Are You Causing Your Toddler to Misbehave?

are you inadvertently causing your child to misbehave? I was! here's how to fix it.We all know toddlers are prone to misbehave. Screaming, whining, and throwing fits in the grocery store are all par for the course when you’re dealing with a tot.

Some of it is downright unavoidable. Toddlers are toddlers. But what if some of it is stemming from our actions as parents?

Before I go any further, let me emphasize that this post is not meant to be a guilt trip for moms and dads. Lord knows we have enough of those already.

In fact, reframing the issue as one of parent behavior as much as toddler behavior can actually be really empowering—especially for control freaks like me—because it means we can actually do something about it!

Here are some ways parents can trigger their toddler’s less-than-angelic side, plus tips on how to fix it. 


You might be causing your toddler to misbehave if… 

You’re too distracted.

“Hey, Mom, watch me!” It’s no secret that children of all ages crave attention from their parents. When your toddler gets the sense that you’re more interested in your smartphone than the picture he just drew, he very well may start throwing his crayons in an attempt to steal the show. 

Fix It: Make sure you’re giving your toddler plenty of undivided attention when he’s behaving well.

I’ve found that focusing solely on my almost-two-year-old for just fifteen to twenty minutes makes him more content to play independently when I need to get something done.

You’re modeling bad behavior.

For better or worse, imitation is one of the key ways children learn how to behave. In fact, a 2013 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that at only a few days old, newborns will stick out their tongues to mimic someone else.

So if your three-year-old hears you use a swear word or sees you yelling at your spouse, it should come as no surprise when she follows suit.

Fix It: Develop a constant awareness that your kiddo’s eyes are on you, absorbing everything you say and do.

That doesn’t mean you have to be perfect; when you do mess up and model bad behavior, use it as an opportunity to explain to your child what you did wrong and how you’re going to remedy it (instead of just crossing your fingers that your little one didn’t see or hear you!).

You aren’t anticipating your child’s needs

You know the latest ad campaign for Snickers candy bars? The one with the popular tagline “You’re Not You When You’re Hungry”? Well, sexism aside, the campaign’s logic also holds true for toddlers—they’re grouchy when they’re hungry, grumpy when they’re tired, and antsy when they have lots of energy to burn.

If those needs aren’t met soon, it’s only a matter of time before your toddler goes into full-on meltdown mode.

Fix It: Since your one-year-old probably struggles to articulate his needs—heck, sometimes he can’t even identify them—it’s up to you to be prepared.

That means always keeping a snack on-hand, maintaining a regular sleep schedule for him, and making sure he has plenty of opportunities to run around and play.

Your expectations are too high. 

If your toddler is constantly breaking a particular rule, consider the possibility that there’s a problem with the rule itself. For example, expecting your two-year-old to remain perfectly tidy at dinnertime is setting her up for failure—toddlers are, by nature, messy eaters because their fine motor skills are still developing.

And let’s not forget that children actually learn faster when they’re getting messy! 

Fix It: Make sure your expectations for your child are fair and developmentally-appropriate.

For me, this means not expecting my son to sit still throughout the entire church service or remain quiet during dinner with friends. (That’s not to say I don’t hold him to a certain standard, it’s just a standard that fits his age and abilities.) It’s kept both of us from getting frustrated over and over again!

When it comes to behavior problems in young children, what role do you think parents play?

76 responses to “Are You Causing Your Toddler to Misbehave?”

  1. Well, my preschooler is (thankfully) past a few of these issues, I think #1 is a huge one — maybe for kids of all ages? I swear, his worst behaviors are when my husband and I are distracted and he’s bored, so he starts trying to entertain himself with stuff he shouldn’t be messing with. And we’re distracted so we don’t redirect him into something more positive, we just taken away whatever he’s not supposed to have… and the cycle gets worse. Fun times!

      • Hi my son is struggling with the last one, unfortunately my husband is unawareling rude and expects so much from our 3 year old, making me seem like the Parent who is always protecting our toddler, how do I put some sense into his father?

