Analyze This: Your Toddler's Weird Behavior

What's really going on in your toddler's little head when she shoves peas in her ear, guzzles bathwater, or strips naked in the store? We asked experts to interpret little kids' oddest behaviors and give advice on the sanest ways to handle them.

  • Kate Powers

    Mystifying Move: Taking off his clothes anytime, anywhere

    Expert Analysis: Toddlers love being in their birthday suit, as Jen Fleece knows all too well. "My kids start stripping the minute I pull the car into the driveway," says the mom from Athens, Georgia. "They'll actually leave a trail of clothes from the car to the front door. It's like they're competing to see who can get naked the fastest!"

    Little kids will happily bare everything for several reasons. First, understanding a complex concept like modesty is way over your child's head at this point. Plus, toddlers are still learning about the difference between public and private behavior ("If I can take my clothes off at bathtime, why not do it in the middle of the post office too?"). Being able to disrobe is also a source of pride, and he might do it to seize control -- you may have put him in a cute suit, but that doesn't mean he has to stay in it!

    Until he can comprehend why life isn't always clothing-optional, set clear guidelines: Tell him that it's okay to be naked when he's at home, but he needs to wear clothes (and keep them on) whenever you go out or have company. Giving him choices when it's time to get dressed ("Do you want your green pants or jeans?") may get him to cooperate, as will letting him know the consequences ("You won't be able to play outside if you don't get dressed").

  • Image Source/ Veer

    Mystifying Move: Banging her head over and over again on the crib railing before she goes to sleep

    Expert Analysis: Until toddlers have the words to tell you when they're tired or anxious, they have to rely on nonverbal ways to comfort themselves, and head-banging is one of them. While it looks (and sounds!) freaky and dangerous, it's a very common and usually harmless habit, says Parents advisor Kyle D. Pruett, MD, author of Me, Myself, and I: How Children Build Their Sense of Self. "Your child isn't trying to hurt herself; she's simply soothed by the rhythm created by banging her head."

    Your kid will probably grow out of this behavior by age 3. In the meantime, it's fine to ignore it. At most, help her find other ways to wind down at bedtime, such as listening to relaxing music. Don't order her to stop, since she may keep doing it just to get your attention, says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Toddler Books>. However, if your child cuts or bruises herself, or if she seems to use head-banging as a way of separating herself from the world, make an appointment with your pediatrician.

  • Jim Franco

    Mystifying Move: Holding his breath to get what he wants

    Expert Analysis: Breath-holding is basically your toddler's twist on throwing a classic tantrum. He'll typically do it when he's overwhelmed, especially if he has an emotionally intense temperament, says Helen F. Neville, RN, author of Is This a Phase? Child Development & Parent Strategies, Birth to 6 Years. The best way to nip it in the bud is by not giving in to his demands. Otherwise, you're teaching him that holding his breath is the ticket to getting his way.

    While it's obviously scary to watch your toddler go blue in the face, rest assured that even in the worst-case scenario (he passes out briefly, which is rare but can happen), he'll automatically start breathing again, says Neville. If your child does faint, tell your pediatrician about it just to be on the safe side.

  • BananaStock/Jupiter

    Mystifying Move: Drinking bathwater

    Expert Analysis: You offer your kid water all day long and she often insists she's not thirsty. So why is H2O suddenly so enticing in the tub? "To your toddler, it's like she's at a big tea party and she's sitting in the teapot," says Douglas. Although it's unlikely your kid will get sick from sipping bathwater, tell her to stop and take away cup-shaped bath toys, washcloths, and anything else she's putting up to her mouth. If she still slurps, distract her or drain the tub and call it quits.

  • Buff Strickland

    Mystifying Move: Shoving every little thing up his nose or into his ear

    Expert Analysis: Your toddler isn't just curious about the world around him -- his body is exciting new terrain too. "Your child has discovered he has this body, and it's all his and it's fascinating!" says Dr. Pruett. Inserting beads, peas, rocks, and whatever other orifice-size items he can find into his nostrils or ears is part of his exploration.

    If you're already super-vigilant about avoiding potential choking hazards, you're probably doing a good job of keeping your toddler away from a lot of the risky small stuff. But be wary of other things that might not raise a red flag, like pieces of crayons, french fries, and spaghetti. If you do catch him in the act, say, "Little things are for holding, not for putting in our body" or "Food goes in your mouth, not in your nose."

    What if it's too late to stop him? If he stuck something up his nose, encourage him to gently blow and it may fall out. But if it's really jammed in there -- or he's wedged something far into his ear -- have the pediatrician dig it out.

