Your Toddler's Bizarre Behaviors Explained

Your kid sure is cute. But what's the deal with all her bizarre behaviors -- stripping naked, throwing food, and climbing on just about everything? We went to the experts to help you get a clue.

Q. Why does my toddler love being naked so much?

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Baby, he was born that way -- and sometimes it feels good to go au naturel. It could also be that a tag is scratching him, he's feeling hot, or it happens to be the perfect moment to do a dance (without the constraints of clothes). "Toddlers don't know social mores, so if they want out of their clothes they simply take them off," says Parents advisor Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First Three Years. Plus, once they can remove a shirt, diaper, or socks, they're excited to practice these skills. As long as your kid isn't mooning the mail carrier, let it go. Be careful how you react: If you crack up when he enters the dining room in his birthday suit, he may decide it's a great way to get attention during your next book-club meeting.

Q. Why is my 2-year-old determined to climb every last piece of furniture?

Toddlers aren't only honing their motor skills when they go mountaineering in the living room; they're also displaying curiosity. "They want to see what things look like from another perspective," Dr. Berman explains. Climbing bureaus and bookcases is your child's attempt to explore out-of-reach items that she wants to touch and play with.

But it's also a good way to get hurt. In fact, a 2009 study from the Center for Injury Research and Policy of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children's Hospital, in Columbus, Ohio, showed that 14,700 kids are injured each year by furniture tip-overs -- often from climbing. The takeaway: If your kid is constantly attempting to reach new heights, step up your childproofing and supervision until the phase passes. Attach large furniture, such as dressers and bookshelves, to the wall using safety straps or L-brackets, place TVs on a low, wide base and strap them to a stable stand or wall, and keep appliance cords tucked away so your child can't pull heavy things down onto herself.

Q. Why does my child fling food across the kitchen?

At first, your child probably does it because he's curious about what will happen if he rolls Cheerios off the tray. "He learns, 'I made this happen. I can have an impact on my environment,'" says Marni Roosevelt, assistant professor of child development at Los Angeles Valley College, in Valley Glen, California. But what starts out as a lesson in gravity can quickly turn into a test of limits. If you always pick food up off the floor, your child will start thinking, "Mommy responds to what I do. I can get her attention -- this is fun!" So calmly say something like this instead: "Food is not for throwing. If you're tossing food, you must be finished. Time to get down from the high chair." And then follow through.

Q. My kid insists on hearing the same book, song, or DVD over and over again. Doesn't this get boring for her?

Not really. Toddlers love the familiar and the predictable. "Repetition gives little ones a sense of comfort. They like knowing what comes next," says Shannon Choe, a child-development specialist in Philadelphia. While it may be mind-numbing for you, knowing a story backward and forward gives your child a sense of mastery, and the vocabulary-building it promotes is early preparation for learning to read.

Q. My kid is always begging to be picked up -- and then immediately wants to get down. What gives?

When he makes this type of demand, chances are good he's simply testing his power: "Will Daddy carry me when I want him to?" Once he learns the answer, he may be ready to move on. His motives could also be practical: While he's up in your arms, your son might notice the blocks behind the couch and want to play with them. "Kids live in the moment," Dr. Berman says, "and those moments can be lightning fast." Of course, parents can drive themselves to distraction indulging a toddler's every whim. Your child needs to learn that he won't always get what he wants, so don't feel guilty about ignoring nonessential requests. "Plus, this will help him to develop the skills for coping when he's frustrated or disappointed," explains Edward Christophersen, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Medicine.

Q. My kid is constantly putting small objects into her nose and ears. Why?

Beans. Cotton balls. Crayons. Coins. Batteries. "You name it, we find it in a toddler's ears, nose, and mouth," says Patricia A. Rogers, M.D., professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. To your toddler, fitting small items into her nose is no different than conquering the shape sorter. Plus, placing objects in body openings can be a self-soothing behavior like sucking one's thumb. While shoving a pea up her nostril isn't likely to cause any harm, small objects such as a button or a coin could get lodged in her throat and block her airway. Alkaline batteries are toxic, and swallowing two or more magnets can cause extensive internal injuries. "The greatest choking risk is in kids ages 7 months to 4 years," Dr. Rogers says. Her advice: Crawl around the rooms where your child plays and pick up all the small things you encounter. Otherwise, she will find them first.

Q. Why does my son seem so fascinated by what's inside his diaper?

In the course of exploring their body, kids are bound to discover their pleasure zones. The challenge: Don't overreact or shame your child. "Let him know that his penis is special and that it's okay to touch it, but only in the privacy of his own room," says Dr. Berman. You should also be prepared to find your kid taking an interest in what comes out of his body. "Toddlers see poop as part of themselves," says Dr. Berman. "They don't think 'Ew! That's disgusting.'" The best way to respond: Tell him in the most neutral way possible that poop is not for playing with, so it should stay in his diaper or the potty.

Q. Ouch! How come my kid sometimes, out of the blue, whacks me with a toy?

Take heart: It doesn't mean she's mad or doesn't love you. "Toddlers are learning cause and effect," says Dr. Berman. "It will take a while for your child to understand that when she hits you, it hurts." It helps to think of toddlers as little scientists who are trying to figure out how things work and what impact their actions will have. Will the toy make a noise? Will Mom make a noise? Will the toy break? Take it for what it is -- a teachable moment. Calmly say, "Wow, that hurts. It's not okay to hit people with toys."

Q. What's so appealing about drawing on walls?

Your child can't appreciate boundaries unless you define them. Until then (and for a while after that), everything is a potential canvas for your pint-size Jackson Pollock -- especially a white wall. Focus on where markers, pencils, crayons, and paint can be used, rather than where they can't. "If you remind your kid where he should not draw, he'll tend to forget the word not," Dr. Berman says. "So reinforce the right behavior by asking him what he is allowed to color on." If he continues to draw where he shouldn't, tell him that he can use drawing tools only with an adult present. After three months of "good crayon behavior," you can reevaluate.

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

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