Coping with tricky toddler behaviour

When you're dealing with difficult behaviour it's helpful to understand why your child’s behaving that way...


When she… shows off

It’s a simple fact that toddlers don’t understand when they’re boasting. Every time she does something well, you praise her. And you probably also praise her when she doesn’t do things so well – like colouring outside the lines of a picture. So why on earth wouldn’t she think that she’s great?


“Let her celebrate her achievement,” says child psychologist Dr Amanda Gummer ( from “It will encourage self-confidence. But make sure everything isn’t all about her. If you find your tot baiting siblings, for example, it’s 
time to step in.”

Meanwhile, remind her that different people are good at different things. So if she says she can do something and a friend can’t, point out what other things the friend can do and vice versa.

“Children almost need not to be the best sometimes,” says child psychologist Jean O’Brien. “We don’t need to tell them they excel at everything.”

Try this…

Teach your toddler that she should always tell you first when she thinks she’s done something great. Hopefully this’ll prevent her showing off too much to other people and coming across as arrogant or big-headed.

Try and talk to your toddler rather than just tell him off

When she’s… jealous

Who doesn’t get a bit envious from time to time? It’s no different for your toddler, not least because she’s used to being the centre of your universe. “A child could have inherited a jealous streak or picked up on it if she sees it as a behaviour in adults,” says Jean. “Learning to share from a young age is a good way of getting rid of jealousy.”

Sibling rivalry can also cause jealousy, says Amanda. “That is easier to prevent than to deal with.” So if you’ve got a new baby in the house, make sure your older tot feels like a big girl, not sidelined.

Try this…

Make sharing a part of playtime, putting crayons in the middle of the table or playing group games. You could offer your child the first turn, or encourage her to use your crayon, so she learns the behaviour from you.

Nursery can sometimes be a scary play for both toddler and mum!

When she’s… shy

If your toddler babbles away merrily at home but clams up and looks like she wants to hide under her blankie while you’re out, you could be thinking she’s got social interaction issues. Don’t panic, she’s just overwhelmed.

“Toddlers aren’t performing monkeys and it’s fine not to expect your little one to be responsive to every person who wants to tickle her under the chin,” says Amanda.
“She will grow out of shyness, so if she seems to hide behind your leg every time 
you go out and someone talks to her, let her. It shows she’s attached to you.”

If your child seems introverted all the time, have her hearing checked out in case it’s a bigger problem and not just her feeling unable to talk to anyone apart from you.

Try this…

Reinforce the habit of saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ when you see people, to encourage her to open up.


When she’s… aggressive

One minute she’s playing sweetly, the next she’s screeching and there’s a doll flying across the room towards your head. Is she turning into a monster? It’s more likely she’s just seeing how far she can go. “She knows boundaries are there, but she’ll still see what she can get away with,” says Jean.

It could also be that she’s exhausted. “Toddlers don’t understand why they’re tired,” says Jean. “They don’t know that they just need some sleep. It leads to them becoming frustrated and aggressive.”

If she’s getting aggressive with friends, it could just be old-fashioned rough and tumble. The solution? Watch out for behaviour like pinching or kicking, and be firm when it occurs. “Ignore bad behaviour as much as possible and reward good behaviour,” says Jean.

Try this…

Aggression can sometimes be unspent energy, so make sure you’re getting out and about and being as active as possible with your little one.


When she’s… cheeky

Just when you were getting used to your toddler being a toddler, she suddenly starts behaving more like a teenager. So where’s she getting the backchat from? “Children are often cheeky out of a desire to be older, or to seem older,” says Amanda.

“If children aren’t getting the attention they want and bad behaviour gets them some attention, they’ll do what they can to get it.” Often cheekiness is a good way to get noticed. “It’s natural behaviour,” adds Jean.

You need to be consistent in telling her what she’s saying isn’t OK. Use a phrase like, “Mummy doesn’t like that” and she’ll soon learn that she shouldn’t speak to you that way.

Try this…

Get other carers to watch out for cheekiness too – your tot will be testing what she can get away with around different people.


When she’s… selfish

All children are naturally selfish,” says Amanda. “Being unselfish is a learned behaviour. By 4 or 5 years of age, children should get the idea that they wouldn’t like it if a friend wouldn’t share toys with them.

Cut younger ones a bit of slack and remember that if you want your child to be good at sharing, be a good role model.” Selfishness can also be linked to feelings of jealousy or insecurity, if a new baby has come along for example. “Give lots of examples of not being selfish and offering to share,” advises Jean.

Try this…

Remember it’s OK for your tot to have a special toy that no one else can play with, so do allow her one or two but stress the rest are for sharing.


Mums’ stories

“The other day we were visiting a friend and my daughter Isabella declared: ‘Our garden’s much bigger than yours!’ I was mortified! I decided not to say anything and just laughed, and my friend laughed too. Seems toddlers just tell it like it is!”

Melissa Havers, 37, from London, mum to Isabella, 4, and Toby, 22 months.

“Brooke is 2 and will share anything with everyone, but she won’t share her mummy. She can get very jealous and possessive with me, especially around other children. Sometimes she won’t let other children near me and screams. She’ll drag them away and cling to me herself. When this doesn’t work, she’ll do something naughty like draw on the windows to get my attention.”

Leah Farrell, 24, from London, mum to Brooke, 2.

“When I was pregnant with Robyn (now 7 months) I found reading books to Ella (4) about what to expect when a new baby arrives, helped. I now do ‘big girl’ things with Ella when Robyn’s asleep. Ella often trys to divert attention away from Robyn, like she’s jealous but just doesn’t know how to express it! ”

Michala Dominey, 31, from Hampshire, mum to Ella, 4, and Robyn, 7 months


5 ways to tackle tricky behaviour

1. Pick your battles wisely. Think of the bigger picture – is a moment of cheekiness or aggression one you can let go? If you’re on her case all the time, she’ll take it as attention even when it’s negative attention.

2. Think about your own behaviour. Is she demanding something straight after you’ve been doing the same thing? It could be she’s copying the way you’ve just talked to someone else.

3. Act sooner, not later Rather than waiting for a trait to turn into something you’re worrying about all the time, look out for warning signals so you can try and nip it in the bud. Triggers for bad behaviour can range from moving house and starting nursery to your child making a new friend or changes at home, such as you having a new partner.

4. Be consistent. If you read the riot act for a particular piece of behaviour one day and not the next, she won’t take you seriously. And make sure your partner’s on the same page as you over disciplinary matters, so you’re not contradicting each other.


5. Make ‘well done’ a normal phrase, not something you only say once in a while 
Then your child will learn that good behaviour gets rewarded with thanks.

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