saying, ‘Do you want to have your bath now?’, say, ‘Now it’s bath time.’

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Tip #7: Actions speak louder than words

If they do something against the rules, show them what they could have done instead. So if they draw on the wall, show them that the right place to draw is on paper or on a blackboard. And if they get in a mess you could let them make up for it by helping you to clear it up.

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Tip #8: Praise them

It can feel like you’re in a never ending loop of telling them off, but whenever you can, praise the good behaviour, even the very little things. Praise and attention are much more encouraging to your wee one than criticism or punishment, so it’s great to show that you’re pleased when your child behaves well. The more you can point out and praise the good behaviour, the more your wee one will want to do these things again. For example: ‘Well done Tom, I noticed you took your shoes off all by yourself without me asking you to’. ‘Sophie, you shared your favourite toy with your wee sister, that was a really kind thing to do’, ‘I’m really pleased you tidied away your toys, and you did it without even being asked!’ Now the room is nice and tidy and we’ve got more time for your story.’

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Tip #9: Talking to others

Let them hear you saying good things about them to other people.

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Tip #10: Don’t be tempted to use sweets

Don’t use sweet treats to praise good behaviour.

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What the parents say

‘Things have changed since I was a mum so I have to bite my tongue sometimes when my daughter does things differently to me.’

Tricia, 48, gran to Amie, 18 months, and Dylan, 3

‘Ellie’s always at me to buy her something when we’re out. The health visitor told me to ignore it and stick to my guns. I try, but sometimes I give in for an easy life.' 

Pauline, 38, mum to Ellie, 2, and Ross, 5

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Behaviour Behaviour Tips Toddler (1-3 years)

Last updated: 17 May, 2019