How to deal with behavior problems? Toddler behavior problems and how to handle them.


Young children experience a wide range of emotions and express themselves in several ways. It’s normal for toddlers and young children to have tantrums and break rules while their social and emotional skills are developing. Children understand and feel more than they are able to put into words. Thus, they may feel emotionally overwhelmed, which results in acting out, screaming, temper tantrums etc. (1) Some challenging behaviors in toddlers include:

  • Disobedience (e.g. refusing to follow your requests)
  • fussiness (e.g. refusal to eat certain foods or wear certain clothes)
  • hurting other people (e.g. biting, kicking, pulling hair)
  • excessive anger when the child doesn’t get their own way
  • tantrums (outburst of anger)

What causes challenging behaviors?

Often when a child misbehaves, it’s just because they are tired, hungry, overexcited, frustrated or bored. Children need attention from their parents to feel secure and thrive emotionally and thus may show challenging behaviors in an attempt to gain attention from adults. (2)

There are a number of other things that might affect your child’s ability to control their reactions, emotions or behaviors, including:

  • being unwell
  • feeling hungry
  • not enough sleep or being tired
  • too much screen time
  • change in family circumstances or routine.

How to deal with challenging behaviors?

Talk to your child calmly so that your he/she knows what behavior is expected of them. Keep it simple and short (e.g. “No biting other kids”). Make sure your child understands what you have told them

There are a number of options for discouraging challenging behaviors, such as:

  • Distraction- If your toddler is doing something you don’t want, switch to something else. For example, show your toddler a toy, ask your toddler to do a puzzle with you. (1)
  • Ignoring – for minor attention-seeking behaviors, it is best to ignore the behavior (e.g. turn away from your child and respond only when they stop doing it). Constantly responding to negative behaviors can teach a child that this is a good way to get your attention. Children are more likely to stop a certain behavior if no one notices. (1)
  • Encouraging empathy – point out how your child’s behavior is making another person feel (e.g. sad, hurt) and ask your child how they would feel if someone did the same to them. (2)
  • Reinforce positive behaviors before they become negative (e.g. “I think you’re doing a great job at playing gently with your brother”)
  • Implement a positive behavior system e.g. a reward chart can be a motivation for your child to increase desirable behaviors (1)
  • If the negative behavior continues, there should be a logical, age-appropriate consequence for it (e.g. “If you don’t stop pulling your sister’s hair, you can’t play with the toys anymore”). Immediate consequences are more effective than delayed consequences.
  • Time-out is a common way to deliver an immediate consequence, but it needs to be used appropriately to work well. Generally, it is recommended that your child stays in time-out for a maximum of one minute for every year of their age. Time out should not be long or a form of isolation. (1)
  • Do not use physical discipline or shout and shame your child.

Dr Judy Matta
Pediatric Gastroenterology,
St. George Hospital

1. Child Mind Institute. “Managing Problem Behavior at Home”
2. NHS website. Dealing with Child Behavior Problem.

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