Recently, in the throes of a heated argument with her big sister, my toddler mounted the coffee table red-faced and furious. With her fists balled, she sent this declaration thundering through the house: You! Are! Pushing! My! Buttons!
She wasn’t wrong. Her sister was indeed trying to get under her skin, lobbing tiny Legos at her back while she colored. Setting this particular incident aside, my little one’s choice of words really struck me, realizing it was a phrase I had been using with her, albeit in a kinder tone and without climbing the furniture.
As my youngest inches closer to 3 years old, the erratic, devil-may-care impulsivity that often dominates toddlerhood grows right alongside her. There are days I struggle to remind myself that my kid isn’t out to get me.
What’s going on in a toddler’s brain
Toddlerhood and mood swings go hand-in-hand, but it’s all perfectly normal, explained Devon Kuntzman, a toddler parenting expert and founder of Transforming Toddlerhood. “Toddlers are developmentally driven to become independent,” she said, reframing this tense phase as a necessary stepping stone toward growing up.
In fact, all that oft-annoying and perplexing behavior is in service to something greater: brain development. Deena Margolin, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the co-founder of Big Little Feelings, assured me my wild toddler was in the norm.
“And your feelings of frustration and exhaustion dealing with it are also totally normal,” she said. “So as parents, we need to let them be toddlers, and we also need to cut ourselves some slack when we get annoyed.”
As parents, we need to let them be toddlers, and we also need to cut ourselves some slack when we get annoyed.
To do that, these professional toddler whisperers peeled back the curtain on the most aggravating behaviors of all, offering insight into the emotional and developmental changes at play.
Toddler Behavior #1: When they break the rules but watch to make sure you catch them in the act
In the midst of creating an intricate braid on my oldest, I caught sight of my toddler wallpapering the hallway with a stack of my post-it notes. This was despite the fact that my office is strictly off-limits to my children. What’s more, with each slow peel of paper, I could see she was watching me as I was tied up in hairstyling.
“This is typical limit-testing behavior, which is part of a toddler’s developmental drive to experiment and explore as they become independent,” said Kuntzman. “It’s our job to consistently set limits that are firm, kind, and developmentally appropriate and follow through. It’s a toddler’s job to test them.”
Toddler Behavior #2: When they beg for something and change their minds immediately upon receipt
How many times have toddler parents caved to their little ones’ requests, only to be met with instant rejection? To navigate this super common toddler behavior, Margolin advised parents opt for consistency and follow-through.
“Avoid scrambling to accommodate every request they have,” she said. “This is too much power for a toddler. Toddlers feel safest with consistency and predictability … hold boundaries and support them through their upset feelings.” This means avoiding negotiations or attempts at reason, Margolin explained. We’re not here to convince toddlers to see things our way.
Instead, Margolin suggested saying something like, “I hear that you’re upset about the blue bowl. It’s OK to feel upset about that. We can use the green bowl at dinner tonight.”
Toddler Behavior #3: When they want to do everything on their own but they move at a snail’s pace
“I know it feels like toddlers are out to get us and make us miserable,” Kuntzman said. “The truth is, [they] have limited life experience and are working every day to improve their fine and gross motor skills.” Her advice? Let go of control and remind yourself that, in doing so, you’re supporting their growth and development.
I know it feels like toddlers are out to get us and make us miserable. The truth is [they] have limited life experience and are working every day to improve their fine and gross motor skills.
Parenting coach and Big Little Feelings co-founder Kristin Gallant added a critical piece of advice: plan ahead. “Give clear and simple directions about what needs to happen, (e.g., ‘It’s time to put your shoes on!’). Then get them involved by giving them a choice, (e.g., ‘Do you want to wear your red shoes or your blue shoes today? You pick!’).”
Gallant explained that granting your little one an age-appropriate dose of control has the ability to “shift them from pushback mode to collaboration mode.” If you still find yourself struggling, she suggested calmly stepping in by letting your child know you’re going to help.
Toddler Behavior #4: When they refuse to eat something they loved yesterday
The kitchen table is the perfect setting for a power struggle. Kids are smart enough to know we can’t force them to eat, so it’s natural that they’d choose these moments to flex their independence, Kuntzman explained.
How do you survive it? Don’t force anything, Margolin advised. She encouraged parents to avoid negotiating, pressuring, or bribing around mealtimes, sharing that these avenues often lead to picky eating. “Instead, just remember that our job as parents is to decide what’s on the menu. Our kid’s job is to decide how much food goes in their body,” she said.
The Bottom Line
Raising toddlers requires a great deal of empathy—and a crucial mindset shift. As we navigate this season with our little ones, Kuntzman reminded parents that this phase isn’t easy on our kids either. While the toddler years are important for developmental growth, “toddlers are constantly stuck between competing needs of being independent and [needing] comfort and security,” she said.