SPECIAL OFFER: - Limited Time Only!
(The ad below will not display on your printed page)

Why Are Toddlers So Moody?

"My daughter Sophie's disposition changes so quickly we call her Sybil," jokes Vicky Schwartz, of Miami Beach. "One second she's playing sweetly and then, if her baby sister even taps her, she starts screaming. Don't get me started on what happens if we put the meat too close to the potatoes."

Why so much drama over a little gravy? There are few things that are certain in life, but one thing you can always count on is that toddlers are moody. Sometimes your 2-year-old is brimming with smiley revelations -- where did he learn the word "unicorn," anyway? -- a mere minute later, the sky is falling, and fast.

The majority of these ups and downs are, to put it simply, a very normal part of growing up, and it's important not to mistake them for misbehavior, says Paula Levine, MD, a psychiatrist and founder of the Miami Counseling and Resource Center. To you, however, many of your child's perfectly normal mood swings are frustrating, not to mention noisy. Your mood could easily sour if you've driven all the way across town to your toddler's favorite ice cream shop, only to have him change his mind and dump his cone, rainbow sprinkles and all, in the parking lot.

Understanding why he's so mercurial and learning the best ways to adapt to his constantly shifting moods can help lower your stress levels and help him learn to tame his emotions.

Of Drama Queens and Kings

So why are toddlers so moody, and why are they so explosive when their moods shift gears? Lots of reasons, all of them purely developmental.

Reason #1: They can't communicate their wants and needs as well as they'd like to.

For kids between the ages of 1 and 3, the world is enormous, fascinating, and ever changing. It sounds great, but when you consider that most toddlers are under 3 feet tall and have a 20-word vocabulary, you start to realize how frustrating their lives can be.

When he was 2, Eric loved to color with crayons, according to his mom, Lisa McGonagle, who lives in Boston. The problem? He didn't know how to say "red," "yellow," and "blue," or how to ask for more crayons when his favorites broke. "In the middle of the activity he'd freak out for what seemed like no reason. But later, as he started to learn his colors, I realized he just couldn't find the blue or red crayon when he wanted it," says McGonagle.

What to do: Sometimes you're not going to be able to figure out what your child wants right away, "so stay calm and realize that the situation isn't anyone's fault," Dr. Levine says. "Then, try to help him by picking up items he might possibly want and labeling them." Say the name of each item out loud and point to it. It will help expand his vocabulary so he can tell you exactly what he wants in the future.

Reason #2: They have no concept of time.

"Delayed gratification" are two words no toddler on earth understands. Your child may know that he's thirsty, and may even tell you so. But when that juice box doesn't appear a nanosecond later, watch out. A calm afternoon can quickly turn stormy.

What to do: There's a big upside to this particular toddler phenomenon. Having no concept of time means that many toddlers get sidetracked very easily. Use this to your advantage! Despair over a delayed drink can quickly turn to joy over a sink full of bubbles, so always be at the ready with a distraction. You don't have to do a full-on juggling act. It just has to be appealing enough to warrant a change in attitude and activity.

Reason #3: They have trouble controlling their emotions.

A young child has had very little practice in managing his changing moods and emotions, so he's very easily swept away by strong feelings. Take 2-1/2-year-old Danni Bernstein. "The other night she was playing in the tub, having a grand old time. Then I told her it was time to get out," says her mom, Lana, of Miami Beach. "Not only were her screams blood-curdling, but she managed to soak everything in the entire bathroom with all her splashing and thrashing."

A corollary to this toddler mood rule: Toddlers don't have the logic and reasoning skills to move beyond their outrage. For example, Danni isn't yet able to realize that there are lots of other fun things to do when she gets out of the tub, such as hearing a story or cuddling with a lovey.

What to do: Calmly tell your child that while she can't stay in the bath or in the sandbox for as long as she may like, there are other activities that she can do. And to help her better understand her changing emotions, label them for her. For example, you could say, "I understand that you're having fun in the bath right now and you don't want to get out. That must make you angry."

Of course, it will take time before your toddler connects the words to the feelings. But if you continue to label her emotions, by the time she's a preschooler, she'll have a better understanding of how the words and feelings link up, and may even be able to help herself feel better.

Reason #4: They have trouble switching from one task to the next.

