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15th Sep 2015

Toddler behaviour: Want to know what’s really going on with your little one?

Toddler tantrums are nothing new, but understanding what’s going on with our little ones can help when it comes to managing their meltdowns.

I’m not coming at this from a psychological point of view, but I have come across a lot of kids in my line of work, each of whom had their own way of expressing themselves. When I was a childminder, most of the little ones I cared for were very young (under 18 months), so discipline wasn’t really an issue for the most part. There were obviously times I would have to say ‘no’, but this was mainly because the scamps were about to get themselves into danger – like trying to climb onto furniture, or wriggle their way out of buggy straps.

In other instances (like when they would throw food or toys), I would simply change my tone and expression so they knew I wasn’t pleased. Rather than say, “no throwing food on the floor” I would stress the opposite by saying, “food in your bowl”. Sometimes children only hear the last part of the sentence, so drawing attention to the floor would only encourage them.

Believe it or not, most children and toddlers actually love rules. They offer structure and security, and when your child knows what’s expected of them, it’s easier to navigate daily life. At this stage, they enjoy following the boundaries created for them at pre-school or at home. In fact, it can be a good idea to check with your crèche or minder how they react to different displays of behaviour, so you can try and match it at home.

This respect for rules also helps with discipline. Once children start to understand what rules are for, they also start to understand what can happen if rules get broken. That’s the foundation of self-control, which is what discipline is really about.

Terrible Twos

The first time we might see real signs of toddlers needing a little discipline is during a stage we are probably all familiar with – the Terrible Twos. Despite its name, this stage can often start way before your little one turns two, and can often last until the ‘Traumatic Threes’. At this age, children are often very sensitive as they begin to learn the world does not revolve solely around them.

Your little one may still lack self-control at this age. It can take more than one, two or sometimes ten times for a lesson to sink in. Repeating behaviours is also a way of testing limits. Are you being consistent? If Mum/Dad ignores me this time, maybe what I did isn’t such a big deal after all.

Aggression can be a normal phase at this age. Specific situations in which your child feels uncertain or out of control usually trigger the incidents. Respond quickly and calmly; establish set rules and consequences for antisocial behaviours like hitting and kicking. Pretty much all behaviour at this age is normal. They get a reaction when they behave in a certain way, so naturally they will continue.

Pick your battles wisely

Not everything needs to be a battle. Overlook small things or give your child a mild verbal warning, for example, “No standing on the table.” That way your messages about the bigger things get the emphasis they deserve. Don’t get drawn into battles you can’t win – like refusing food, for example. If they have decided they are not going to eat, you probably can’t force them; they will eat when they are ready.

Also, keep in mind that while toddlers do have a reputation for being tricky at times, they don’t often misbehave deliberately. When they do something wrong – biting another child, throwing a bowl of food, running away from you – it’s usually because anger, frustration, fear or pure excitement has overwhelmed them.

Helping children with their feelings – distracting, diverting, explaining and guiding while they learn to do it themselves – is a crucial part of your role as a parent. It can be relentless, yes, but totally worth it.

Next week, I’ll be talking through some of the different techniques that can be used to try and help our little ones navigate life.

Niamh O’Reilly is a sleep coach. She’s also a baby and childcare guru, a ‘parent nanny’ and the answer to many a weary parent’s woes. When it comes to baby and child issues, Niamh is your woman. Always on hand to offer a no-nonsense solution, in an accessible way. A regular in the Irish media, (most recently on TV3’s Late Lunch Show as a ‘parent nanny’) over the next while at, Niamh will share some of her experiences, helping you attain that ‘holy grail’ – nights of uninterrupted sleep for all of the family.

Niamh’s book, No Fuss Baby & Toddler Sleep, is now available to buy from all good book stores or online from