    • O i agree about all three points..and i do agree with that all ages want attention and model behavior n are grumpy when hungry…i know i am and i use to hate when my mother said do as i say not as i do…as a child what does that really mean anyway…i have a two yr old and a 15yr old so one is going through terrible twos and puberty at the same time…so i have to always be on the look out for my behavior and how i respond to them they are both always watching n listening…lol

  2. I could go on and on with this one, but I’ll say I agree and…

    The same can be said of schools, students, and teachers. I’ve seen enough of that to help me with our toddler daughter.

    The other point would be listening. How is one communicating and how does the receiver get the info? Same or different ways?

  3. I love this post – and as you know, I am also dealing with a toddler and everything there is to love about them. I COMPLETELY agree – a lot of it is our own fault. One thing I see happening in our house is that my husband doesn’t always understand what our two year old is saying – or he is not paying close enough attention. He may hear “TV” but he doesn’t pay attention to the exact show that Jansen wants to watch – so there is a meltdown brewing when my husband puts on the wrong show and walks away… I am constantly reminding him to PAY ATTENTION… Husbands tend to exhibit a lot of toddler behavior too – but that’s another article for a different day… 🙂

    • HA! Very true. And it makes total sense that our toddlers get frustrated when we don’t understand what they’re saying, or when we’re not paying enough attention to figure it out.

  4. These are spot on. If I really look at every time my child is misbehaving, 90% of the time, it falls into one of the categories you mentioned. Thanks for the reminder and the information. I am getting better at this as time goes along, but it took me a few years to figure it out!

    • My natural, split-second reaction is to get frustrated and upset, but when I stop to think through these things, I realize the role I’m playing and can make adjustments accordingly. Makes a world of difference!

  5. I completely agree with these explanations. I had the luxury of having a teacher (to assist with my son’s hard-of-hearing) come to our house once a week from when my son was three months old to just recently when he turned three, and she often gave me advice along these lines. She kindly reminded me that, as parents, we should not encourage bad behavior with more more attention, and provide lots of attention when our children are behaving the way we wish them to.

  6. My three year old was having a super rough time obeying, being mean, bad attitude, etc. Finally, in desperation, I asked him what I could do to help him want to obey. He responded with a list.

    1) Be kind to me
    2) Be nice to me
    3) Be respectful to me
    4) Don’t talk cross at me
    5) take me to the beach.

    ROFL. I was so proud that at that age he was able to ARTICULATE the fact that part of the reason he didn’t want to obey was because he felt I was being mean to him because of my tone.

    So, we made a deal. I would work on my part (listed above, minus the beach), and he would work on his part (looking at me when I talk to him, listening, and obeying). We BOTH have to remind ourselves of this deal and he will get on me if I’m not speaking kindly to him.

    • This. Is. Awesome. Seriously, there is so much wisdom in this comment, both from you and your amazing son! Thank you for sharing!

      • You are great mothers. Thank you for Sharing. I have a 2 year old daughter and she gives me a lot of headaches but I am learning how to be a good father. Your experiences helps me a lot.

    • My son is three and he also said to me once stop shouting at me you always shout at me and i said yes cos you dont listen to me. i thought about what he said and it broke me. shame this little boy telling me dont shout at me. so i work hard everyday not to shout at my little boy. i just walk away and say you not listening to me making mommy frustrated and i am walking away until you listen to me. it works he says i am listening mom i say ok show me show me that you listening and i will give him a small task to do and then i praise him and i say yes thank you for listening to mommy. the shouting has calmed down since this tactic, i do sometimes fail but i work hard it everyday.

  7. When my kids were toddlers I too loved to work on what I was doing that was making a behavior worse. And now that mine are older, 15, 12 and 9 to be exact, I still find it helpful to look at what part I’m playing in any behavior that I don’t like. It does give me a sense of control and it does improve the behavior. Thanks for these great tips, which also work for older kids too! 🙂

    • Good to know that they can be applied to older kids as well. That means I’ll have one fewer trick to learn when my son grows up!

