Get a grip on your toddler's wild behavior.

How to Control Unruly Toddlers

by Erica Loop

Challenging is often the first word that comes to mind when confronting your unruly toddler -- if not the first, it's at least the nicest word. From tantrums to ultra-excessive energy and everything in-between, toddlers seem to have cornered the market on out-of-control antics. Whether you are having unruly issues in a public place such as an all-out scream-fest at the mall or just can't take the slew of "No" from your little one at home, there's no need to throw in the towel. Believe it or not, there are ways to help control these behaviors.

Figure out what's at the root of your little one's challenging actions. Unruly behavior doesn't happen for absolutely no reason. Sometimes a behavior that may seem unruly or "bad" is actually just part of typical toddler-dom or even your child's temperament, while other times there's a real cause such as frustration or fear.

Decide on what you can and can't control. You can put a pin in temper tantrums, whining and other unruliness, but you can't change your toddler's temperament. Just because you are quiet and reserved doesn't mean that your toddler is a mini-mommy and will follow suit. Your child didn't choose an intensely emotional or highly active temperament -- and why would he, given the difficulties those traits make for most kids? Make a list of the unruly behaviors, think about them and decide which ones are less part of him and more part of situations or outside factors.

Help your little one handle emotions caused by strong feelings, such as anger. Kids aren't born knowing how to get a grip on things that upset them. This is a learned behavior. An inability to do this often results in the terrible-two-style unruly behavior. Give your toddler words to express what's going on his head. Make these simple, such as, "I know that you are mad." Offer help with an explanation and a solution. For example, "You are mad because you can't reach your train. If you ask me to get it for you I will."

Give your toddler choices. Sometimes unruliness, especially whining and the repeated "No!" result from your dictatorship. While sometimes there are non-negotiables, such as "No, you can't turn on the stove," other times you can give your toddler choices. Offer two options, when appropriate, and let him feel in control.

Redirect your toddler. If he's running around the house knocking over your favorite china, redirect her energy to something else, such as dancing to music or playing outside in the yard.

Try a time out. If all else fails and your redirection only results in a new kind of unruly behavior, remove your toddler from the situation. Move him to a safe, quiet place that is free from distractions like the TV or toys. Give her a few minutes -- typically one minute per year of the child's age -- to calm down.


  • Always be consistent when your toddler is unruly. Avoid giving a time out for some things and caving in on others. This sends a mixed message and may make him feel that he is king of the castle.


  • Never resort to physical punishment, shaming or verbal abuse. No one will deny that unruly toddler is enough to make you scream. That said, you are the grownup and it's your job to keep calm and defuse the situation.

About the Author

Based in Pittsburgh, Erica Loop has been writing education, child development and parenting articles since 2009. Her articles have appeared in "Pittsburgh Parent Magazine" and the website PBS Parents. She has a Master of Science in applied developmental psychology from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Education.

Photo Credits

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