When your toddler is always misbehaving

Read our advice and tips to help you through this phase

Dealing with a toddler who is constantly misbehaving can be exhausting for both you and your child. You may have dealt with one issue and find yourself straight onto the next. It can be a really trying phase and finding the strength to keep on top of it may feel out of reach. Read our advice on ideas you can try to see if it makes a difference to their behaviour. 

toddler screaming.JPG

Keeping calm and patient

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. It can be tiring saying the same thing over and over, but it is very much about keeping calm and being repetitive so they understand what is expected of them. 

You may want to sing songs with your child too as not only can this help with their early years development but it can also help to strengthen the bond between you both. Singing with your child can help distract them from the onset of challenging behaviour too. Visit our singing with your baby section and view our videos. 

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.”

It is important to make a big fuss and give them lots of praise when they do behave in a positive way. They will enjoy the lovely attention from you. It could be that they have attempted to put their toys away or they are trying to help you with chores around the house. Whatever it is, give them lots of praise so they feel more inclined to behave in a less challenging way. 

Afternoon naps and behaviour

Doing away with your child's afternoon nap can sometimes make a huge difference to their behaviour. They may go from having necessary naps to them becoming later and later so you have no choice but to phase it out. The transition can cause irritable behaviour and make them act in a challenging way. 

“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!”

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.”

There is a lot to be gained from encouraging your young child to be active and using up excess energy. When your child is acting in a challenging way, encouraging them to do some kind of physical activity, whether it is park time, dancing or something that helps distract them onto something energetic can be key in stopping negative behaviour in its tracks. 

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.”

Why play matters

Distracting your child with play is a great way of stopping the challenging behaviour in its tracks. Whether you get building blocks out, read a book or break out the arts and crafts, play matters as it helps with their development, builds bonds and makes a young child feel content. Vist our section on play ideas and games for more advice.

When to get support with difficult behaviour

If poor behaviour is consistent and, accompanied by other signs, such as lack of communication and isolation, make an appointment with your GP or Health Visitor. 


This page was updated on January 2019

Donate now

For support call our confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222 or email us at askus@familylives.org.uk. Your opinion matters, please share your views on our website by filling in our survey.