Advice if your toddler is always misbehaving

Dealing with a toddler who is constantly misbehaving can be exhausting for both you and your child. Read our advice on things you can try to see if it makes a difference to their behaviour. 

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Afternoon naps and behaviour

Doing away with your child's afternoon nap can sometimes make a huge difference to their behaviour. 

“When Jamie went through the 'terrible twos', he started pulling hair (mine and other children's), biting and kicking in frustration. The most difficult thing was keeping calm when he wasn't, and resisting the urge to fight back. I tried all the techniques in the books - naughty step (which he wouldn't stay on), time out (he screamed the whole time), ignoring it (he just got worse). Other mums with slightly older kids suggested that maybe his afternoon nap was leading to less sleep at night which was making him irritable. So I axed it. It was hard to lose that precious bit of time in the day but I soon realised that by missing half an hour in the day he was getting an extra hour to two hours at night - going to sleep quicker and waking up later. We adjusted the morning and evening routines and within a few weeks life was bearable again for everyone including Jamie!”

Keep your temper

It's important to keep your temper when they are misbehaving. If you get cross it will usually make them worse. Sarah, 42, from Northampton, mum to David, 11, Paul, seven and Niall, five: “I’ve learnt that shouting just encourages the boys to shout even more while smacking is hypocritical after telling them off for doing the same thing. I realised that aggressive forms of punishment were just reinforcing aggressive behaviour and started keeping reward charts or removing privileges, instead.”

Remember that young children haven't yet learnt how to behave, so it's important not to expect too much from them at this stage. What you might see as misbehaviour is often just your child learning a new skill or testing a boundary to find out what's acceptable and what's not. Try to think of it as an opportunity to teach them about how you'd like them to behave.

Praise good behaviour

“I was guilty of only responding to ‘bad’ behaviour, particularly when I was busy,” admits Sarah. “It’s easy to breathe a sigh of relief when the kids are playing nice and quietly and start yelling when the fighting starts. I now make a conscious effort to say positive things and comment on good behaviour – for example: ‘That was really kind of you to let your brother have a turn,’ or: ‘I really appreciate you playing so quietly while I was on the phone just now.’ This has made a big difference. Sometimes, for young children, if the choice is between no attention and negative attention, they’ll opt for the latter.”

Physical activity

“When my kids feel angry, it’s amazing how much kicking a football round the garden or jumping on the trampoline can dissolve feelings of pent-up aggression,” says Lorraine, 40, from Brighton, mum to Nathan, seven, and Natasha, five. And, while some parents ban rough and tumble and fantasy play, I find the ‘goodies’ and ‘baddie’ themes offer opportunities to explore right and wrong.”

Have a plan

“When my youngest started biting her brother and sister – and other children at nursery – I avoided meeting up with other mums and dreaded the nursery manager asking for ‘a quiet word’,” explains Michelle, 38, from Cheshire, mum to Adam, 10, Sarah, eight and Isobel, six. “Eventually, the nursery staff and I developed a strategy for avoiding situations where Isobel might bite. At home, I’d make sure her older brother and sister played games fairly with her so she didn’t end up feeling powerless and frustrated. At nursery, staff worked out what was triggering the biting (large groups, strong emotions) and intervened first. It was really hard not to show anger but, when we all responded in the same way – calmly and firmly telling her “No, we don’t bite”, and taking her away from the play area or other children, she soon got the message.”

When to get support with difficult behaviour

If poor behaviour is consistent and, accompanied by other signs, such as lack of communication and isolation, your child should see the GP. They can refer you to a specialist in child development for a detailed assessment as there may be a clinical reason for the behaviour. “I suggest parents keep a diary of occurrences and/or make a video of their child to show a specialist,” advises Christine.

How we can help you

If you would like support and advice, you can talk to one of our Family Support Workers by calling our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222. You can also share experiences and advice with other parents on our Forums. Family Lives is here for you and you can contact us about any family issue, big or small.

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