Danni was also demonstrating another classic trigger for toddler mood swings: making transitions. "It takes a lot of physical and mental energy to adapt to the ever-changing world," says Claire Lerner, author of Bringing Up Baby (Zero to Three Press, 2004). And sometimes a child who doesn't appear to be all that engaged in play is concentrating a lot harder than you think.

"Kids get very focused on one activity and then we expect them to change gears instantly. This sort of transition takes a toll on even an adult mind, so those expectations are way too high for children," Lerner says.

What to do: Take advantage of your child's burgeoning skills. Toddlers have a solid understanding of sequencing; they are well aware of how one action follows the next. Activity changeovers can be eased with warnings that come early and often, says Lerner.

In the bath, say, "Now we're going to wash your hair and then rinse it. After we rinse it, we're getting out of the bath," Lerner suggests. "Don't think you're coddling your toddler. These are coping skills she'll internalize and hopefully, use later when tackling bigger transitions, such as going to preschool."

Reason #5: They want to call all the shots and do exactly as they please.

And when they try, sometimes they find that they don't have the physical or mental skills to do what they want -- or worse, they're greeted with a big fat "no!" from Mom or Dad. Joyful curiosity turns to tears in a matter of seconds. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" should be the official anthem of the toddler years.

What to do: The bright side: Parents can often give them what they need. Temper your toddler's outbursts by giving her reasonable choices in which you control the outcome. For example, if she wants to wear a bathing suit to daycare and it's 30 degrees outside, take out two weather-appropriate outfits and let her choose which one she wants to wear. If she wants to mix and match and create a fashion don't, let her. The important point is to get her dressed for cold weather -- not make a fashion statement.

This same tactic is a masterful distraction technique as well. "When I'd tell Lila it was time to use the potty, she'd instantly protest," says Jane Barnes, of Washington, D.C. "Then I got two potties. Instead of telling her it was time to go, I'd say, 'Do you want to use the little potty or the big potty?' She became distracted by my question and forgot completely about objecting to the whole process."

Reason #6: They get tired and hungry very quickly.

Some toddlers tucker out within three or four hours of awakening in the morning. And unlike older kids, toddlers don't fuel up at meals. They tend to graze all day, a fact that's easy to forget when you're trying not to graze yourself. You won't be surprised to learn that tired, hungry kids are moody kids who cry on a dime.

What to do: First, try to plan your day around naptime. Most fellow parents understand the importance of these golden hours and won't push you for play dates during the nap zone. The same goes for doctor's appointments and group activities such as music classes.

Second, always have healthy portable snacks on hand. If your toddler didn't eat much of her lunch, you can give her a quick energy boost on the playground and you won't have to worry about her dissolving into a cranky mess.

Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to distract, entertain, or jolly your child into a better mood, things go south very quickly. This doesn't mean you're an incompetent parent -- or that you have an incorrigible child. Such outbursts are completely normal.

"Toddlers are busy teaching themselves which behaviors are successful in getting people to do what they want," says Daniel Broughton, MD, a pediatrician at the Mayo Clinic and a professor at the Mayo Graduate School of Medicine. Tantrums are just one of their many experiments. "But if you constantly give in to the screaming, you'll teach your child that this is an acceptable way to accomplish a goal."

So what do you do instead?

  • Don't try to rationalize or argue with a toddler. If he's screaming over a cookie, forget about that Oreo. Once you've hit tantrum ground zero, the cookie is no longer the focus of the problem -- controlling the situation takes center stage, Dr. Broughton says.
  • Put your toddler in a safe place -- his crib or playpen, for example -- and walk away for a minute. This will help your child calm down and soothe himself, as well as take him away from the temptation that spurred the tantrum.
  • When things are calmer, pick him up and carry on with your day. Whatever you choose to do, don't fork over that cookie. That would render the tantrum a success.

After some trial and error, your toddler will eventually learn that throwing tantrums won't get him what he wants, Dr. Broughton says.

Keep in Mind

All of these ideas may seem like a lot of work for a pretty short developmental period. But taking the time and patience to use them is well worth it, and someday, you may be able to adapt them to a moody teenager!

Brett Graff, a mother of two girls, is a freelance writer based in Key Biscayne, Florida.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, June 2005.