  8. This is great! I can’t say I haven’t made some mistakes myself, OF COURSE, but it drives me crazy when I see/hear parents yelling at their kids for misbehavior when it’s obviously naptime/they’re hungry/etc. You made some really good points. I know I can always stand to be reminded of these ideas. I also shared your post on Twitter:-).

    • Oh, I have definitely made all of these mistakes. That’s how I figured it out, haha! I really appreciate you commenting and sharing the post, Sarah!

  9. This was very interesting and definitely gave me a lot to think about. I know that I’m not giving the boys my full attention at times and that’s what sets them off. It’s a constant juggling act!!

    • It really is, and I hope no mom feels guilty for the times when she simply CAN’T give her kids her full attention. It’s just helpful to know that at times that can be what sparks some negative behavior.

  10. You can definitely see how frustrated kids get when they’re around one or two and not easily understood yet? Des is SO happy when I hear him and I respond in kind. Being heard and understood and having your needs met. That’s it for toddlers.
    I worry that I have a bad temper and my kids will get it too. I get so mad at the pets sometimes. Or at other drivers! I need to take a chill pill.

  11. I definitely see my son’s behavior change when I am distracted. I know it is the main reason he is acting up a lot of the time. It is something I struggle with striking the balance between being attentive and having moments for myself.

    • Agreed! We moms need those me-time moments. I’ve found that giving my toddler my undivided attention for just a few minutes (under 30) satisfies him enough that I can then go take care of whatever it is I need to do.

  12. I think you are right on point here, Katie. I know that when my 2-year-old behaves, many times, it is because I’m not giving him enough of my undivided attention. Then, part of it also is just because he’s a mischievous little stinker, but that’s a topic for another day. 😉 I wholeheartedly agree, though. Thanks for sharing this. Great post!

    • I do think that no matter what, toddlers will be toddlers! But if we can change our own actions to influence better behavior in them, I call it a win.

  13. I agree with this completely! In fact, most of these apply to my kindergartener too! So often, after I’ve gotten angry at them for something, I come to realize that it was mostly my fault.

  14. Good points, Katie! Anticipating their needs is very important, because at this stage, we actually understand them better than they know themselves.

  15. Yep. I am definitely causing my toddler to misbehave. I have some things to work on for sure. Thanks for posting this. I’m reflecting and acting! 🙂

  16. Love this post! I taught for 5 years and I can’t tell you how many times I met the parent and thought “ohhhh… that’s why your kid is the way he/she is!” I think anticipating needs is the most important one. Every time I’ve decided to “risk it” with a last minute errand even though naptime is quickly approaching, I regret it. It’s frustrating, but I can’t even get upset with my son because I knew better! Great post!

  17. Good points, Katie. And I like that you pointed out that it’s not a blame game but taking ownership of your situation to see how you can control it. I have found that giving in to my kids’ requests to play turn out to be really fun for me as well as buying me some time to myself later.

  18. Great post!
    I constantly forget about the hunger one. With my 19 month-old especially, if he is hungry he acts out in every way possible. This wasn’t a problem with my girls who seemed to articulate their wants at an earlier age.

    I survive the day by multi-tasking, but this tends to backfire. Sometimes when I am doing something but only half-listening to one of the kids it doesn’t pay off. Just today I heard the tail end of my daughter’s story. I thought she was saying she saw a bluejay in the yard. Nope, she was telling me the dog was eating a dead bluejay in the yard. And I had responded saying “Oh, that is fun!” She was horrified: “You like it when Tucker kills a poor birdy?!” Oops…
    I took that as a hint to stop what I was doing and give her my full attention.

    • I’m a big multi-tasker too, and I find myself getting frustrated when I’m trying to complete a task and my son is insistent that he wants my full attention. But when I stop and think about it, I realize that giving him my undivided attention is actually better for both of us! And it will probably allow me to complete that task later without distractions.

  19. This is SPOT ON. And I am guilty of many of these!! Thanks for the reminder. And just like you said, this doesn’t make me feel guilty; it reminds me that I can totally stop some of that bad behavior before it even starts. Woot!

