Understanding Toddlers and Young Children

See also: Dealing with Tantrums

Probably the most important aspect of parenting is to understand your child.

That is not necessarily to understand everything they say, but to understand their behaviour and why it is happening. Only then can you resolve problems on a long-term basis.

Many parenting books and websites will give you advice about what to do for a specific problem, whether that is sleeping, eating or potty-training. Of course you have to deal with the behaviour. But the key to a long-term solution is to understand why the problem is happening so that you can prevent it from recurring.

This page provides some ideas for helping you to understand your child and your family dynamics.

Getting to the Heart of the Problem

Three Questions

Child psychologist Tanya Byron, in her book Your Child, Your Way, says that in dealing with behavioural problems in children, there are three questions that need to be answered:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Why was it a problem in the first place?

The third question is perhaps the core of parenting. Much advice seems to start from the point of view that there is a ‘right way’ and a ‘solution’ to parenting. But Tanya Byron’s advice goes in a different direction: that every child is an individual, and that you have to get to the bottom of that child as a person and also as a member of the family.

In other words, you need to understand your child, and also yourself, and why you respond in certain ways to certain stimuli.

You may find it helpful to look at our page on Reflective Practice to help to develop your thinking.

The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy or ‘The Importance of Labels’

It can be very easy to label your child as a ‘problem’:

  • “His/her behaviour is always so bad, I don’t know what to do.”
  • “He/she is just dreadful around other children.”

But once you start thinking about your child like this, you start to see only that kind of behaviour.

Somehow, you miss any loving, smiling behaviour, or pleasant interactions with other children.

You become stressed in situations where you are concerned about your child’s behaviour. That, in turn, communicates itself to your child, who also becomes tense, and therefore more likely to misbehave.

It is called a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’: you believe your child will behave badly, so you act in such a way that this will happen, or that you will see it happening.


ATTITUDES drive THOUGHTS, which drive FEELINGS, which in turn drive BEHAVIOUR.

This works both positively and negatively.

The Importance of Attention

Children Like Attention.

This is a cliché, but it is one for a reason: because it is true.

It also means that children will do what they need to do to get your attention. If you pay no attention when they behave nicely, and immediately snap into full-on parenting mode when they start to misbehave, then they will misbehave more and more.

In other words, your response—which is triggered by your feelings, thoughts and attitudes—is actually what drives your child’s behaviour.

A Bit of Psychology...

How you feel about your child, and about parenting, is likely to be affected by your own childhood experiences, what has happened in your life since then, your overall self-esteem, and any number of other things that are going on in your life, including how your job is going, your relationships with other people, and so on.

This is completely normal.

But, and this is important, your child is not responsible for any of these things.

We all know this intellectually, but it can be really hard to separate what else is going on from how you interact with your child. It is, however, really vital to try to do so.

Children often act as ‘emotional barometers’ within a family.

They will sense and act upon emotions in adults, many of which may be unacknowledged by the adults concerned. If you are tense and unhappy about something, your children will also be tense and unhappy, without understanding why. This will inevitably affect their behaviour, especially if they are too young to express their feelings in words.

In other words:

  1. Remember that you are the adult; and
  2. Before you start to get angry with your child, ask yourself what else is going on within the family that he or she is reacting to, which may include, but not be limited to, adult job changes, adult relationships, new siblings, and family bereavements.

Above all, try to stay calm and relax. Anxiety will only make you, and the child, more tense.

Development During the Toddler Years

The changes that happen to a child between the ages of about one year and three or four years, the years that can reasonably be described as ‘the toddler years’, are enormous.

During that time:

  • Children go from immobility—many do not crawl or move until more than a year old—to running around, climbing, skipping and so on. Their gross motor skills change and develop hugely.
  • Their fine motor skills also develop. They go from babies who want to hold a spoon but can’t do much with it into children who can draw, paint, and put thing x into place y.
  • They develop the ability to use language, in both speech and understanding.
  • They start to understand cause and effect, which may result in hours spent turning on and off a light, or pressing buttons on a computerised toy to make a certain noise, and which also leads to ‘trial-and-error’ learning.
  • They start to notice other children and adults, first through side-by-side play, and then later through genuine interaction. They start to understand that actions get reactions, and will do things to make adults laugh—or shout and get cross.
  • As part of noticing other people, they realise that they are an individual.

A toddler’s brain is still developing...

However much you would like your toddler to understand what you are saying, they are mostly not capable of processing large amounts of information.

It is, therefore, not worth spending any length of time discussing behaviour with them.

They just will not be able to take it in.

At the same time as all this change, toddlers are also aware of the adult world, and what adults are capable of doing. This, for many children, is hugely frustrating. They know what they want to do, but their developing skills are not yet sufficient, and many do not yet have enough language to explain the problem to an adult, either.

It is, perhaps, not surprising that the toddler years are renowned for tantrums.

The world, for toddlers, must be hugely confusing, surprising and frustrating much of the time. As the parent of a toddler, it is worth bearing this in mind as much as you can. It will help you to understand some of their difficulties and issues, and be more tolerant and understanding parents.