What You'll Learn
- Why We Should Stop Saying “Terrible Twos”
- How Needs Factor Into Normal Toddler Behavior
- What Constitutes a “Normal” Toddler Tantrum
- How to Avoid Power Struggles Over Potty Training
- The Role of Unrealistic Expectations in Our Frustrations
- Why We Don’t Need to Win Power Struggles with Toddlers
- How to Embrace Normal Toddler Behavior
From tantrums to defiance to sharing struggles, normal toddler behavior can frustrate us. But our mindset and approach play a bigger role than we realize—and if we can reframe our own outlook, we can start to see the positives in the toddler period.
Today, I’m joined by pediatrician Dr. Cathryn Tobin, founder of Healthiest Baby, to discuss how to change the way we view normal toddler behavior and to bust some of the common myths about this stage.
Facing Life With Three Boys Under Three
It was never my intention to have three boys under the age of three. And, although I wouldn’t change it for the world, it was certainly not without its challenges.
When my third was born, it felt that if I let my guard down for just a few minutes to quietly nurse him or lay him down for a nap, my middle son was constantly in something.
I’ll never forget turning around to see him emptying out an entire bottle of shampoo onto the couch!
Of course, that time of my life slipped by quicker than I could have imagined. And now, with my youngest heading to kindergarten this year, I’ve closed the door on the toddler stage.
Looking back, I can say that there are many things I will miss—and many things I am not sorry to leave behind!
The toddler age can be particularly challenging and triggering. But it can also be fun, wonderful, and engaging. That’s why I love to hear Dr. Cathryn talk about toddlers in a different light—not one that romanticizes the stage, but one that shows parents how we can change our approach, embrace normal toddler behavior for what it is, and avoid some of the power struggles we think we need to engage in.
Why We Should Stop Saying “Terrible Twos”
Dr. Cathryn believes that we need to abandon terms like “terrible twos.” She thinks that we often fundamentally misunderstand toddlers. She views the toddler stage as an incredibly exciting, important, and wonderful time in a child’s life—but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy.
But ultimately, Dr. Cathryn thinks that when we approach the toddler stage with the word “terrible” in mind, we’re setting ourselves up to view normal toddler behavior as terrible or difficult, instead of just them developmentally acting their age.
Between the ages of 1-3, toddlers go through a lot of changes. Dr. Cathryn said that toddlers are different little creatures. They’re not babies. They’re not adults. They’re not even kids—they might look like them, but they don’t think like them yet.
This is the age that children start exhibiting behavior we’ve never seen from them. When we understand what is normal toddler behavior, we can respond to problems differently and release a lot of the power struggles we find ourselves in.
Dr. Cathryn pointed out that when our babies are younger, we often respond at every peep or need. We don’t get angry or punish when they cry during the night or need us to comfort them—and yet in the toddler stage, our go-to is often to react in that way.
She said that when a baby gets mobile and starts walking, the whole dynamic changes. They have more energy and more ability to get into things or put themselves in dangerous situation. And we expect them to listen and follow directions, often before they are ready for it. And we misinterpret this normal toddler behavior as mischief.
It would be better to think about toddlers as just big babies.
Dr. Cathryn said it would be better to think about toddlers as just big babies—then we could start to see the needs or reasoning behind the behavior.
How Needs Factor Into Normal Toddler Behavior
I remember how different each of my boys was even within that same developmental time. When they were all three mobile, I had to stay on my toes all the time.
But their language development also played a role in how “difficult” the stage was to manage. With one of my sons, his understanding of his own needs and what he wanted to say came before his ability to actually say the words.
I could see how frustrated he was when we weren’t able to understand what he wanted or needed. It resulted in big feelings and sometimes big tantrums around the time he was 18 months old.
It must be so hard to be this little being who can’t communicate or express their feelings.
Dr. Cathryn pointed out that it must be so hard to be this little being who can’t communicate or express their feelings. We often view toddlers as being stubborn, but the positive reframe to that is that they are persistent and passionate. This is just one of the many reasons why tantrums are so common for toddlers.
What Constitutes a “Normal” Toddler Tantrum
We often feel like tantrums are manipulative or “bad behavior” but that isn’t the case. Dr. Cathryn said that when we view tantrums as typical and healthy, they become easier to navigate.
Tantrums are often signs of unmet needs—for example, in my son’s case, he wasn’t able to communicate the way he wanted to. The tantrum was a release of frustration and the big feelings that very understandably accompanied that.
When we respond to the need and validate the feelings, rather than trying to punish the behavior, we tend to see changes faster than if we react negatively.
How you react to a tantrum really influences the outcome of it.
Dr. Cathryn describes tantrums as a dance of two people. How you react to the tantrum really influences the outcome of it.
It’s also important to remember that there is a very wide range of normal toddler behavior when it comes to tantrums. While meltdowns are different than tantrums, and could potentially (though not necessarily) be a sign of neurodivergence or something outside of the typical range, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish.
Dr. Cathryn said that for most toddlers, 45 minutes would be on the upper end of “typical” tantrum behavior. Many children will experience much shorter ones, but the length of time, or even severity, isn’t always an indicator of atypical toddler behavior. Temperament plays a big role in the recovery time and expression of a tantrum.
However, Dr. Cathryn did point out that with normal toddler tantrums, we expect to see them decrease as children gain more verbal skills and begin to get older.
Why Toddler Misbehavior is a Myth
The toddler period is often full of myths. We might think that our children are trying to defy us, control us, or manipulate us.
But Dr. Cathryn believes that “misbehavior” during the toddler phase is a myth. They’re learning, and our role is to teach them. But misbehavior in a toddler is really just behavior in a curious way.
