14 min Read

What To Do When Your Toddler Seems Out Of Control

toddler with mouth open looking like she is about to scream

As all parents know, children go through stages. In fact, sometimes they seem to just get out of one before they are into another. This is particularly true of the time between birth and 5 years, when the pace of growth is extraordinary – a pace never to be replicated again during the life span.

Emotions and behaviours are often thrown out of equilibrium, at least temporarily, as children struggle to acquire new abilities. So the baby who is learning to walk may have difficulty eating and sleeping and could seem irritable and out-of-sorts during the struggle to succeed. Fortunately, the upsets usually fade away quickly as your child begins to toddle around and energy can again be used to deal with other areas of development.

Most parents who have more than one child can tell you that children differ significantly in the way they respond to situations and adjust to social experiences. Researchers agree that a child’s personality and temperament are shaped, in part, by the family, but also by the characteristics the child brings into the world.

Memo: Children vary vastly in their pace of development, in their intensity of reactions, degree of irritability, sensitivity to sights, sounds and touch and adaptability.

Knowing about your child’s individuality and temperament and adapting to them can help reduce some of the difficult behaviours which will be talked about in this chapter.

The Needs Of Children

In spite of all these ups and downs and the diversities of parents and children, research has outlined for us some very clear guidelines of the type of parenting that children need. Ignoring any of these can lead to problems and mean that the difficult behaviours typical of most children become not just passing stages, but settle into serious behaviourial and emotional disorders.

Love, Nurturing and Attention

Every child needs at least one person who is passionate about him or her and enjoys the time spent together. This doesn’t mean being with the child all the time, but it does mean commitment, caring and unconditional love.

Food, Warmth, Clothing, Housing, Protection

These may seem like obvious requirements, but without these basic needs, a child’s development could be seriously impeded.

Stimulation and Opportunities for Learning

Feed your child’s curiosity. This doesn’t mean teaching all the time – it does mean providing opportunities for your child to run, jump, manipulate objects, build, play and to imagine. Talking and listening to your child need to be central aspects of the environment that is provided for your child.

Structure, Routines and Limits

Children must have limit-setting, just as much as they need love and caring. Such a process can reduce anxiety as well as lead to a gradual acquiring of the rules and values of your family and society.

Social Skills and Caring for Others

Children gradually need to learn skills that can enable them to mix with people outside the family.

Important: A child without social skills is likely to be rejected by other children in daycare and when school starts.

Opportunities for interactions in group settings and learning to share with other children can help a better adjustment to the demands of daycare and school and, even college and the work place.

Toddlers (12 Months To 2 1/2 Years)

Probably the most important achievements of this phase are the development of a sense of individuality and the ability to symbolize.

Over this phase, your child will begin to exert individuality with great determination and the toddler’s personality will seem to become more unique with each passing week.
Memo: ‘I’ and ‘me’ quickly become favourite words, and ‘no’ and ‘mine’ are used with great frequency and often with an anger and intensity which can take parents by surprise.

At this time, your toddler is beginning, just beginning, to be able to use words and imaginative or pretend play to express ideas, concerns and emotions. You’ll see yourself in your child’s play – acting out going shopping, doing housework and the last family outing. These abilities gradually help your child bring emotions under control, speed learning and help develop better play with other children.

Difficult Behaviour
Temper Tantrums
During this stage, especially between 14 months and 21/2 years, parents often see their child suddenly begin to show rapid mood swings. A toddler’s mood can swing from being proud and bold one moment, to whiny and furious and having tantrums not too much later.

Children vary in the frequency and intensity of their tantrums, but almost all children at this age lose control under stress or if they are not feeling well.

Some children may become so distraught that they hold their breath or hit their caregiver along with the screaming and kicking and rolling on the floor.

Memo: Parents usually become quite adept at realizing when a tantrum has become primarily a way of getting what the child wants and has been denied and when it is because the child genuinely has lost control.

At this time, a tantrum is more an expression of not being able to ‘keep things together’ any more.

