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7 common toddler behavior issues and how to handle them

Toddlers love to test boundaries – and as frustrating as that is, it's a normal part of their development.

smiling boy standing near a tree
Photo credit: iStock.com / Arand

Throwing tantrums, hitting, biting, screaming, and other less-than-adorable behaviors are normal for toddlers. Whether your child is in the throes of the terrible twos or has become a full-fledged threenager, they likely have some behaviors in common with their peers. 

You can discourage these habits and teach more appropriate ones. Experts agree that even toddlers can learn to follow house rules, and now is a great time to start introducing your toddler to your expectations. 

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Never hit or yell at your child when they act out. Research shows that spanking and other forms of physical punishment don't work to correct a child's behavior and can even damage their physical and mental health. And extreme verbal punishment, like frequent yelling, also hasn't been shown to be effective or good for kids' self-esteem.

Here are common behavior problems that many families experience, and how to handle them when they happen. 

1. Always saying "no"

Not long ago, you were eagerly awaiting your child's first words, but now you're probably wishing they never learned one word in particular: "no." Toddlers love to say no. And showing a bit of defiance is actually part of normal and healthy toddler behavior.

As you've probably figured out, toddlers are realizing they have some independence and autonomy. They like to exercise their free will – often by saying, "No, no, no!" 

At the same time, they're learning about boundaries and expectations, within your family and in the world at large. Refusing to follow directions is a way of experimenting and testing those boundaries to learn more about what's acceptable and what isn't. 

Even when you know the rationale behind it, dealing with your toddler's defiance can be maddening. Minimize the no's by providing your child with choices. And pick your battles wisely – it might be okay to give in when your toddler says no to a certain shirt, but you'll need to stick to your guns if they refuse to get into their car seat, for example. 

Read more about toddler defiance

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2. Hitting and biting

Aggressive behavior is common in toddlers, since they're exploring the world, learning how to express themselves, and figuring out how to process big feelings. Add to that their developing language skills and lack of self-control, and you have a recipe for aggressive outbursts.

The most important thing to do when your toddler hits or bites someone – often you – is to stay calm. (We know it's hard, especially when those little teeth hurt.) 

Respond immediately when your toddler hurts you or someone else. Remove your child from the situation and take them somewhere they can have a couple of minutes to cool off. Tell your toddler that biting, hitting, and other aggressive behaviors (like shoving and kicking) aren't allowed. Briefly explain that it's okay to be angry or sad, but it isn't okay to hurt someone when they have those feelings. 

Then offer alternatives: "I see you are so mad, but no biting. Biting hurts." Give them something else they are allowed to bite, like a chew toy or washcloth. You can also rip up paper together or pound Play-Doh when your toddler's feeling upset.

Learn more about hitting and biting in toddlers.

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3. Pulling hair

Toddlers are keen little learners, and yours might have discovered that when they pull someone's hair, they get a reaction. Hair pulling is a way for toddlers to exert some control over their environment – and we know that toddlers love control. 

They might yank your hair to get attention, tug on their friend's locks to keep them away from a favorite toy, or pull their sibling's curls to get some space. 

Whatever the reason, make it clear to your toddler that hair pulling and other acts of aggression simply aren't acceptable. Toddlers are young, but they're still able to understand the rules of their home or daycare – including that pulling hair isn't allowed. 

When your toddler yanks someone else's hair, immediately separate them from the other person. Remind them that hair pulling is a no-no and give them a choice of other things they're allowed to do instead.

Read our full article on hair pulling.

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4. Running away from you

Toddlers love to exert their autonomy by dashing away just when you least expect it. Unfortunately, running away can be a major safety concern for a toddler, especially near busy roads or in crowded public places. 

There are a few ways to cope with a toddler who likes to run away. One proactive option is to give your child plenty of safe space for running free. Take them to a fenced playground or follow them through a nature walk. 

Creating space where your toddler can be the leader might make them more willing to follow you when it really matters. 

But even with plenty of space to roam, some toddlers will still wander. If you have a runner, talk about your expectations with them before you leave the house or car. Say something like, "Remember, you need to hold my hand in the parking lot." 

