irrational todler

Amelia, told that she can’t have a fifth book before bedtime, shouts: “You are the meanest mommy! You are not invited to my birthday party!” Derek, when offered a choice between carrots and cheese, not ice cream, before dinner announces: “I don’t like the choices you are choicing me!” Alex hurls a bowl of his favorite cereal off the table and screams, “I said the red bowl, not the blue bowl!” If any of these exclamations sounds familiar, you are not alone. Welcome to what can feel like the Wild West of toddlerhood.

But seen through the eyes of the child, and through the lens of development, these behaviors, while maddening, are utterly normal, and signal important milestones are being achieved. Further, these incidents don’t have to be dreaded, as they are opportunities to teach children to manage their emotions, learn to cope with frustration and disappointment, and find ways to feel in control of their ever-expanding worlds in prosocial, acceptable ways.

Getting clear on expectations is critical because the meaning we assign to a child’s behavior influences how we manage our own emotions and reactions to the behavior at hand. If we see the behavior as manipulative or purposely designed to drive us crazy, then we are much more likely to react in angry or harsh ways that escalate instead of calm our child. If, instead, we see these behaviors in the context of normal development, then we can approach our children with empathy and be more effective in teaching good coping skills.

Here are some important factors that influence young children’s behavior that are helpful to keep in mind when dealing with challenging behaviors:

1) Young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is normal and to be expected. Toddlers don’t have a real understanding of time—they live and react in the moment. They have very little self-control. They want what they want when they want it.

2) Toddlers are becoming increasingly aware that they are separate beings—that they can have different thoughts and feelings from others. This means that while they want to sleep in your bed, they know this is not what you have in mind. This new cognitive milestone, coupled with toddlers’ innate drive to exert some control over their world, leads to an all-out effort to bring you around to their way of thinking. They are extremely clever and will try any and all tactics at their disposal (calling you names, threatening to never go to sleep, or throwing a knock-down-drag-out tantrum, to name a few). This is often what many parents call “manipulation,” but which I like to think of as strategic, as beautifully illustrated by this shrewd three-year-old. When she cried out for food every night after she was put to bed (not more than 15 minutes after having passed up the snack offered at book-reading time), her parents appeared at her bedside, snacks in hand. The next morning she told her dad, “I just want to let you know that tonight after you put me to bed I am going to be very hungry!”

3) Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them at this young age. Think about it—many adults are still working on being aware of their feelings and choosing to act on them in healthy ways.

So, what’s a parent to do?

  • Stay in control when your child is spiraling out of control. Managing your emotions and reactions is one of most important parenting tools at your disposal. When parents get reactive and emotional, it tends to escalate the child’s upset and intensify power struggles. When your child is losing it, she needs you to be her rock and stay sane and rational.
  • Keep in mind that you can’t actually make your child do anything–eat, sleep, pee, poop, talk, or stop having a tantrum. What you do have control over is how you respond to your child’s actions, as this is what guides and shapes their behavior. If throwing a tantrum results in extra iPad time, a later bedtime, or simply getting more of your attention, your toddler is putting two and two together, making an important assessment: “Excellent strategy! Put that one in the win column.”

    This is not manipulation, it is a smart calculation, and means you are raising a really competent kid. He is figuring out successful ways to get what he wants, which is awesome. It is our job is to teach our kids which strategies are effective and which aren’t. So any behaviors you don’t want him to rely on can’t be successful, or what would be the motivation to give them up?

  • Show empathy and validate the feeling. “I know the blue shirt is your favorite and you are really disappointed that you can’t wear it today, but it’s in the wash.” It isn’t feelings that are the problem, it’s how they get acted on that can be problematic. The more you validate feelings, the less likely children are to have to act on them.
  • Set the limit and provide acceptable choices. “Your choice today is the red or yellow shirt.” If your child refuses the “choices you are choicing” him, then you let him know that you will make the choice. He may throw a fit. As calmly as you can, put a shirt on him and move along so he experiences the consequence of his actions. That is how children ultimately learn to make good decisions—by experiencing the outcomes of their choices and assessing which get them what they want and which don’t. If a tantrum leads to you taking that blue shirt out of the laundry, you: 1) give him the false expectation that he will get everything he wants, making it harder for him to learn to be flexible and accept alternatives—a critical life skill for getting along in the world; 2) send him the message that tantrums or refusal to cooperate are successful strategies, which he will naturally continue to rely on; and 3) communicate that you don’t think he can handle this disappointment, a missed opportunity for him to experience that he can indeed survive wearing a different shirt—building flexibility and important coping skills.