Toileting Battles
If parents choose to try and toilet train their toddler, battles can be fierce. Children may refuse to sit on the potty, may hold on to bowel movements until they become constipated or have accidents immediately after you take them off the toilet. It’s impossible for you to really hold the upper hand on this one.

Memo: These battles happen frequently around this age, partly because the toddler years are often the height of negativism and because this is one area over which the child has a fair degree of control.

Clingy Behaviour
As children become more aware of their own separateness, they often react with behaviours which they use to try and overcome their anxiety of being left. These behaviours may vary from crying when you leave, clinging to you while you try to get on with work, increased use of security blankets and continual whining. When this behaviour fluctuates with struggles for independence it can be particularly frustrating for parents.

This behaviour can be used at times primarily to get attention and at other times because some event or situation has triggered genuine anxiety.

Eating Problems
Many toddlers go through a stage when they refuse to eat and meal times are usually accompanied by screaming, throwing of food and other disruptions. Feeding is another battleground that the child can try and rule and is a battle into which parents easily can be drawn, resulting in creating eating problems that can last for a lifetime.

Sleeping Problems
Sleeping problems, both in getting the child to sleep and in staying
asleep, may emerge for the first time during this period. Obviously
sickness and teething may throw things off and make it hard to
re-establish a routine that may have existed before.

Some sleeping problems arise because children genuinely feel frightened
at night when they go to bed and they also may wake up traumatized to
find themselves alone and in the dark.

Getting in and out of bed and waking up to be fed can become entrenched and difficult to change – just as with any bad habit.

Parents differ significantly as to how much they mind taking their
toddler into bed with them and how often they are comfortable getting up
to feed their baby, so what a sleeping problem for one family is may be
completely acceptable to another.

It is important that neither the child nor
parents are being deprived of adequate sleep, as over time this can
cause emotional distress and undermine health.

What Can You Do?
that not only is your child trying to resolve developmental issues but
your child does not yet have some of the cognitive capacities that could
help with them.

Children at this age often don’t have the
words they need to express their anger and frustration, so arms, legs,
screaming and crying often get used instead.

Memo: 2-year-olds think they are the centre of the universe and that everything revolves around them.

At this age, your child cannot understand
your point of view or needs. So don’t expect your 2-year-old, at least
at the beginning of the year, to see someone else’s perspective. That
will come later.

Important: Your toddler needs firm limits and rules, but at the same time should be allowed to make choices around minor matters.

Give your child choices between which of
two outfits to wear; or between peas and carrots for supper and between
staying home with Daddy and going out with Mummy. These small decisions
will make your child feel important and listened to.

Help your child to gradually express needs,
wants and frustrations. Do this by labeling your child’s emotions. This
can sometimes make anger disappear like magic.

Children at this age quickly shift, within a
few minutes, from seeing everything and everyone as bright and good to
seeing things as bad and negative. This happens particularly when you
discipline your child. This tendency, known as ‘splitting’, can be
overcome by parents who engage in a number of strategies.

When your child acts up:

  • Make it clear that although the behaviour is not acceptable, your love is intact.
  • Change negative situations back to positive as soon as possible. Try cuddling your child or suggesting a fun activity.

When your child whines and tantrums to get something, do not give in
even occasionally as this will reward and encourage the behaviour.

Your child needs to get the message that
the tactics are not acceptable. Being talked to about the incident after
the anger has subsided and the child is once again accessible and able
to listen can help the child gradually get more control.

Back off from toileting and feeding battles
for a while. This may make life more peaceful. However, if sleeping
problems are upsetting the family they may have to be dealt with more
directly by establishing a bedtime routine which should include calming
activities and possibly letting your child cry for a while before
falling off to sleep.

Sometimes a night light and a special toy or blanket can help an
apprehensive child find the reassurance that is needed to separate at

And remember that in the next stage your
child will have words to express needs, wants and feelings and
negativism will subside to be replaced by a wish to please – at least
most of the time!

