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Dealing with Toddlers' Challenging Behaviour - General


toddler smiling and touching her face

Children don't come into this world knowing how to work well with others. They learn these skills, and a lot of the learning takes place during the toddler years.

Here's some advice for helping your little one learn the basic skills for thinking, caring and acting responsibly.  

When your toddler misbehaves, don't take it personally. It's not about testing you. Rather, your toddler is testing her own ideas, boundaries and power - as a natural part of learning to become independent.

Some behaviours, such as biting, tantrums, fighting, whining and dawdling can be very challenging for parents. Try to be patient and guide your toddler in a positive, encouraging manner:

Offer Simple Choices

"Would you like to wear your yellow T shirt or your red T shirt?"

Try to limit choices to two options. More than two options may confuse your toddler. Making choices helps your toddler develop independence.


"Let's throw your ball out on the deck. No one will get hurt out there."

Use this strategy when the action itself is OK, but the way in which your toddler is doing it is not. If your toddler is throwing blocks in the kitchen, take your toddler to find a ball and a place where it is safe to throw. You can say: “This is where it is safe to throw, and a ball is safer to throw than a block.”

Set Limits

"Remember to hold my hand when we cross the street."

Set limits for your toddler, stating them in a positive way. The most important limits you set are around safety. A simple "no" can make the limits clear: "No. We don’t hit." Be consistent and remind your toddler of limits: "You need to be buckled in your car seat before we drive to the park," or "Be gentle with your little brother."


"Look at this book."

Distraction can work very well with even very young children. If your toddler is doing something you don’t want, switch to something else. Show your toddler a toy, ask your toddler to read a book with you. Distraction works because young children have very short attention spans.

Use Consequences

"That’s too bad - the bubbles are all gone now."

Older toddlers can learn from experience. Make sure you tell your toddler ahead of time what is likely to happen. Then your toddler has a choice. If your toddler is going to pour bubble soap on the grass, tell him "There won’t be any bubble soap left if you pour that out." And, if your toddler decides to pour it out anyway: "That’s too bad - the bubbles are all gone now." Your toddler may cry and need a hug for comfort. But your child will learn quickly that some actions have consequences. Use consequences that teach.

Remove Your Toddler from the Situation

"It's time to take a break. Come and have some quiet time with me."

If your toddler is nearing 36 months of age, removing her from a difficult situation can work well. This gives her a chance to calm down. Give your toddler something quiet to do, like looking at a book or assembling a puzzle. Once you feel your toddler has calmed down, praise her. If your toddler is going to go back to the same situation, remind her of what you expect: "You seem ready to play with your sister again. Remember to play gently with her."

Use a Short Time Out

"You need a time out."

Time out is when you take your toddler away from a situation where he’s doing something unacceptable and move him to a quiet spot. This gives him time to calm down and teaches your toddler his behaviour is not OK.

Time out is a teaching tool that works only if a toddler is old enough to understand it. Some experts say time out works for children between two and 12 years of age. Other experts say it doesn’t work until 36 months.

If you think your toddler understands time out, keep it short - no more than one minute for each year of age. For example, if he’s two years old, the time out should only be two minutes. Your toddler may become frightened of being alone or separated from a caregiver, so if you choose time outs, stay nearby.

Learn to Compromise

"If we can leave the park when it’s time to go, then we will play with playdough when we get home."

A compromise is a middle ground that’s safe and works for both of you. Your toddler may be at the stage where she needs to try things out, and may want to do something you don’t want her to. In these situations, a compromise might work.

Compromising is a skill your toddler will use to get along well with others. For safety reasons, some things are not open for compromise. Your toddler should learn that safety comes first.

Resources & Links:
Managing Your Toddler's Frustrating Behaviours
Emotional and Social Development, Ages 12 to 24 Months
Ministry of Children and Family Development: How Parents Can Support Their Young Children

Last Updated: August 2, 2013