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Worrying Toddler Behaviour: What’s Normal & What’s Not

Our toddlers have unique little personalities all of their own but there are certainly behaviours which do occur more in this age group than in younger or older children and these can often be attributed to frustration over limited communication skills with big emotions, an increased sense of independence or simply testing boundaries. A number of questions have been posed by readers regarding their toddlers. Let’s take a look at what is normal and what is not.


Why is my normally confident child suddenly shy and clingy? 

Children of this age become aware of their behaviour and that of others and this may make them uncertain of how to respond to an unfamiliar person. With all the talk about “stranger danger” a child needs to be guided by the parent on an appropriate response. If you model a positive response to someone, such as a warm greeting, handshake or hug then your toddler will feel more at ease about how you feel about the person. Don’t force your child to go to someone they are not yet comfortable with. Give it some time and allow your child to feel comfortable around the new person.

In a social setting, remain with your child for a little while until the child is more familiar with the surroundings. You can then move slightly away and perhaps sit on a chair with the other adults. If your child needs you, you are close at hand. We also cannot underestimate what COVID has done to these little people. They are not exposed to large numbers of people and have probably spent the majority of their lives with just a very small circle of familiar faces. These children are more likely to be clingy than those born before 2020.

Note: We must be certain to distinguish between normal shyness and anxiety though. If your child has experienced any kind of trauma then it may be worth having them assessed and taught skills on how to manage the anxiety before it becomes a major problem.

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My toddler keeps throwing things when she’s angry or frustrated. What can I do about it?

A child often behaves when she cannot express in words her anger, frustration or embarrassment. This is when parenting 101 has to come into play. You cannot react to the behaviour with anger yourself as this will model all the things you don’t want your child to do when she is angry. Instead, you need to teach your child to distinguish feelings from behaviour. You may need to say, “It’s ok to be cross, but it’s not ok to throw your toy. You need to go and pick up the toy now and then come and give me a hug and we will find a way to feel better”.

Hitting, biting and other aggressive behaviour maybe your child’s way of expressing anger rather than throwing objects. Either way, children need to be taught that being angry happens to everyone but that this can’t be expressed with aggression. Children who are not taught how to control their temper have been found to experience academic problems, poor mental health and peer rejection later on in life. You do not want your child to suffer these consequences when you are able to teach them how to express negative feelings in other ways.

Note: There is a time when bad behaviour should raise a red flag. We generally do not label children with behavioural disorders before the age of six years but if you are concerned that your child is an exception to the norm then seek advice. A condition known as Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) may be considered if a child experiences certain symptoms consistently for a year or more. These symptoms would include:

  • multiple tantrums daily
  • difficulty with returning  to normal behaviour after a tantrum, and or
  • inappropriate responses to a trigger which makes them upset


Under such circumstances please speak to a healthcare provider. Your child may need to be assessed by a therapist who is trained to provide your child with different coping skills and to provide you with the tools needed to support your child.


My son loves to be naked. Is it normal and will he grow out of it?

Children around the age of 18 months love to be naked. It is normal and is also fabulous if you are trying to potty train. When they are naked they are more aware of their body functions and will realise when they need to pee or poo.

We obviously want our children to behave appropriately in social settings and to know what is acceptable or not, so the best thing to do is not to discourage the behaviour entirely but to set limits as to when your child can be naked. Make getting dressed as much fun as getting undressed. Allow your child the opportunity to choose what he wants to wear so that clothes don’t become a power struggle.

Note: If you notice that your child gets fussy in a certain fabric or finds labels scratchy and collars too tight, they may actually be sensory defensive. We have five senses namely taste, smell, touch, sound and sight. Children who are sensory defensive may be fussy eaters, be averse to loud noises, overreact to smell and taste or find certain clothing very uncomfortable. These children often respond well to therapy with an Occupational Therapist or Physiotherapist who is trained in sensory integration (SI).


My son keeps banging his head on his cot when he is angry or frustrated. Should I be worried?

This question again relates to a child’s ability to distinguish between feelings and behaviour. A child who bangs his head out of anger or frustration needs you to again verbalise the feeling and provide empathy so that the child finds a different way to react to the emotion. Try not to react in anger or fright as he may be wanting a reaction. Instead, talk quietly and distract the child with something which averts his attention from the cause of the tantrum.