The Preschooler (2 1/2 To 5 Years)
this stage, things usually begin to settle down and after a few more
months of battles your child will become far more even tempered and will
have a predominant mood of optimism and cheerfulness. Now children
begin to make large steps toward functioning much more in the outside
world beyond home.

Although parents are still the child’s most
important people, there is much more interest than before in being
with, and cooperating with, other children. In fact, a day when your
child cannot be around peers may be seen as boring, and as having
‘nothing to do’.

The other primary task for this stage of
life, for most children, is to make a comfortable adjustment to the
routines of daycare, school and classroom.

Although we tend to think of cognitive skills as most important for
this task, it is often emotional and social abilities that determine a
child’s adaptation to those first years in school.

Difficult Behaviour
Aggression: Hitting, Biting and Grabbing
of showing a reduction in aggression at this age, some children begin
to accelerate in their tendency to want to hurt other children.

Aggression may come in response to being hurt but may also be bullying
behaviour – and your child may try to attack others intentionally.

Most children show retaliatory behaviour
and an occasional outburst while some children hit out more frequently.
Sometimes aggression is less physical and more verbal but if used to
victimize another child can be equally damaging. For some children who
are very aggressive, noncompliance can be another component of their

Fears and Anxieties
stage may also show an increase in the child’s anxiety and fearfulness.
Children at this age typically fear monsters, bad strangers, insects
and animals and these fears can interfere with sleep and even make your
child scared to go outside.

Often rather shy, quiet and more subdued
children have a lot of fears – particularly if they have experienced
separations from parents or have heard threats of separation.

Sometimes anxious children feel they are
unable to express anger towards parents and the anger can become
repressed, showing up in the form of fears.

Important: Never ridicule a fearful child, acknowledge the fear but also express your confidence in your child’s ability to cope.

Sexual Play
this stage, children usually begin to show a lot of interest and
curiosity about their own and other children’s anatomy. Curiosity may
lead to undressing and sexual play between boys and girls. Some children
go through a stage of wanting to display their nakedness and of trying
to catch their parents naked as well. Talking, scolding, teasing or
punishing do little to discourage sexual curiosity, exploration or

Important: Avoid making children feel guilty about early sexual feelings. These are natural and universal.

Sibling Rivalry
preschooler may be an aggressive little person with brothers and
sisters, even though behaviour may be much better by 5 years of age with
other children outside the home. In some ways, acting out and quarrels
with brothers and sisters may become a ‘letting off steam’ and a natural
exuberance which is kept under check in other settings.

Fighting among siblings is natural and at times may actually be enjoyed
by them. However, parents need to be careful that no one child is
constantly ridiculed or physically hurt in the family.

Most of the time it should be more good fun
and a lot of noise than physical hitting or hurting. Often sibling
fights can be turned into opportunities to help children learn to
resolve issues and solve problems together.

Nervous Habits
children at one time or another develop nervous habits which can become
very difficult to eliminate. These include nail biting, thumb sucking,
pulling their hair, masturbation, rocking and so on. These habits often
begin as a reaction to some stress in the child’s life and then become
comforting and pleasurable for the child. They are repeated because they
make the child feel good when engaging in them.

What Can You Do?
this stage your child is much more capable of understanding another’s
point of view, so when you are disciplining your child by withdrawing a
privilege or sending the child to his or her room, remember that it is
critically important to briefly explain why the behaviour was wrong and
why it was unacceptable.

This explanation should not be either an apology or nagging.

It is:

  • an explanation of the rules
  • an explanation about the affect of the behaviour on others
  • a clarification that you will not tolerate violence in any form in your home
  • a clarification that you will not allow anyone to intentionally hurt anyone else

Acknowledge the emotions and feelings your child is expressing whether
anger, sadness, jealousy, sexual, happiness or fear and let your child
know that the emotions are acceptable and legitimate.

Try not to withdraw from your child’s
negative emotions, however difficult you may find them. Learn to accept
them while, at the same time, teaching your child more mature ways of
expressing them.

In order to eliminate nervous habits,
techniques such as using a star chart and giving stars for not engaging
in the behaviour may be helpful. BCCE

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