  • Kathryn Gamble

    Mystifying Move: Tossing a present aside and playing with the box instead

    Expert Analysis: You pick out the perfect gift for your toddler, yet he's more amused by what you consider trash. But try to see it from your child's point of view. Yes, he thinks the toy is cool (and he'll play with it eventually), but just look at that box! It's overflowing with possibilities. "He can climb in it, wear it as a hat, or pretend it's a house, and there's no adult telling him what to do with it," says Douglas. You should be psyched that he loves that box, because pretend play is the best way for your toddler to learn about the world around him, says Dr. Pruett. "Everything your child finds -- from a dead worm to a piece of paper -- could spark his imagination."

    Bottom line: Your child wasn't born knowing manners or how much things cost, so he has no clue that a LeapPad is worth $60 and the box, mere pennies. Enjoy this brief period while it lasts. Pretty soon he'll be demanding a Wii and an iPod, and you'll pine for the days when his idea of fun was so frugal.

  • BananaStock/ Jupiter

    Mystifying Move: Developing logic-defying eating habits

    Expert Analysis: Making a meal for a toddler often feels like being trapped in an episode of Hell's Kitchen you can't possibly win. Either your kid is on a food jag (it's crustless cheese sandwiches and applesauce or nothing at all!) or she's extremely fickle -- she can't get enough corn one day, and labels it yucky and dumps it on the floor the next.

    You probably know by now that a food fight can be a thinly veiled power struggle. But it often happens because kids can't always communicate clearly. "When your child says, 'I don't like it,' she may really mean 'I don't want it right now,'" says Neville. "No one craves the same foods all the time, but your child doesn't know how to explain that."

    Your best bet is to keep offering her a variety of foods and remind yourself that food jags do end. And if it seems as if your child eats less than a baby sparrow, don't panic. Toddlers don't need nearly as many calories as rapidly growing infants do, so a drop in appetite is normal at this stage, says Dr. Pruett. Just be sure to ask your pediatrician whether your picky kid needs a multivitamin.

  • Bryan McCay

    Mystifying Move: Reading the same books over and over again

    Expert Analysis: Just as you have a favorite book or song, your child is developing her own preferences, and she'll become increasingly vocal about her likes and dislikes. But repetition also serves a greater purpose: "Toddlers are beginning to understand that there are things they can count on, which makes them feel safe," explains Mary Borowka, a child psychotherapist in Chappaqua, New York. "Hearing the same story again and again helps them to understand that the world has order and they have some control over it."

    Repetition also allows your child to narrow her focus on practicing certain skills, says Ari Brown, MD, a Parents advisor and author of Toddler 411. For example, reading Goodnight Moon several times in a row might seem tedious to you, but your toddler is learning new words, figuring out what's going on in the pictures, and memorizing what happens after the cow jumps over the moon. When your child feels like she's gotten what she needs from the book, she'll move on to something new.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Mystifying Move: Clinging to you one minute and pulling away the next

    Expert Analysis: Now that your child is mobile, he's gotten a little taste of independence -- and he likes his newfound freedom to roam around on his own. But wandering away from Mommy or Daddy can be a bit scary too. "Parents are the secure base for toddlers," says Parents advisor Kathleen McCartney, PhD, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "So, it's not uncommon for new walkers to want to come back and make contact." And once your child feels reassured, he'll be ready to get down and explore his environment again. You might notice this behavior more when he's in unfamiliar areas, like a friend's house, where he'll flip-flop between wanting to check out his new surroundings and needing you close by in the strange place.

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Mystifying Move: Being obsessed with the computer

    Expert Analysis: If you didn't pay much attention to your computer, chances are your child wouldn't either. But toddlers take their cues from you, and since you spend time at the computer every day, answering e-mails or looking up recipes, your curious 1-year-old wants to know what's so great about it. Plus, acting like Mom and Dad -- whether it's trying on your sunglasses or holding up the cell phone to her ear -- makes your child feel closer to you, and she loves the positive reaction she gets from doing it. But she's not mimicking you just for attention. "Imitation is an early form of learning," says Borowka. "By copying others, she's developing fine motor and cognitive skills -- and she's figuring out how the world works."

  • Fancy Photography/Veer

    Mystifying Move: Only wanting his father

    Expert Analysis: It's hard not to take it personally when you feel snubbed by your child. But the truth is he's not doing it on purpose -- in fact, it's not really about you. "Toddlers don't know that they're hurting your feelings or leaving you out," explains Borowka. "That's not even on their radar -- they're too focused on their own needs." And sometimes hanging out with Daddy meets a particular need. Around 12 months, kids start to realize that they get something different from each parent. Mothers tend to be more nurturing and calming, while fathers are generally more playful. Your child might be in the mood for the loud, fun way Dad helps him brush his teeth. Or it might be something as simple as wanting extra time with your spouse because he's been at work all day. Either way, you can rest easy knowing that your kid will be crying "Mommy! Mommy!" again soon.

    Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

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  • Alexandra Grablewski