Carriers, harnesses, and strollers can offer another level of security and safety when you need it. 

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What do you do in the moment your little one is dashing dangerously far away? Try turning the tables on them. A simple "you can't catch me!" while shuffling in the opposite direction might be enough to entice your child back into your arms. 

Read our full article on why toddlers run away.

5. Screaming

Have you noticed the noise level in your house ratcheting up a few decibels? Toddlers love to scream. 

No matter how fast they're learning, toddlers still have a limited vocabulary that isn't enough to express their ever-increasing emotions and experiences. When they can't find words, toddlers often let out a scream, whether they're happy, sad, frustrated, or excited. 

Unfortunately, there aren't any surefire ways to stop a screeching toddler. If your toddler is screaming because they're unhappy, talking to them about their feelings might help … or it might not in the moment. You can also make a game of trying to get your child to whisper instead – "The Quiet Game" is an old favorite. Start whispering to your toddler and see what happens.  

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Most importantly, don't up the volume yourself just to be heard – you'll only encourage the very behavior you're trying to stop.

When all else fails, remind yourself that screaming is a normal part of toddler development – and maybe consider treating yourself to some noise-reducing earplugs. The good news is, toddlers usually grow out of this screaming phase as their vocabulary expands.

Read our full article on how to calm your screaming toddler.

6. Throwing tantrums

Tantrums are a hallmark of toddler behavior. Kids usually throw tantrums when they're overtired, overwhelmed, or emotional. Still, it can sometimes seem like they're doing it to get their way. Remember that toddlers aren't being intentionally manipulative when the tears come. 

Knowing your child's limits can help you reduce tantrums. Avoid letting your little one get too hungry, tired, or overstimulated, since that can increase the risk of them having a meltdown. 

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Give them plenty of positive reinforcement when they're showing good behavior, so they don't use a tantrum as a way to get your attention. 

Even when you do your best, tantrums will still happen. When your child starts screaming or crying, try distracting them. Giving them options (like a few different snack choices or toys) might help bring them out of the fit. 

Make it clear that even in the throes of a tantrum, you won't tolerate hitting, biting, throwing, or other harmful behaviors. Stay calm, and say something along the lines of, "I can tell you're upset. I'm here to help you calm down." Be nearby, but not too intrusive. Sometimes you just have to ride the tantrum out.

Having a tough day? Remember that most children start throwing fewer tantrums by the time they're 3 or 4 years old. 

Read our full article on temper tantrums.

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7. Throwing things

Throwing things is a way for toddlers to experiment with the world around them. They learn about gravity and the noise different objects make when they hit the ground. Even so, throwing can be messy, annoying, and even dangerous. 

Start by showing your toddler that there's a time and place for throwing things. Provide plenty of soft balls and other toddler-proof toys that can be tossed without causing damage. Tell your toddler your house rules about where throwing is allowed. Join in, showing them the joy of tossing things around. 

At the same time, let your toddler know that tossing things at people or pets, and throwing stuff in anger, are never acceptable. Try redirecting them first and then take away the toy if they continue to throw it at someone. 

During mealtimes, stay close by so you can intervene and redirect your toddler if they try to throw their food. 

Read our full article on throwing.

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Sources

BabyCenter's editorial team is committed to providing the most helpful and trustworthy pregnancy and parenting information in the world. When creating and updating content, we rely on credible sources: respected health organizations, professional groups of doctors and other experts, and published studies in peer-reviewed journals. We believe you should always know the source of the information you're seeing. Learn more about our editorial and medical review policies.

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Zero to Three. 2015. Stages of Play From 12-24 Months: Young Toddlers Are Problem-Solvers. https://www.zerotothree.org/resource/stages-of-play-from-12-24-months-young-toddlers-are-problem-solversOpens a new window [Accessed April 2023]

Kelly Burch

Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist covering health, entrepreneurship, family, and more. She's passionate about bringing complex topics to life through stories that are easy to read and informative. Burch lives in New Hampshire with her husband and two young daughters. When she's not at her desk, you'll find her kayaking or hiking in the wilderness around her home. Burch is currently writing a book about traveling around the United States in an RV with her family for seven months.

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