It’s amazing to watch the transformations that our children go through during the infant and toddler years, starting out as seemingly helpless newborns and blossoming into toddlers who can walk, talk, make decisions, and show preferences for certain foods, toys, and company.

But with a toddler’s growing independence and curiosity can come some challenging behavior, including repeatedly doing something you’ve asked them to stop.

An important skill that many parents want to begin to instill at this age is internal control or self-regulation/self-control. In order to teach that, we set limits until the child learns how to behave appropriately. Some people frame their child’s response to limits as “disobedience.” It may be more helpful to think of what you are doing as following through with a limit you have set, until he can learn and can control himself. In other words, you are not trying to make him do what you say, you are helping him learn limits and how to behave in an acceptable way.

Learning the Ways of the World

Toddlers aren’t born knowing right from wrong. As a parent, we teach them that it’s not OK to throw toys at their sibling because we want them to learn to be kind. Toddlers and even young children don’t understand why it’s not OK to color all over the walls or to dump cat food all over the floor—again, it’s our job to teach children what behaviors are socially appropriate versus those that are not.

Much of toddler behavior arises out of curiosity (“what happens when I pour milk onto my toast?”) and not knowing how the world works. Experimentation with their world is essential to brain development and normal social interactions. For this post, however, we are talking about behavior that happens after you’ve asked them to stop. For example, they keep pulling the cat’s tail when you’ve told them not to. We need to remember that maybe the reason they continue to pull the cat’s tail is because they are curious if the cat will continue to yowl.

Research has found that much of the time, children are motivated by positive needs. Besides being curious, they are learning how to be independent and make decisions. Their brains crave information and they are preparing their brains for success in school.

But, from time to time, you might find problem behavior that occurs because:

  • Your toddler is expressing big feelings that he needs your support to control.
  • Being told “no” becomes a silly game. For example, running after your toddler when you’ve told them they need to stay with you.
  • Misbehaving gets the child attention.

An Ounce of Prevention

To encourage positive behavior, start with toddler-proofing your home. Having less “don’t touch” areas of your home reduces the number of times you have to say “no.” If your toddler can’t keep his hands off Dad’s model train set, maybe it’s time to move it to the garage or store it away until the child can handle it more delicately.

Other toddler-proofing ideas include:

  • Put fragile and valuable items out of reach.
  • Use childproof latches on cupboards and use doorknob covers.
  • If needed, use baby gates to close off access to certain parts of the home.
  • Arrange your toddler’s toys so they are easy to get to.

Setting Limits

When misbehavior does occur, setting clear, firm, consistent limits can help stop the behavior and keep it from coming back.

For example, if your toddler keeps pulling the cat’s tail:

  • Move down close by your child and get at their eye level.
  • Gently hold your child’s hand. Acknowledge their motivation: “I know you want to play with the cat, but we don’t pull his tail.”
  • Show and tell your child what you’d like them to do: “Use gentle touches with Kitty. Pet her like this.”
  • Give them time to try again using their gentle touches.
  • Offer lots of praise when they do as you ask.

If your toddler is still struggling to follow your requests, back up your instructions with logical consequences: “If you can’t be gentle with the iPad, I will take it upstairs for 5 minutes.” After the time is up, return the iPad and give your child another chance to use it gently.

If you feel your child is misbehaving to get your attention, try giving a little more positive attention at different times of the day, to teach them that good behavior gets positive attention. Try “catching them being good,” noting when they are being helpful or playing well with others.

With some experimentation, you’ll find the right balance between allowing your child’s independence and curiosity to blossom while also setting limits that will help them gain greater self control.


This article is brought to you by Parenting Now! Parenting Educators and authors Amanda Bedortha, Claire Davis and Lynne Swartz and consultant Jay Thompson (  Parenting Now! is passionate about happy, healthy families. For more information about Parenting Now! please visit their website ( or contact us at

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