Managing Toddler Behaviour

See also: Dealing with Tantrums

The toddler years can be some of the most challenging for any parent, and probably for the child too.

These years are renowned for tantrums, and sometimes called the ‘terrible twos’. They are, however, also very rewarding times.

Key to managing toddler behaviour and retaining your sanity is remaining calm, and remembering that your child is NOT just their behaviour.

They are going through a difficult time, trying to work out how the world works.

Looking Behind the Behaviour

Many parenting books will tell you how to manage certain behaviours. Our page on Understanding Toddlers and Young Children makes clear that this can only take you so far.

If behaviours are not to recur, you have to understand why they are happening, which often means examining your own behaviour, and the beliefs and views that underlie it.

The most important thing to remember is that your behaviour often drives your child’s behaviour.

Your attitudes affect your thoughts and feelings, which in turn drive your behaviour.

In other words, your attitudes, thoughts and feelings will affect your child’s behaviour, and your response can reinforce problem behaviour.

This page suggests some simple techniques that you can use to help you to manage problem behaviours, both for you and your child.

Positive Reframing

If you have got stuck at a point where all you can see of your child is the poor behaviour, one of the most helpful things that you can do is called positive reframing.

Child psychologist Tanya Byron, in her book Your Child ... Your Way: Create a Positive Parenting Pattern for Life, describes this as a three-step process:

  • Make a list of all the good things that your child does, and all the negative qualities that you see. Also make a list of all the good and bad things about you as a parent. If possible, you and your partner should make these lists separately, and then compare and contrast.
  • Next, make a list of five really good things about your child, and five really good things about you as a parent. Think of it in terms of why you and your child are lucky to have each other. This is the positive reframing, where you shift your thinking towards the good.
  • Finally, every time your child does something on your ‘good behaviour’ list, praise them enthusiastically. It does not matter how small that ‘something’ is, praise them. This positively reinforces the good behaviour in your mind and your child’s mind. At the same time, try to ignore the poor behaviour.
Our page on Positive Thinking explains more about the principles behind this.

Two Strikes and You’re Out’ Rule

This approach is very simple and surprisingly effective for both you and the child. It prevents you getting frustrated because you are being ignored, and it prevents the child from being able to ignore you because there is no consequence to doing so.

How it Works: Two Strikes and You’re Out

When you ask your child to do something, or stop doing something, ask once nicely (‘Please stop doing that, or you will have to go to your room’) and a second time firmly, with consequences (Stop doing that now, or you will go to your room’). It is important to make sure that you have your child’s attention when you ask, so get down to their level, and make eye contact.

If the child continues to ignore you, deliver on the consequence.

With younger children, it works best if the consequence is immediate. Older children will understand ‘no television later’, but younger children will not associate the later ban with the current behaviour. Suitable consequences for toddlers include:

  • Time out, on the ‘naughty step’, or on a chair, or in their bedroom. The time should be no more than one minute per year of their life. There is more about time out in our page on Dealing with Tantrums.
  • Taking away something valued for a period, such as a favourite toy.
  • A sad face on a sticker chart.

Doing Nice Things

However appalling your child’s behaviour may be at times, it is important that you spend time together doing nice things.

Try to take at least half an hour each day to play with your child, in an activity that is proposed by them, and let them dictate the play. Engage with their play, and comment on it positively.

Don’t forget to give your child lots of kisses and cuddles to reinforce the praise.

You cannot love a child too much, nor can you give them too many cuddles.

It can be easy to forget this, and it is vital for both children and parents. Children who are frequently cuddled know that they are loved, and parents who cuddle their children often also remember what parenting is really about: cuddling reinforces the bond between children and parents.

Analysing Poor Behaviour

The first really positive step to managing poor behaviour is to have a look at when it happens and the triggers.

Top Tip: Keeping a Behaviour Diary

Keep a diary of your child’s tantrums. Note down:

  • What caused the behaviour;
  • What the behaviour was;
  • What you did in response; and
  • The eventual outcome.

Each time, note down the time of day and where you were.

Keep the diary for a week, and see if you can see any patterns emerging. For example, you may notice that all the poor behaviour is at certain times of day, perhaps when you and the child are tired. You may also see that there are certain circumstances that result in poor behaviour, or that you are showing a certain response which may not be helping.

Also keep a Praise Diary.

Note down when you praise your child, and when your behaviour has had a positive effect on your child. Again, look for patterns in behaviour and response.

You may well find that just keeping the diary raises your awareness and you make small changes that in turn make quite a big difference in your child’s behaviour. But even if you don’t, the experience will help you to identify patterns, and reflect on your own responses.

There is more about this kind of exercise on our page Reflective Practice, which you may find useful.

Sticker Charts

Sticker charts not only train children, they also help you, the parent, to notice and reward good behaviour.

Sticker charts are a first step towards rewarding the good and ignoring the bad. They should focus on the behaviour that you want to see, including some that you already see, for example:

  • Cleaning teeth twice a day;
  • Washing hands after going to the toilet;
  • Putting a toy away after playing with it; or
  • Saying ‘thank you’ when given something.

The golden rule of sticker charts is: Keep It Simple.

It is probably best to go for short periods—say four periods in a day, or morning and afternoon. If you have seen the desired behaviour in that period, then the child gets a smiley face or sticker. If not, then no sticker. If you see the complete opposite of the behaviour you want, then give the ‘two strikes’ warning. If the poor behaviour continues, take the child gently but firmly with you to the sticker chart and draw on a sad face.

At the end of the day or week, if the child has at least 75% smiley faces or stickers, then they get a reward.


Keep the rewards small – an extra story at bedtime, a trip to the library to choose a new book or DVD, or some extra play time, perhaps—as larger rewards can get very expensive, and also give children the impression that good behaviour will buy presents.

Making Changes

First, try to ignore the bad behaviour and tantrums, and focus on praising the good.

Secondly, don’t bear grudges. Deal with the bad behaviour immediately, and move on.

Children, especially small children, don’t really remember things very well. They find it hard enough to associate cause and effect when it is immediate, never mind some hours later. It is, therefore, really important to deal with bad behaviour straight away, and then draw a line.

Later, when your child has been behaving beautifully, you need to praise them and cuddle them for that good behaviour. You do not need to worry that this will make them think they can get away with bad behaviour: they will NOT associate the two, only realise how much nicer it is to be praised for good behaviour.

The Golden Rule

To get rid of the behaviour you do not want, do not reinforce it by giving it any attention.

Reinforce only the behaviour that you want to see again, through praise and suitable rewards.

Stay Calm

The most important thing to remember is that your behaviour affects your child’s.

The best way to manage their behaviour, therefore, is to stay calm. If you can stay calm, relaxed and unstressed, then you will be better able to manage yourself and your child.

For more about this, see our page on Self-Control.

Although it can be extremely difficult to stay calm in the face of a toddler’s behaviour, doing so will pay dividends both immediately and over time.