7 Common Toddler Behaviors and What They Mean
Two-year-olds act out their emotions in some pretty bizarre ways. Learn how to crack the code of seven toddler behaviors.
By Hagar Scher
7 Bizarre Toddler Behaviors, Explained
Your toddler is becoming a verbal, opinionated little person. In fact, they might be downright bossy—telling you where to sit, which pants they want to wear, and exactly what they’d like for lunch. But when it comes to communicating more complex thoughts and emotions in words, they still have a way to go, which means you’re often forced to interpret some weird behavior. We asked experts to help us decipher the hidden meaning of common toddler tantrums and body language.
1. They Avoid Eye Contact
Translation: “I’m embarrassed.”
When babies avert their gaze, they’re telling you that they’re overwhelmed and need a break from being the star of the show. But some time around their second birthday, your toddler develops the capacity for self-conscious emotions like shame. For instance, they know that you’re angry because they kidnapped their baby brother’s teddy bear again.
“When a young child refuses to look at you, it means they realize that their actions may have disappointed you,” says psychologist Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.
Your response: Acknowledge what your child did wrong in simple, short sentences—”We don’t rip books,” “We never push”—and offer up a way to make it right, like taping a torn page or giving a crying pal a hug. “You want them to know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but it’s important to take steps to fix the damage,” says Dr. Lagattuta.
2. They Want to Take All of Their Stuffed Animals Into Bed
Translation: “I’m scared.”
Not too long ago, your baby cradled their fuzzy blankie and slept soundly. Now suddenly, they demand to take so many comfort objects to sleep each night that their bed looks like a modern-art project.
“This is the age when a child’s imagination takes off, and they start having nightmares and populating the closets with monsters,” explains Kerstin Potter, former director of the early childhood education program at Harcum College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. “Keeping familiar objects nearby makes your child feel secure as they drift off to sleep or wake up in the middle of the night.”
Your response: Remember, 2-year-olds think literally—the monsters they’ve imagined seem incredibly real, so it doesn’t help to show them that there’s nothing lurking in the closet. “They’ll just think you can’t see monsters,” says Potter.
Her advice? Let your child surround themselves with as many comforting things as they need. If you’re worried that they’ll roll out of bed, appeal to another toddler trait: the desire to make their own decisions. Ask them which three animals, two board books, and one toy they want as bedmates that night.
3. They Hide in Their Shirt When Meeting New People
Translation: “I’m anxious.”
Think about the last time you went to a social event where you didn’t know a soul. You probably talked yourself through the discomfort in your mind with some internal dialogue, like, “It’s good to be out with other adults. Oh, she looks kind of cool. I like her top; maybe I’ll walk over and chat with her.” Maybe you grabbed a drink so you’d have something to do with your hands.
Consider your toddler’s behavior the age-appropriate equivalent of an adult’s social anxiety. “Your child’s not yet able to work through their nervousness, so they negotiate the situation in a purely sensory and physical way,” says Lisa Nalven, M.D., a developmental pediatrician at the Valley Center for Child Development, in Ridgewood, New Jersey. “Some kids will chew on their shirt or tug at their pants, while others might clutch your leg, suck their thumb, or drop to the floor and bury their face.”
Your response: Gently coax your toddler turtle out of their shell. “Young children look to their parents for cues on how to react to new situations,” says Dr. Nalven. Relax your own shoulders, smile, say “hi” to new acquaintances, and give your child a reassuring squeeze. This lets them know that their surroundings are safe and friendly. Then, give them time to warm up.
4. They Hide When Pooping in Their Diaper
Translation: “I want privacy.”
This common toddler behavior indicates two things. First, your kid is clued in to their urge to poop and knows there’s a BM coming. Second, they’ve observed that adults do the deed in private. These are two positive signs that they’re getting ready for potty training.
But the number-one indicator? “They immediately ask to have their dirty diaper changed,” says Ari Brown, M.D., author of Toddler 411. “If a child doesn’t care about sitting in their poop, then they’re not ready for potty training.” Most kids become interested in using the toilet between ages 2 and 3.
Your response: Encourage your toddler’s search for privacy, but steer them into the bathroom. “Just getting a child into the right room of the house is a positive step—there’s no need to pressure them to sit on the potty yet,” says Dr. Brown.
5. They Throw a Tantrum
Translation: “I’m feeling out of sorts.”
It can be shocking (and a bit troubling) when your normally sweet, kind 2-year-old starts throwing food or breaking toys. But it’s important to understand that their eruption is probably just a reaction to the current situation and not a sign that their personality has changed. Usually, when kids this age act out, they’re trying to tell you, “I’m frustrated,” “I’m bored,” “I’m tired,” or “I need attention!”
Your response: Trying to reason with a toddler in the heat of a trantrum is likely to backfire. So first, calmly try to figure out what’s going on and validate their feelings. Remember: Toddlers often struggle to regulate their emotions and learn by testing limits. Acknowledging their feelings (even if you don’t fully understand them) tells your toddler that you hear them. Sometimes, that’s enough to start to settle the storm.
Other times, you may just need to wait it out and offer support—as long as everyone is safe. Just don’t ignore behaviors like hitting, kicking, biting, or throwing, says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Ensure everyone is safe by first stopping the behavior. Then reiterate that their feelings are fine, but the unsafe behavior is not. For example, “It’s OK to be angry that your block tower fell over, but it’s not OK to throw your blocks.”
6. They Pitch a Fit as You’re Fulfilling Their Request
Translation: “I want it now.”
Babies are born impatient as a matter of survival. They fuss and wail to be fed right now! Changed right now! Cradled right now! Your toddler’s inability to hold their horses is a reminder that, though they’re growing up at the speed of light, they still have a toe or two in the baby years.
The prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for self-control, starts developing most dramatically somewhere between the ages of 2 and 7. That means in the meantime, your child will have a harder time coping with a delay in having their needs met. So if you’re toddler starts acting out even while you’re cutting the strawberries they just asked for, you’re not alone.
Your response: Don’t indulge your toddler’s need for instant gratification by moving at warp speed to meet their every demand. Instead, tell them you’ve heard their request and will get them what they want as soon as you can.
Then gradually begin to draw out the time it takes you to fulfill their commands, talking them through the specific steps you’re taking. Say, “Mommy’s finishing the dishes, then she’ll dry her hands, open the fridge, and pour you some apple juice.” You’re teaching your toddler a valuable skill—patience—by insisting they wait for things.
7. They Yell, “No, My Mommy/Daddy!” When Other Kids Approach You
Translation: “Pay more attention to me!”
Clingy behavior could signal that your child feels like they’re not getting enough of you, especially if you’ve been working long hours or have recently welcomed a new baby to the family. In the absence of any changes in the status quo, such possessiveness is probably part and parcel of your 2-year-old’s blossoming sense of self.
“The ‘mine, mine, mine’ phase is annoying, but it’s actually a good thing because it means that your toddler is making progress figuring out who they are as a person,” says Dr. Lagattuta. “At this stage, their self-image is tied to the things that are most valuable to them,” and their parents are right up there.
Your response: Hug your child, and tell them that, of course, you’re their parent and you love them. You could also use this as a quick teaching moment about sharing. Say, “I’m your parent, not Betsy’s, but I can still be nice to other kids and say hello.”