When my son was three and my daughter one, after over 600 consecutive nights of his getting to choose the books we read at bedtime, my daughter spoke up and said, “I want Clifford!” Since it seemed utterly fair for her to finally get a chance to choose, I promptly started to read about the big red dog, when my son shouted: “I NEVER GET TO CHOOSE THE BOOK!” What planet do you live on? (said the voice in my head). Talk about irrational! I completely mishandled it (despite being a child development specialist even back then), shaming him for being so selfish and engaging in all sorts of inappropriate and ineffective responses, like freezing him out and refusing a hug at bedtime. I still cringe when I think about it 20 years later. But I ultimately learned from my mistakes and made some course corrections. It’s never too late.

About Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C

Claire Lerner, L.C.S.W.-C is a licensed clinical social worker and child development specialist. She served as the Director of Parenting Resources at ZERO TO THREE (ZTT) for over 18 years, overseeing the development of all parenting content, print and digital. Recently she has taken on the position of Senior Parenting Advisor to focus on expanding the organization’s reach directly to parents.

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  • Abdullah The Sheik of Tikrit

    No Arab child would dare throw his bowl of figs. If he did, he would immediately be thrown to the jackels.

    • sfwm.son

      such a helpful comment…

      • ReggieOtis

        explains a lot though, no?

        • Suzy Adams

          No. This is obviously a troll. Stop being racist.

      • Abdullah The Sheik of Tikrit

        Ya Allah!

        Your comment pleases Allah.

    • abe

      Abdullah, go back to your stone age country

      • Abdullah The Sheik of Tikrit


        My country invented civilization. You are the animal. Go back to your ghetto!

      • ejk

        Abe shut up

  • sfwm.son

    The last part was tough to read…don’t we all have a few moments we hold on to where we were just not good parents? Thinking we were doing the best, most useful thing. But we cannot hold onto those moments (easier said than done) because they are gone.

  • Andrew Brown

    While this is good advice it doesn’t take into account a parents own limits and added stress of real life. This article makes it just sounds like it is the parent and the child and there is nothing else going on in the world, or the child at that momment and at that time is acting out just in front of you. Such as when my child is screaming at the top of her lungs for ice cream and I am driving in my car and the windows are up and she starts banging my seat with her feet, screaming and then start hurtling things at me from the back seat, or when she screams so loud that the scream are so loud the neighbors can hear next door as well as anyone passing by making sound like I am physically harming her when all I did was put her in a time out chair. Never mind I myself have very sensitive hearing and it physically hurts my ears. I just wish they didn’t make it sound idealistic add in the extra burden that I am human and I struggle with my own emoitions. I am not saying my love one is a monster, or that I do not love her and I would lay my life down for her of course I would. But having an absolute rage monster in your face exploding throwing object and kicking and screaming and crying until she is red and choking , and then getting down her face and saying do you want the red shirt or the blue shirt. Then trying to force the shirt on her. Yeah that aint going to happen and turn out well.

    • Taylor A Anna

      Or when your child is screaming and throwing things at complete strangers at Walmart, but you won’t have a chance to stop again until the weekend, and you’re out of toilet paper….. Being a single parent makes it exceptionally difficult because I don’t have a backup to step in when things get difficult and I’m at my limit or if I have a migraine, and I don’t have somebody who can watch her at the drop of a hat if she’s tired/hungry but we need to run to the store or we’re at the DMV on a time crunch.

      • Andrew Brown

        Yep had to tell my dear one I need to step out of room right now because we both need a time out and I try to go somewhere in the house. I even locked the bathroom door if it is only for a second to myself. I feel your pain as I was in the store with my young one. She wanted a toy and it is two weeks before her birthday. I said not now soon it will be your birthday. She then was riding in the cart. Started screaming at the top of her lungs. Stood on the objects that I was trying to take out of the cart to allow the clerk to ring up. She blocked my arms and started to smash the other things in the cart. The only thing I could think of is to pick her up and put her under my arms and make a beeline to the car. No explaination to the clerk. She then yell all the way home. I just didn’t say anything until we got home where I finally say, “You do not act that way at the store, and if you do you will not be able to go to store with me.” The good news for me is that I can sorta do this since she is in Kindergarten and I have spouse. When I asked her why she said, “because I was mad at you because I wanted a toy.” I knew then it was all about testing limits.

