Toddler Behavior: Terrible or Typical?

It's so much fun to watch our children grow. We celebrate as our babies meet milestones like smiling or rolling over for the first time. As they enter the toddler years, we watch their cognitive, social, and emotional development blossom as they explore their independence and place in the world.

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These stages are exciting, but they can also come with challenging behaviors like tantrums, aggression, and lying. This is normal - what's important is that we, as parents, respond in a positive way so that our children can learn and grow from each experience.

Most Difficult Behavior is Normal

For example, it's normal for young children to lie when they see that a situation isn't going their way. The other day, my 3-year-old pulled an entire roll of toilet paper onto the bathroom floor, but when I discovered the mess, she blamed it on the dog. This wasn't a sign that her moral compass was permanently broken. Rather, it showed that she was imaginative enough to express an alternate reality - how she wished things were or what she thought I wanted to hear.

Pediatrician and child development expert Dr. Suzanne Dixon writes that lying "should be seen as ‘creative coping’ with a situation that may be stressful to the child." Of course, this doesn't make lying okay; we still want our kids to learn to tell the truth. In this situation, the best course was to simply state the obvious ("I see you pulled the toilet paper onto the floor") and suggest a way to fix it ("Let's get this cleaned up together"). Without a lecture or punishment, my daughter learned that lying didn't fix the mess and saw a more positive way to fix the situation. Just as importantly, I look for opportunities to thank her when she tells the truth.

It's also developmentally normal for toddlers and preschoolers to experiment with aggression such as hitting, biting, and scratching. It's up to parents and caregivers to calmly respond in ways that help children find non-aggressive ways to cope with their emotions, like redirecting anger toward a pillow or modeling language for a more appropriate social interaction. We want to empower children to navigate social situations in acceptable ways - to be assertive but not aggressive.

With lots of love and positive reinforcement, we can help kids work through these normal but difficult developmental stages. As Dr. Kevin Marks, a pediatrician and child development researcher told me, "Ultimately, healthy social-emotional development depends on how children view themselves and the extent to which they feel valued by others."

When Should You Ask Questions?

But what if your positive parenting strategies don't seem to be working? How do you know what's normal and when you should get help? There is a wide range of normal behaviors in young children, depending on factors like temperament and life stressors. Whether or not a behavior is normal often depends on how severe it is, how long it has lasted, and whether or not it is disrupting your child's ability to learn and thrive. For example, aggression that causes a persistent problem at your child's daycare or preschool is cause for concern.

If you're worried about your child's behavior or other developmental milestones, Dr. Marks recommends talking to your child's pediatrician or other healthcare provider right away. "Don't wait to see if they grow out of it," he said.

Pediatricians should be assessing development at each well-child visit. Many also ask parents to complete standardized screening questionnaires, which can help alert both you and the pediatrician if something is a red flag. However, you should also never hesitate to bring up your concerns on your own. (Find tips on how to do this here and here.)

As a parent, you are in the best position to carefully observe your child's behavior. Trust your instincts if something worries you. Your pediatrician doesn't know your child as well you do, but he or she has the valuable perspective of professional training and of having seen many children across the span of normal development. He or she can help you identify parenting solutions or refer you to a specialist to evaluate your child and get support as early as possible.

You can find more resources on your child's development at these sites:

Alice Callahan, Ph.D.

Alice Callahan earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition from UC Davis (2008), followed by more than two years of postdoctoral training in fetal development at the University of Arizona. She blogs about parenting with science and love at, and her book on the same topic will be published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2015.