How Do You Correct Bad Behavior in Toddlers?

Medically Reviewed on 8/12/2021
Toddlers are becoming more independent and assert their will. Not all bad toddler behavior needs to be corrected.
Toddlers are becoming more independent and assert their will. Not all bad toddler behavior needs to be corrected.

Toddlers develop at an amazing rate. Between the ages of 1 and 3, they gain a sense of themselves as individuals and practice showing their independence. But because their language skills are still in an early stage, they can't always express their feelings and desires. This means that they sometimes express themselves with bad behavior.

Some behavior doesn't need a response. You can safely ignore it and hope that your toddler doesn't repeat it. But some actions call for a response from parents. This is especially true of actions that could harm your child or others.

As such, children must learn to regulate their own behavior. They do this partially by having their behavior corrected.

Dealing with attention-seeking behavior

Children naturally want attention from their parents. It's easy to fall into the trap of giving more attention to bad behavior than to good behavior. When you do this, you are rewarding the wrong actions.

Bad behavior is hard to ignore. If a child is feeling needy, acting out is the fastest way for them to get a parent's attention.

You can sometimes ignore bad behavior if your child isn’t doing anything unsafe. That means not saying anything and not making eye contact. 

Instead, strive to reward good behavior. It's natural to ignore a child who is playing quietly, but a brief pat or another kind of loving touch is always appropriate.

Some experts recommend that parents should give their children 50 to 100 loving touches a day. You can also wait for a pause if your child is playing and then offer words of praise.

Even if you give your child attention at the right times, you won't stop all the behavior problems. Younger children act in ways that aren’t always logical to adults. They have strong emotions and a limited ability to handle them — they may cry because they can't sleep in their rain boots or because the dog licked them.

Avoiding behavior problems

Parents can avoid many behavior problems with their children. Try not to let your child get hungry, over-tired, or over-stimulated. If you’re going somewhere that presents special challenges, explain your expectations ahead of time. For example, you might say, "Remember that at the beach, you may dig in the sand, but you may not throw it".

Be aware that your own health and well-being affect your child. Try to eat a healthy diet, get enough rest, and manage stress. Strive for a calm environment by controlling clutter.

Developing house rules

Children need to know what you expect of them, and the easiest way to do this is through house rules. For very young children, you need only two or three rules. You can always add to them later.

Everyone in the family, including parents and other caregivers, should follow the rules. Post charts showing the rules in the home. Since toddlers can't read, you can use pictures to represent them.

Explain rules in terms that a toddler can understand. Spell out the consequences of breaking a rule and give praise when your child follows them.

What about timeouts?

Many parents find timeouts effective for reducing problem behavior. Some parenting experts, however, have expressed concerns that timeouts may make children feel rejected or isolated.

If you use timeouts, don't use them for all bad behaviors. If your child is calm, talking through an issue can be a better strategy. When a child is defiant, though, a time-out can keep both of you from becoming more upset.

You are more likely to get good results from a timeout if you treat it as a break rather than a punishment. Consider referring to the place you use for timeouts by a special name. You might say something like, "You need to go to your quiet place now".

To make timeouts effective, follow these guidelines:

  • Name the behavior that led to the timeout.
  • Keep the time short, usually one minute per year of age.
  • If your child leaves the timeout area, restart the timer.
  • Ignore tantrums unless they create a safety issue.

Ways to encourage good behavior

Your children will probably have fewer behavior issues if you practice these good parenting habits. These practices not only avoid bad behavior but also build your relationship with your child and encourage proper development.

Use Songs, Games, and Jokes

Songs, games, and similar activities suitable for toddlers can teach good habits and reduce conflicts. For example, picking up toys is more fun when you sing a song or play "beat the clock."

Humor is important, too. You can sometimes ease a tantrum by acting silly or making a joke.

Listen to Your Child

The stories your child tells may not make complete sense, but it's important that your child feels heard. Don't try to shape the narrative — just listen.

Teach Your Child The Names of Emotions‌

It's a big step toward self-control when a child can say, "I'm frustrated" or "I feel sad." You can reinforce this skill when reading books or watching a video. Try asking, for example, "What do you think Winnie the Pooh is feeling now?".

Let Your Child Make Some Decisions‌

Choosing which shirt to wear or which toy to take in the car gives your child a sense of control. But it's best to control the number of choices they have. Offering two or three options is appropriate for toddlers.

Talk to your doctor

Talk to your child's doctor if bad behavior persists or gets worse. You should seek advice if your child injures himself or other people, including you. If your child is banned from daycare, Sunday school, or other group settings, that should also prompt a chat with a doctor.

If temper tantrums are an issue, be aware that they usually decrease between the ages of 3 and 4. If they persist after the age of 4, check with your child's doctor. You should also get medical advice if your child holds their breath to the point of fainting.


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Medically Reviewed on 8/12/2021

American Academy of Family Physicians: "What You Can Do to Change Your Child's Behavior."

American Academy of Pediatrics: "How to Give a Time-Out," "How to Shape & Manage Your Young Child's Behavior," "10 Tips to Prevent Aggressive Toddler Behavior," "What's the Best Way to Discipline My Child?"

American Psychological Association: "Managing stress for a healthy family."

CDC: "Creating Rules," "How to Use Ignoring."

Child Mind Institute: "Are Time Outs Harmful to Children?"

Children's Hospital of Philadelphia: "Breath-Holding Spells in Toddlers.

Zero to Three: "Are Time-Outs Helpful or Harmful to Young Children?", "Toddlers and Challenging Behavior: Why They Do It and How to Respond."