    • Wan Lee

      It may bleed off some stress but yelling back is pretty pointless. And considering the size difference and that often the little darlings are trapped in their car seats, using our size and bigger voices seems a bit brutish, but I’ll admit I’ve found myself there. Being hit with a sippy cup while driving will definitely lead to a rather loud long-winded lecture on road safety to a three-year-old screaming her ‘unicorn calls’ right back at me. As long as we ‘make up’ at the end, explain how we were feeling and why we lost our tempers and then hug it out I don’t think it’s all that harmful for our kids to know we’re human and can feel frustrated and angry just like they do.

      • Andrew Brown

        Agreed I just try to remind myself that yelling back, “Don’t Yell at me”. Is something to double message, even when try and lie to myself a bit about I didn’t yell I just used a firm voice. The best I did was pull over the car on a side street and take her out and sat her on the curve and say we are not going anywhere until we are both calm. I should have preface that this all started out with a desire for ice-cream on her part. And I said no not today. I know that there voice and body is the only thing they have control over. So in the end we did hug it out and say I love you. I just wish the person would paint a more realistic what is to be in the full thick of blow up screaming throwing kicking creature, and an adult is to try and reason with them or force them to do something. I learn long ago with my students with behavioral oppositional issues is that you can only say about one to words because the reasoning part of the brain shut down. But it is nice to know we are in this together.

        • Andrew Brown

          I think I have identified as part of myself that while I am very patient with many things I know that I am not good at conflict having grown up in family where there was a lot of direct conflict and in your face. I was always the peacemaker in the family so I got very good stuffing my feelings which wasn’t good because when one stuff feelings then they tend to come out in explosive manner. When confronted with head on confratation I will get mad fast before I know it my voice is raised. Partly it was model behavior from one of my parents. So I always now just try and take momment and step back and remind myself to do what I tell my daughter to take a breath and wait a second before responding. It helps to remind myself no one died and what type of shirt she has on isn’t going to matter that much.

    • Vickie Lynn Smith

      Of course the charge is more intense because it’s you. You matter more. I’ve always said we should send toddlers to negotiate with the hardliners , they would have them on their knees in a matter of minutes . Because that is what it FEELS like . Do some coping things which help you…like counting to ten before you interact. So you can remember you have more experience and more stamina and reminding yourself you can wait until she shrieks it out and can listen. All behaviors you can model for her , not convince her of because she is a toddler ..logic shmogic. Also remove loose objects from the back seat. And move the car seat to the other side so they are kicking an empty seat. Why make this harder for both of you. You are judging yourself and this kid about things none of you has control over , like the emotional storm that is a tantrum. It’s not always possible , but I have pulled over the car and waited , until the screaming stops because this is just as distracted driving as being on the phone etc. There can be other treats besides ice cream. I did allow my daughter headphones and an audio version of her favorite book, plus the hard copy inn the car. She found this a way to self sooth eventually and would even ask for it …Kids love the ‘repeatable experience , its comforting…So favorite music too…My daughter would sing along with the Pocahontas soundtrack which she loved , but her thrash metal version of The Colors of the Wind was still preferable to screaming that yes does reach the decibles that dolphins use to stun their prey….

    • Pearly

      Yes yes and yes! Such a valid and real point from a parent’s perspective!!

    • Miles Johnson

      My son is 16 months old, for the last 6 months we have been watching a sign language video every night before bedtime. About 2 months ago he finally started doing the signs on his own. Last week my wife, while playing around with him, taught him to scream. Now he has been trying out his lungs every so often. I tell him “inside voices” and respond “too loud” with my ears covered. I try to put a sour look on my face and give him a negative affirmation if he continues (1time). So far so good. My point is, he never screamed deliberately until my wife showed him, I mean he cries of course but not screams. Maybe take a look at where she learned that behavior from and try correcting that first

    • Kimberly Todd

      I totally concur. My son is 6 and still has tantrums. He’s on the autism spectrum and has adhd and sensory issues. I am just as emotionally disregulated as he is when it’s the end of the day and everything has been a fight. He tried stabbing me with a pencil while we were writing an apology letter to his teacher… Guess how calmly I handled that situation?! Thank God for klonapin I took two after sending him to his room and I couldn’t talk to him until they kicked in. Woohoo parent life.

