Understanding Your Toddler's "Bad" Behavior

Learn what lies behind your child's bad behavior, and find out what you can do to change it.

Understanding Your Toddler's "Bad" Behavior

Because your child does not yet know the difference between "good" and "bad," it's not fair or reasonable to discipline her as if she did (that will come later). If you try punishing or threatening your toddler, her persistent refusal to "do as she's told" will stem not from defiance, but from a combination of a lack of understanding and a need to assert her independence.

When your child doesn't behave the way you would like her to behave, it's not that she doesn't agree with your rules. She's almost certainly not trying to be defiant. The truth of the matter is that your toddler neither agrees nor disagrees with your rules, she doesn't understand or remember them—especially in the heat of the moment, when she sees something that she wants to do.

A one-year-old will "behave herself"—that is, act the way you want her to act—only if she wants to do that. This does not mean that you should let your child willfully behave any way she pleases. You can still provide guidelines of acceptable behavior and cleverly steer your child to want to "be good." But you'll need to remain flexible enough to allow and even encourage your child's struggle for independence without damaging her confidence.

Where do you draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior? The rules you develop to set limits for your child will probably aim to achieve one of the following:

  • Keep your child safe. For example, hold a grown-up's hand in the street, no jumping on the bed, or no playing in the garbage.
  • Keep others safe from your child. For example, no hitting, no kicking, no hair pulling, no biting, or no eye gouging.
  • Keep your property intact. For example, no painting the rocking chair, no food in the living room, or no throwing of fragile objects.

If all your rules fall into one of these three categories, then they probably all set reasonable and necessary limits.

Your toddler is in a difficult spot: Her desire to please you, to love and be loved by you often conflicts with her dawning urge for independence. At this age, there's no question but that she wants to please you. Yet she has only a very vague idea of what you like her to do. At the same time, your child is no longer a compliant infant, but a toddler with a will and desires of her own. Your toddler now recognizes herself as a separate being rather than as an extension of you. And naturally, she wants everything her own way. So take your corners and wait for the bell. The clash of wills that will periodically pop up and sometimes even dominate your relationship over the next seventeen (or more) years is about to begin.

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