Misbehavior in a toddler is really just behavior in a curious way.
Toddlers aren’t consciously making “bad decisions” or doing the “wrong thing.” Their behavior stems from curiosity or an inability to regulate their emotions. (For example, my son was likely pouring the shampoo out just to see what would happen if he did—he was learning about the world, not trying to misbehave.)
Dr. Cathryn said that we need to move away from punishing toddlers for tricky moments. When we punish, we aren’t teaching. If we can approach them calmly and work through them, we can show our children over time how to navigate their emotions.
How to Avoid Power Struggles Over Potty Training
Another myth that Dr. Cathryn sees in the toddler stage is believing that we need to force potty training. She pointed out that we don’t “teach” our children how to walk or reward them for every step they take. We simply give them safe spaces to pull up and begin walking at their own pace.
That’s how she believes we should approach potty training. We can foster a positive environment around the potty, but we don’t need to actively teach them.
In fact, Dr. Cathryn said there's an element of control and pressure that causes problems when we try to teach potty training. They can develop much more confidence in their ability with the right motivation and the right environment.
Dr. Cathryn said that “pre-potty training” is an important stage in normalizing the potty. We can do a lot of things before our children even show readiness that can set the stage for success when they are ready.
We can talk about pee and poop, normalizing bodily functions and helping make them feel comfortable. We can show them when we’re going to the bathroom and narrate what is happening. Then, later, when we bring out the potty and invite them to use it, the concept isnt’ foreign.
Dr. Cathryn pointed out that when we do this, the potty isn’t a big new concept that they are likely to rebel against—it’s already old news.
The Role of Unrealistic Expectations in Our Frustrations
Unrealistic expectations are often at the root of our own struggles in the toddler stage. Dr. Cathryn pointed out that when our children are infants, we know all of the milestones. We know when to expect them to crawl, say their first words, or walk.
But when they get a little bit older, we stop being aware of the developmental stages. Then, because we don’t know what to expect, we set unrealistic standards. We think that they should be able to do more than they are actually capable of doing.
One example of this is sharing. We often think that our toddlers should naturally be okay with sharing by the time they are playing with their peers. In reality, they don’t developmentally understand the concept of sharing.
Dr. Cathryn said it isn’t that they are bad or selfish—they just don’t grasp the concept yet. The same thing happens with hitting or biting in young toddlers, or even in reacting with defiance as they start to get a little bit older.
When toddlers are uncomfortable, they often respond in ways that are easy for us to misinterpret.
Dr. Cathryn pointed out that if you ask your child to do something and they stick out their tongue or yell that they hate you, it likely stems from them being uncomfortable. When toddlers are uncomfortable, they often respond in ways that are easy for us to misinterpret.
She said that what often happens then is if our child gets a rise out of us, the behavior starts to take on a new life of its own. Kids love power, and if they can get a reaction out of us they will likely continue the pattern.
Instead of a big reaction, we could say something like, “Oh, I see that upset you.” or “I see you really didn’t like that” and move on. Dr. Cathryn said we can always revisit the conversation later—but it’s important to avoid lectures or making a bigger deal out of little behaviors than we need to.
Why We Don’t Need to Win Power Struggles with Toddlers
One of the biggest myths of toddlerdom that Dr. Cathryn identified is that we need to win power struggles. She said that the best thing to do with a power struggle is sidestep it—not dig your heels in.
Think of power struggles like a tug-of-war. If we pull back, our child will naturally pull back even harder. But if we let go of the rope, we avoid the battle and keep it from becoming bigger. Dr. Cathryn said that nobody wins when we’re both pulling on the rope.
Sometimes we equate power struggles with our kids to respect. We think that when our children try to exert their power they are being deliberately disrespectful.
But Dr. Cathryn said it’s helpful to take a second and view the situation from a toddler’s perspective. Often, toddlers are digging in their heels because they have an incredible drive to discover their independence—and that’s what we should want them to do.
It’s helpful to take a second and view the situation from a toddler’s perspective.
They often feel very conflicted in these moments because they want to exert their independence but they also want to feel loved or even be hugged by us. Sometimes that’s the best way to respond—even if our knee-jerk reaction is to pick up the rope and pull.
When we view toddler behavior as “respectful” or “disrespectful,” we’re looking from our own perspective—not from theirs. We’re thinking about our needs. But they aren’t developmentally in a place to deliberately show disrespect.
How to Embrace Normal Toddler Behavior
Dr. Cathryn is realistic about the toddler stage—she knows that it isn’t always easy. But she also knows that there are good things about it as well.
She pointed out that toddlers are honest, beyond belief, which can be wonderful. They are also passionate, persistent, and energetic. They are full of love, and they are constantly learning.
Dr. Cathryn also pointed out that they are so much more capable than we assume. Often, giving them responsibility or inviting them to help in the home can be a great way to let them develop their drive for independence and keep them involved in something right with us.
Toddlers are so much more capable than we assume.
We can have our toddlers help us prepare dinner or clean or get involved in the home. They want to feel empowered, independent, and capable.
Ultimately, the best way to approach toddler behavior is to understand that it is normal—and in most cases, it’s vital to their learning and development.
If it feels hard, know that it’s not because something is wrong or that you are failing—it’s that your child is learning, growing, and dealing with feelings that are sometimes overwhelming. It’s okay to feel frustrated—but the way we approach the situation does matter.
Taking a step back to pause and think about our own reactions can help stop us from contributing to the issues or escalating toddler behavior.
If you’re struggling with navigating your child’s behavior, our mom therapists can help! We offer parenting support for every step of your journey. Book a FREE 15 minute virtual therapy consult today!