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Toddler Behavior

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Michelle Tangeman

toddler protesting and testing boundaries

A mom recently reached out to me frustrated with her toddler’s defiance, tantrums, and power struggles. She was losing patience and found herself yelling more than she would like, which led to feelings of guilt and missed enjoyment with her child. I talk to so many parents who have felt this way at some point or another. I want to give you some practical, evidence-based strategies to help you minimize defiance, tantrums, and power struggles with your toddler.

Let’s talk about some brain science first!

Our brain has many different parts with many different jobs. Let’s talk about the top and the bottom. The bottom part of our brain is developed at birth. It’s responsible for breathing, blinking, and strong emotions. The top front is responsible for intricate mental processes like thinking, imagining, planning, and higher-order analytical thinking (Siegel & Bryson, 2011). This part of your brain doesn't fully mature until your mid to late 20s! This is so crucial for parents to know and understand because it tells us that your toddler's brain is simply not capable of reliably producing behaviors that use this higher-order level of functioning. As parents, when you are helping your child navigate their social and emotional worlds, you are also helping them integrate the parts of their brains to develop lasting cognitive, social, and emotional regulation skills. Any given situation is an opportunity for you to help bridge these parts of the brain together.

Using the science of behavior grounded in developmental psychology, we can make small changes in our daily interactions to minimize the likelihood of undesired behaviors. Now, let's discuss some of the evidence-based strategies you can apply to help reduce the struggle!

1. Prepare Your Toddler for What’s Coming

Setting clear expectations in any given situation. Before walking into a situation that might possibly trigger behaviors in your toddler, do your best to set very clear expectations on what they can and cannot do, and follow it up with some reward if they follow your instructions! (Wilde, Koegel, & Koegel, 1992)

I recently had to take my little one to the doctor's office. She had a reaction to a spider bite that needed pediatrician attention. I knew my daughter was terrified of the thermometer. Before we walked into the building I explained that we would be seeing the doctor and the steps the doctor would take: "She is going to say hello, then she is going to take your temperature and check your heart and lungs…" (Parents, you know how it goes). Right away, my toddler started to indicate the thermometer going under her arm. We continued the discussion until she was ready to move on. That was her way of preparing for what was to come. When it was time for the visit, she was golden. No tears, no screaming, no running away. This was followed up with a lot of praise and affection (the reward) on my part. I set her up by letting her know beforehand and allowing her to work it out with me before we even made it into the doctor's office.

If you anticipate a trigger, give them a heads up.

2. Look at the Big Picture

Another proactive strategy you can apply is looking at other factors that could impact behavior. I would check-in and ask myself, "How did my child sleep? Might they be teething? Have there been major changes to my toddler's schedule?" In applied behavior analysis, this is considered an "antecedent strategy." That is, trying to reduce negative factors or remove anything that tends to trigger that frustrating behavior will reduce or even prevent it. (Kern, Bambara, & Fogt, 2002).

When my young toddler started preschool, the teacher let me know that she was refusing to take naps. I knew that the napping at daycare could take some time, but in the “now” my daughter was irritable, quick to get frustrated, and refused many of my simple requests in the evenings. Knowing she wasn't getting enough sleep and how that impacted her ability to behave, I decided to ask less of her in the evenings after school, in order to avoid a power struggle. This set us both up for success.

3. Prioritize Sleep!

We all know how important sleep is. Cara teaches this from the beginning of her newborn class and how important it is to set a solid foundation for sleep. Sleep will directly impact your little one’s compliance and overall behavior - just as it does for adults. In the example of my daughter refusing naps, the lack of sleep was temporary and due to an adjustment. However, if your little one is never getting enough sleep, make sure to check out one of Cara’s resources to get you on track. We don’t want lack of sleep to be a contributing factor for long!

On the flip side, understand that all behavior is not sleep related. Toddlers are now able to voice their thoughts, opinions, and preferences. Even if sleep is perfect, you may still have some tantrums or whiney episodes.

4. It's OK to Reduce the Original Demand

In the example from tip 2, you can see that the temporary lack of sleep with adjusting to daycare was an impacting factor. I pointed out how I reduced what I was asking for --my demands-- in the situation to increase the chance of positive behavior.

Here’s another example. Let's say you're cleaning up after playing with your little one, and you’ve asked your 18 month old to pick up the rest of the blocks, but you are met with some serious resistance. You can reduce the request to "three more blocks" and then you can be done or you can offer to help. When they choose the decreased demand, you can reward their compliance, rather than giving up entirely and rewarding the refusal to pick up. This is a great way to possibly reduce a power struggle between you and your toddler. (Smith et al., 1995).

5. Fill Your Toddler’s World With Positive Attention

Formally, this is known as noncontingent reinforcement. What you’re doing is simply using positive reinforcement (e.g., verbal praise, high five) just because. It's free reinforcement, not earned. This is especially great for parents who feel like their children act out in a lot of attention-seeking behavior. Set aside some time and play with them doing their favorite activity and give them all of your attention for that set time. By filling their world with your attention for specific times, you take away, or at least reduce, the motivation to engage in fits or struggles. (Vollmer & Iwata 1991).

6. Catch Them Being Good!

How many times have you pointed out to your toddler today the behaviors they've engaged in that you would like to see more of? Our brains don't often focus as strongly on the positives as they do on the negatives, but what if we tried to reorient that? This is a great skill to practice not only with your little ones, but also with your spouse, coworkers, and friends! It’s a sure way to bring more joy into your life!

There you have it: my top 6 tips to reducing the struggle with your little one. My suggestion is to try one tip at a time; no need to try them all at once. Now, I'm not promising you're going to eliminate every power struggle or tantrum - after all, we’re talking about little humans-- but by applying the tips, you can reduce the struggle AND help your toddler build those vital brain connections.


Dunlap, G., & Kern, L. (1993). Assessment and intervention for children within the instructional curriculum. In J. Reichla & D. Wacker (eds.), Communicative approaches to the management of behaviors. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.

Dunlap G., Kern-Dunlap, L., Clarke, S., & Robbins, F.R. (1991). Functional Assessment, curricular revision, and severe behavior problems. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24(2), 387-397.

Siegel, D. J., Bryson, T. P., & OverDrive Inc. (2011). The whole-brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind. New York: Random House.

Smith, R.G., Iwata, B.A., Goh, H., & Shore, B.A. (1995). Analysis of establishing operations for self-injury maintained by escape. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 28(4), 515-535.

Wilde, L.D., Koegel, L.K. & Koegel, R.L. (1992). Increasing success in school through priming: a training manual. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California.

Vollmer, T.R., & Iwata, B.A. (1991). Establishing operations and reinforcement effects. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 241-253.


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