  20. I read this post and immediately thought of our dinner time routine. I think we are fostering Jack’s difficult behavior by the way we interact with him at the dinner table. I think we give him too much attention and that causes him to not eat. The other day when Eric and I were just talking amongst ourselves Jack picked up his food and just started eating it, unprovoked. That was a light bulb moment for me. Though I definitely agree that not giving enough attention is another reason for him acting out, though not at the dinner table. He has specifically told both Eric and I to put our phone down, which honestly makes me proud; he’s better at communicating his needs at two and a half than I am sometimes at my age!

    • That’s so interesting! Luke is quite the opposite at the dinner table, at least right now. He HATES when my husband and I talk to each other and seem to ignore him, so we often will discuss logistics and schedules in such a way that includes him. I’m sure if a stranger walked in it would sound quite strange! Haha.

  21. I think awareness really is key at any age. I didn’t have too many problems with meltdowns with my boys as toddlers, but I’m finding that they are getting attitudes as they get older. I find it helps to just sit back and think about where they are coming from at that moment. Not always easy, but it does help.

  22. Great post Katie! I agree whole-heartedly with all of your points. I would also add that actively listening to our little ones is important too. they are trying so hard to communicate and sometimes the words are hard for them to get out… so really listening to what they have to say is critical.

    You mentioned having too high expectations for them could be problematic. I agree and I would add that having too low of expectations is also an issue. Children will sink to the level you expect of them. So if you dismiss their behaviour as “typical toddler behaviour” and don’t do anything about it, then I would say don’t expect it to change… in fact expect it to get worse.

    Thanks for sharing (and for linking up to the #SHINEbloghop).

    Wishing you a lovely weekend.

    • I love that point, Jennifer! You’re so right that we need to keep our standards and expectations at exactly the right level—not too high but also not too low. Thanks for sharing and for hosting the #SHINEbloghop!

  23. I love posts on parenting! So much of what you said really resonated with me….yes, when my son is misbehaving many times it’s because he isn’t getting enough quality and intentional playtime with me. He starts focusing on all the naughty stuff! As a 13 month old, he is definitely at the age where he needs lots of fun activities throughout the day. Looking forward to using some of these practical tips.

  24. Ugh… I KNOW I need to work on some of these! Last week at the library I witnessed some terrible behavior from a older child (mother was distracted) and she was trying to encourage my son to join her in the bad behavior. I was so pleased when he declined and told HER that he couldn’t act that way.

  25. I definitely agree. Toddlers looked up to us, they want our full attention, The good humor, affection, and trust we show our child when speaking to them will make them want to listen to us, because they know that we love them and they are very special to us.It is also important that we have to be firm when it comes to discipline. Thanks for a very informative post.

  26. The last point really stood out to me. I continually want my toddler to keep still, & act almost grown up at times.,especially when we’re away from home at a restaurant

  27. Great advice for new parents. We really should be aware of our actions as this has an impact on our children. This is a great read for all parents. Thanks for sharing.

  28. Love this post. I have problems every now and again with my 23 month old and every now and again, we get stuck in a bad cycle of screaming and I need to remind myself to RESET: start again the next day, be a nicer mama, see if there’s a change. And more often than not, all is right with the world. I do feel guilty, but I also know it’s so normal and not to beat myself up over it. Just start again, begin the new day with extra gusto. I know the lil munchkin forgives me 🙂

  29. I am very interested to stop and work on these things at home with my children. I have a 4 year old (G), a 2 year old (B), and a 3 month old (B). Being a full time working mother with occasional extra hours, I come home exhausted and frustrated from work most of the time. Unfortunately, the frustration shows through a bit more than I like which in turn causes tension throughout the whole house. Luckily, I have some time off soon to start working on my behavior towards/with my children. Thank you so much for posting this. It has been very insightful and I hope we can all adjust well.