Some children actually bang their heads as a way to self soothe. It sounds crazy but this is often a soft, rhythmical banging that puts the child back to sleep. Certain toddlers may do this headbanging while making a humming noise or rocking on all fours. Although it is not nice to listen to, take some comfort in knowing that they don’t bang hard enough to cause any damage to themselves.

Note: In some cases, head banging may be associated with a developmental problem. In such cases head banging will not be the only concerning behaviour. Children like those suffering from autism may bang their heads but will also have delayed speech, unusual social interactions and other distinguishing features. If you are concerned about this please consult your healthcare provider. In general children, usually outgrow headbanging by the age of 3 years.

ALSO READ: How to potty train your child & 3 proven methods that work


Is it normal for toddlers to masturbate or touch themselves? 

Children do need to discover every part of their body and this will include the genitals. Masturbation is completely normal and has been noted in babies even while in the womb. Toddlers do not masturbate or touch their genitals as part of sexual activity but are rather discovering this part of their bodies. Stimulating this part of the body does provide a feeling of pleasure so children may rub their genitals with their hands or against a pillow or toy.

Again, much like being naked, we have social norms which need to be communicated to our toddlers. You can explain about bodies being private and that this kind of touching needs to be done in private. Very often simply distracting the child and giving him or her something else to do with his hands stops the behaviour. The important thing is not to scold the child or embarrass them as this could affect the self-image and normal sexual behaviour in adult life.


My child can’t sit still for a minute. Does that mean he’s hyperactive? 

A child will usually only be able to concentrate for two to three minutes per year of age. This means that the average toddler may be given something to play with and well before mom has even made herself a cup of tea, he has lost interest and wants to do something else. This is because they can only be expected to concentrate for about four to six minutes. Other factors like being tired, hungry or surrounded by distractions may make this time even shorter.

I once came across an interesting article in a sports magazine where a tri-athlete was put up against a toddler. The tri-athlete had to perform all the tasks that the toddler was doing at the same speed. The tri-athlete was exhausted after an hour. Naturally, science put this down to the fact that the toddler loses heat more easily than an adult and this is why the athlete found it so difficult. True, but the average parent has to keep up with this toddler day in and day out. No wonder parents fall into bed at the end of a day spent with a toddler completely exhausted. Toddlers are busy exploring the world, making full use of their physical abilities and just having the best time. All of this with a caregiver in the wings trying to avert injury. Yes, toddlers are busy.

Note: Although busyness is part and parcel of being a toddler, ADHD is a condition that affects a child’s ability to concentrate and control behaviour. As with most disorders, medical professionals are hesitant to label children with ADHD before the age of 6 years. In children younger than this, in the age group 4 to 5 years, behaviour therapy and parental support are recommended. The use of medication in the treatment of ADHD may become necessary if the child is having difficulty at school or with family and friends. These medications have been tested over many years and have been found to greatly improve the lives of sufferers of ADHD. These medications need to be prescribed by trained medical practitioners.


What can I do to get my child to stop picking his nose? 

Most often a toddler will pick his nose because there is something bothering him like a snolly. Much like you and I, the feeling of crusty mucus is not comfortable. Your toddler just hasn’t yet learned to use a tissue to discreetly remove the crust. Toddlers may also pick their noses if they are curious, bored or stressed. Just distracting your child is often all it takes to stop the picking. If it is due to allergy or illness then a nasal decongestant may be useful.

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In general, toddlers behave out of curiosity and as part of normal development. If these behaviours become worrisome they can be reinforced or curbed depending on your reaction. Generally, toddlers need to be given the time to express what they need or feel and, with a limited vocabulary, this may be difficult and frustrating. This is where you as the caregiver need to step in.

Help them verbalise what they are feeling and if that isn’t working find something that will divert their attention and give them something else to focus on. Spending time parenting your toddler is time-consuming in the early years but will be worth all the effort when your child is able to cope well in normal social settings. If you are at all concerned and your positive parenting isn’t working, then seek help – there are so many professionals who are trained to provide you with support.










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