Feature Archive

The Crazy Things That Toddlers Do

WebMD unlocks the mysteries of toddler behavior, from running around naked to snacking on Fido's food.

By Jennifer Soong
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Melinda Roberts had just moved to a new neighborhood and was busy getting the bath ready for her 2-year-old son. But when the San Jose, Calif., mom spun around, there was no sign of Dylan. So she checked the house and spied the front door wide open.

"Uh oh," she thought. Peeking outside, she spotted her mischievous toddler, assuming the starter's position and sprinting down the sidewalk stark naked. Luckily, she caught up to him before his wild dash made the neighborhood news.

Toddlers like Dylan are known for their outrageous habits from acting like nudists to sticking their finger up their noses, from drinking the bath water to snacking on Fido's food. They play by their own rule books and manage to surprise even the most unflappable parents.

Today, Roberts, mother of three and author of Mommy Confidential: Tales from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood, laughs when she thinks of Dylan's antics as a toddler.

"He was a combination of a leprechaun and a Tasmanian devil," she recalls. "Once in awhile he'd just stop what he was doing and run in circles screaming at the top of his lungs and then go back to whatever he was doing. He knows he's pushing you to the limit."

Toddler Social Development: The Antics Are Normal

That's because toddlers are like cavemen, says Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician and author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He also has a DVD of the same name. "They spit and scratch when they are angry," he says. "They pee in the living room. They pick their nose. They put food in their hair. They'll suddenly shriek out of nowhere even in a crowded place."

Toddlers live in the right side of the brain, says Karp, which is the impulsive, emotional, and nonverbal side; the left side is the impulse-control center.

"All of us shut off our left brain when we get upset," he says. "We become less eloquent, less patient, less logical. We call that 'going ape.' Toddlers start out 'ape,' and when they get upset, they really go Jurassic on you. They turn into these primitive little cavemen."

Toddler Behavior: Seeing the Kid's Point of View

"Children don't have the same bodily shame that we do about things like picking their nose and looking down their pants," says Rahil Briggs, PsyD, an infant-toddler psychologist at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York City.

"There's no superego inside of them, saying, 'Don't pick your nose. That looks funny to outsiders,'" she says. "Instead, there is this enormously powerful sense of curiosity and exploration."

Jennifer Cilione in Baldwin Harbor, N.Y., can relate to the explorer-at-heart idea because she never knows where she might discover her 2-year-old son, Chase.

"I am finding him in the craziest places at home," she says. "The washing machine, kitchen sink, bathroom sink, the dryer. He is extremely fast, so I could turn my back for one moment and find him climbing into somewhere."

He also loves to vacuum, she adds. "The last time I found him with my vacuum, he had ripped his diaper off and was in the nude. Honestly, I had to laugh. These kids are too funny!"

He Just Did What?

Allison Ellis, owner of Hopscotch Consulting in Seattle, admits that her son, Wilson, who is nearly 2, acts like a "dirty old man."

He pinches her nipples in public, slaps her bare bottom while she is getting dressed, and chases after his older sister and other toddler-age girls with an open mouth, followed by a licking attack.

"Right around my son's 18-month checkup, my pediatrician said, 'Be aware of willful behavior,'" she says. "At the time, I thought, 'Who, my son? He's such a sweet, docile kid.' And then, I'm not kidding, maybe a few days later my son started acting out a bit and testing limits."

Ellis uses time-outs to calm him down. "Most of the time I think he does it to get my attention," she says. "If someone else is around I usually laugh and say, 'Wow, look at my crazy kid' and they laugh, too."

Toddlers just love attention at this stage, says Briggs. "They don't actually care so much if it's adoration or funny looks or giggles. They'll take any kind of attention."