  • Valerie N Jeff Main

    Just joining the excitement of parenthood and realize that you have to stay calm, pick your battles, and when you make a decision stick with it. My husband gets mad at me for not getting more upset at my son when he does things but I think staying calm is key. Even my husband doesn’t respond well to anger. lol. But I have to agree that kids can be cute, adorable, monsters that love to drive you crazy!! And it’s even harder working all day and then laying down law for the few hours you see them but it has to be done. I keep in mind that one day I wanna like my child as an adult and If I don’t do what I need to now that may not happen and they may not like me.

  • უძლევი

    ბავშვებს გამზრდელის სიყვარული ესაჭიროებათ. სიყვარულით გაზრდილი ბავშვი კარგი ადამიანი გაიზრდება. არ უნდა ამას კვერის დაკვრა სერტიფიცირებული სოციალური მუშაკის, პროფესორის თუ აკადემიკოსის მიერ ქადაგება.

  • Janie Bacelo-Cornell


  • Miles Johnson

    I’m guessing the one that is the handful, is also the younger of the two. It’s because with one child, the one gets 100% of mommy or daddy’s and sometimes boths attention. The younger one will NEVER experience that feeling of being the number 1. Instead child number 2 has to share and sometimes fight for attention. Children are a book of blank pages, the first couple of chapters are ghost written by the parents and ultimately influence the entire book. What you put in is what you get out

    • Too Much

      You know what they say about assuming. You are incorrect, it is my first that is spirited so there goes your theory. And you are right, child number 2 does have to fight for attention sometimes, especially when the older sibling is so dominant. It’s a very frustrating dynamic for all of us. People are simply born with certain personality traits, and as parents we can do the best we can to try and guide those traits to present themselves in a positive way as often as possible. I also don’t discount the fact that perhaps my husband’s and my personalities are not best suited to rear a child who is so dominant and resistant. Would she fare better with a parent who is more meek? Or would she walk all over them and be out of control? Who knows.

  • Andrew Brown

    Thank you to those who offered will meaning advice. More then anything it is important that no one raises a child by themselves and there are opportunities to share view points and experiences without judging. With that said having worked with children all my life and 10 years of Special Education training and life who is Pyschiatrist I can say we have ample experience and training to deal with most situations. My point with my comment about getting real was just that. This article was to unrealistic in nature and took out the point of view that as parents we are humans, and children need to see our emotions to know that we are not robots. We also need to demonstrate to our children it is okay to express emotions but obiviously in a healthy way. Nothing prepared me for objects to come flying at me in the car. And no one in my family demostrated this behavior it was base response on her part and trying out a behavior. Just as one day she walked in and threw herself on the floor and pounded with her feet and hands because we were out of her favorite breakfast food. No one neither my wife or myself throw ourselves on the floor and bang with our fist. I believe these are just physical big emotions for little ones and they have to express them in a very physical way in part it is learning about what their bodies can do and in the end their bodies is the only part of their world that they have control over. In the article for instance it said give choice like the shirt red one or green one, then if the child doesn’t make the choice with in the time limit then the parent makes the choice. Speaking for myself I found this to be less then successful and enters into a power battle. With, “I don’t want either one of those” (power battle #1.)Stated in screaming No with less then time to spare to get the little one off to school. Just because I make the choice for her doesn’t one mean she is going to fight me putting it on -power battle #2. Then power battle will be try and make me keept it on power battle #3. So what to do the best I found to do is either one or two things resort to bargain you put your shirt on and you get a sticker, or someother reward, or let her choose the t-shirt wanted and have her suffer the natural consequences of being cold. Although this can have a consequence later from some well meaning school person who said you know your daughter came to school in a t-shirt on day it was below 32. In short summary we are human as parents and kids need to see us as human with expressing emotions in a healthy manner so that they know they can express emotions in a healthy way. I can say I have met a number of adults in this world who throw tantrums screaming and crusing at the cashier when they get total wrong or the C.C. is denied. Or the angry person at the ticket counter who argues with the agency about not being able to get upgrade. Not to mention those who honk the horn when they think the person in front of them isn’t moving fast enough.

    • Kitten

      I read the article as “Here are some ideal things to strive for, but no one is perfect, not even me, so don’t beat yourself up when you don’t do these. Just pick yourself up and learn from it.”


    Acceptable choices.