  30. Wat can I do to help 6 year old grandson with ADHD problems as long as we are giving him all our attention he is wonderful. Very intelligent scored high on IQ test but just melts Down sometimes for nothing or so it seems. Your articles and responses are right on but sometimes you have to

  31. My toddler (almost 2 yo) just melted down because I was asking her to help me pick up each toy before she brought out a new one to play with. I was giving her my undivided attention during play time but she did not want to cooperate with picking up a piece of her train on the floor so I took it away when she started swatting pieces off of it. We just moved to a new city so I know that this has something to do with her acting out in general this last week, so I wonder if I was too harsh in taking the toy away…? At what age should I start expecting her to listen to instruction? TIA!!

    • I personally don’t think you were too harsh in taking the toy away. I’m wondering if you could somehow make the cleaning up part of a game. Maybe you could sing some silly little song every time one toy is being put away so another one can be chosen. Just an idea! It might help make cleaning up not seem like such a bad thing to your toddler.

  32. Hi, I have 21 months old and he lately start misbehaving so I don’t know how to handle. I read a lot about toddler tantrum but handle its not easy as reading. I will appreciate if you could help me find correct approach when my son doesn’t want to dress up/go back home/brush teeth etc. I tell him more than 20 times but he doesn’t do.if I push him he start crying hitting throwing stuff. its hard to hold my temper.

    • Have you tried offering choices? So instead of saying, “It’s time to get dressed now,” you say, “It’s time to get dressed now. Would you like to wear the blue shirt or the green shirt today?” Toddlers are just beginning to get a sense of their own independence, so sometimes offering choices helps them feel a little more in control of their situation. Just a thought!

  33. You have so many good points in this post that are such great reminders! Right now I’m really working on ignoring distractions while I’m with my children. It is soo hard with all of the tasks surrounding us moms every moment of every day, but I’m learning how to get my kids involved in chores and am working on simplifying our life so our “to do” list is shorter and I feel less distracted by mounting chores! I love your observation, “I’ve found that focusing solely on my almost-two-year-old for just fifteen to twenty minutes makes him more content to play independently when I need to get something done.” I think we are living with the same toddler. 😉

  34. Oh… and I’m sharing this on my Facebook page because I know so many readers and families that I know would truly benefit from your tips! Thanks!

  35. My 4 years old hardly listen to me.. He misbehaves when i try to make him work certain things.. Also at meals he tend to show tantrums so that he cam avoid meal… When v go out he wants everything to be done as he likes,which most of the time is not possible. He often neglects to eat his food that is ordered, though by his choice. Another issue is he interrupt so much whenever i try to talk ko someone else like a friend, neighbors or even mu husband. His behavior is causing so much misery becoz my husband blames me for his ill behavior.

  36. Thanks for the great advice in a well spoken, none guilting way. I am personally trying aknowledge that my toddlers have a certain time frame before they start acting out in public. I’m trying to be mindful of this when we’re out and about so they don’t get overwhelmed and I don’t get frustrated with them.

  37. I have a 3 year old girl who spends half of her time with me and half of her time at her father’s house (we separated when she was 18 months old). Recently, her behaviour seems to have changed dramatically (for the worse) but…. only for everyone except me. She behaves wonderfully for me I would say 90% of the time (the other 10% I put it down to tiredness). But for her dad, his partner, my partner and at nursery, she hits children, pushes boundaries constantly, throws food or cutlery/plates, has a wee in her pants on purpose and smiles when she tells you that’s what she has done and much more. She has consistency in regards to routines (set days at her dad’s, same people picking her up or dropping her off etc). She gets one to one time with me and one to one time with her dad. She is honestly such a pleasant child with me (most of the time) that it makes it hard to believe when I hear the teachers or her dad tell me about what she has done or is doing. I don’t punish her because I think why should I when for me she is good? Surely if I do that she won’t be able to differentiate between being good and being naughty? And why should I have to discipline her when the time I get with her is so precious especially as it’s not 7 days a week. I really don’t know what I can do in this situation but I am starting to blame myself for her behaviour by thinking it is because I have damaged her emotionally by separating from her father. I don’t know, but any advice is MORE than welcome!

  38. my daughter is 1.5 years and is mad at me for a few days after coming home from dads, it is a safe place and I know she is well cared for but, I am not sure how to fix it or calm her down aka (like me again). she hasn’t ever known her dad and I to live together so its not a divorce thing.

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