Toddler behaviour – all your questions answered

Whether your toddler is shy or argumentative, our health visitor answers your toddler behaviour questions…

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Help your child make friends with playdates

Q. My son is fine playing one-on-one but rarely joins in with other children, preferring to watch from the side. How can I help him be more sociable?

A. He sounds as if he’s interested in what others are doing, which shows sociability, but it’s important to remember that we all get involved in different ways. One child might want to be in the middle of it all, while another may prefer to observe what the rules are and then make up his mind if it’s for him.

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What you need to do is make sure he feels comfortable and can join in if he wants to. Talk to him about what he’s seeing and understanding. See if he wants to join in and suggest ways he could, but if he doesn’t want to, tell him that’s fine too.

He might be a bit overwhelmed by larger groups of new friends, so try some one-on-one playdates at home with friends he knows to give him the chance to mix with his peers in a familiar place and with his toys. Praise all his efforts at joining in and in time he’ll get more confident.

Q. My toddler keeps running off when we’re out shopping. How can I keep her safe and me sane?

A. There’s nothing scarier than when your child runs off, but don’t worry there’s plenty you can do to control the problem.

First of all, try giving her clear boundaries about shopping – she either holds your hand or the buggy or she has to get back in the pushchair and stay there, strapped in, no matter how much fuss she makes. She needs to learn that running off will result in the consequence of her not being allowed to be out of the buggy at all.

People have varying views on the use of reins and harnesses, but you might find they work for you and your tot and they’ll keep her safe. They can be a useful stop-gap until she learns to stay close.

Balance all this with lots of praise for when she does stay close to  you and give her plenty of running around time in a safe environment such as the park, so she can burn off excess energy.

Q. My son won’t speak in front of anyone outside of the home, even at his nursery. Is this normal?

A. It sounds as if you’re confident that your child can understand and communicate perfectly normally with his family, but struggles to be confident enough to do so outside the home.

Chatting with other adults away from the security of the home can be quite a challenge for a little person. For some children, it’s just too overwhelming, especially when they’re introduced to new settings, like nursery. Once they feel established though the situation should generally improve.

Discuss your worries with his teacher. Working together to develop his confidence and security may help. If this has been going on for longer than a few months, it’s worthwhile consulting a speech therapist. Early intervention will provide the support he needs to learn to overcome his anxiety in social settings, setting him on the road for school.

Q. My toddler has started biting her friends when she can’t get her own way. How can I stop her?

A. Biting often starts when little ones are overwhelmed – maybe when she’s sharing toys, food or space. She learns that when she bites it means adults come running and, although she may get negative attention, at least she’s initially getting what she wants, that toy or food for example.

Keep a note of situations that potentially lead to the behaviour and learn the signs she gives that things are getting on top of her – it may be a certain facial gesture or she may go quiet. When you see a danger sign, step in and help her out by showing her how to share or wait her turn, and distract her while she waits. When she bites, go to the victim first as it’s important your toddler doesn’t get the initial attention. When the injured child is settled, take your daughter to the side and tell her firmly “Biting isn’t allowed, it hurts.” Sit her by you for five minutes before letting her play again.

  • Don’t worry about your child’s imaginary friends
  • How do I deal with sibling rivalry?
  • Teaching good manners and social skills to your toddler

Q. My two girls fight all day long and can’t seem to share or play at all. How can I keep the peace?

A. All siblings go through periods where all they seem to do is bicker. To try and solve it, make some notes about what happens. Ask yourself:

  • What triggers a row, for example turn-taking or certain toys?
  • What was happening before the argument – were you on the phone, or giving attention to one child in particular?
  • What response do you tend to give? Do you react the same with both girls?
  • Is there a time of day that’s worse, for example before meals?

At the same time, make a record of all that goes well in the day as it’s important to remind yourself it’s not all bad. Once you’ve got this picture it will be clearer how to tackle the negative cycle. Focus on what works well, praise all the behaviour you want to increase and give the children a break from each other for a few minutes every day. Try and spend a little time on your own with each child too so they have your sole attention in a fun way.

Q. My child has an imaginary friend and I am finding it a bit strange. He has lots of real friends so I don’t understand it. Is this normal behaviour?

A. From around the age of 3, a child’s imagination really takes off so it’s a time where he loves stories, role playing and copying others. All these play experiences are an excellent way for a child to explore different outcomes and develop new social skills.

Your toddler is simply combining all of these learning experiences into one by coming up with an imaginary friend. Try not to worry as it’s a normal stage of his development.

If he talks about his friend, acknowledge what he says, ask a few questions and leave it there. Imaginary friends can also be a useful way for you to gain an insight into what has happened in his day, as you’ll often hear about upsets or things he’s seen. Remember his ability to come up with an imaginary friend is a good thing, as he’s found a useful way to develop his imagination.

Q. My toddler has started banging his head on the floor and I’m worried he’ll hurt himself. What can I do?

A. It’s distressing when this happens, but generally a toddler is pretty careful in making sure he doesn’t do any major damage to himself. For most toddlers, head banging is a sign of frustration, a way of halting a situation that’s become too much for him. Keep a note of what triggers the behaviour so you can identify when he’s feeling overwhelmed and step in before it happens. When you see the behaviour is likely to start, distract him quickly by offering a favourite activity, keeping your voice and body language calm and reassuring. Though it’s hard, try not to react when he’s banging his head and turn away if you can – provided he’s safe. The less response he gets, the less likely he’ll be to do it as long you’re consistent in your approach.

Q: Since starting pre-school my 4 year old’s become very bossy, especially to her younger brother. How can I nip this in the bud?

A: This kind of behaviour often stems from feeling anxious and out of control. Learning new rules and routines can be overwhelming and exhausting, and sometimes manifests itself in difficult behaviour at home.

Perhaps she needs to be reassured that, although she’s the big sister, you’re still there to look after her, which may take some of the pressure off her. Give her lots of indications that she’s being noticed at home and make a conscious effort to praise her when she communicates in a non-bossy way.

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Extra cuddles and sticking to routines will keep home life predictable and secure, and help her through this stage.

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