newsletter banner 740

Why is my toddler misbehaving? 

children at playYour baby just started walking and pronouncing his first few words.

Unfortunately, he is also starting to behave in ways you don’t like.

Perhaps he just arrived at the so called “terrible twos,” and your life with him is starting to look precisely like that, terrible.

Why do little ones behave the way they do?

Reasons toddlers misbehave

For the purpose of this article, we will call “misbehaving” those behaviors you don’t like your toddler to do.  Here are some reasons why toddlers misbehave:

  • Your child’s temperament: Every child is born with a particular temperament, many times similar, and sometimes very different than her parents’.  Your child’s energy level and the way she responds to stress are good examples of how temperament affects a child’s behavior.
  • Health problems: If your child is sick, has sensory difficulties (for example: can’t hear well), or hasn’t had appropriate nutrition for any reason, he may misbehave.
  • Parenting accidents: These are things we do as parents that end up working against the best behavior of our child.  An example of this is paying attention to her misbehavior while ignoring or not encouraging her positive behavior.
  • Patterns that maintain his misbehavior: Is there anything that always provokes his misbehavior?  Is there something you always do after he misbehaves?  These may create patterns of repeated misbehaviors.
  • Inability to communicate what she is feeling: Sometimes your child hasn’t learned yet how to express with words what she feels (emotionally or physically), which may lead to tantrums or similar misbehaviors.
  • Punishments that just don’t work: Harsh punishment, yelling, hitting or threatening, or simply disciplining while being angry or stressed are not successful parenting strategies. (Often these are methods we learned from our own parents. Think about how well they worked when you were a child.) Such strategies tend to create resentments, plus your child may try to imitate your behavior when he is upset or angry.
  • The imitation game: Sometimes your child’s behavior can be explained by what she has seen others do.  Your toddler may imitate other children, including siblings and kids in daycare; adults (like you or other family members); and even cartoon characters if they are exposed to TV).
  • Many other reasons, including a combination of some of the above.

So what do I do about it?

Start by reflecting on everything you learned in this article.  Ask yourself what you can do differently to prevent or manage your toddler’s behavior.  In future articles, I will discuss additional strategies you can use.

A word of hope

As you reflect on the reasons why toddlers misbehave, recognize that it is not because you are a bad parent or because he is a bad child.  You have the power to make changes in how you respond to your toddler’s behavior that can encourage positive behavior.

Playing well with others

pin wheelUntil about the age of two, children are more interested in playing beside each other than with each other. They also do not yet understand the concept of sharing, so it is important not to force young children to share. That said, there are ways that you can begin to encourage good play behavior.

  • Model generosity and sharing with others in your own life and play “sharing games” where the child can practice taking turns with you and learn to trust that they will get the toy they share back again.
  • Praise good play behavior when you see it, “That was very thoughtful of you. I really liked how you let Rosa have a turn.”
  • Coach your child on how to handle the frustrations of playing with others. Encourage your child to use her words (if she is speaking) or come to you if she is upset rather than hitting or biting.
  • Play creates great opportunities for talking to children about emotions and developing empathy and problem solving skills. (“Liam looks sad. Do you see his face? He is frowning. I think he feels sad you took his toy.”)
  • When you have expectations, let your child know what you expect. For example, “I’m going to be using the phone, please play with your toys here next to me while I finish.” With an older child, you might say “We are going to the park, you can play with all the kids but stay where I can see you and you can see me.”

How to play with your child

watering canStart play as early as possible. Even newborns enjoy it when you play with them by making silly faces or mirroring their facial expressions and sounds. Follow your child’s lead and join in his play. You will create great memories that will last forever and help your child when he is playing by himself and with others.

Dr. David Anglada-Figueroa is a clinical psychologist with a passion for families and children and a spokesperson for First 5 Sonoma County. First 5 encourages parents to Read, Talk, and Play every day with their babies. For more information, visit and