The Secret Language of Toddlers: What Their Behaviors Mean

Two-year-olds act out their emotions in some pretty bizarre ways. Let us help you crack the toddler behavior code.

  • Tara Donne

    Your toddler is becoming a verbal, opinionated little person. In fact, he's downright bossy -- he tells you where to sit, which pants he wants to wear, and exactly what he'd like for lunch. But when it comes to communicating more complex thoughts and emotions in words, he still has a way to go, which means you're often forced to interpret some weird behavior. We asked experts to help us decipher the hidden meaning of common toddler tantrums and body language.


    She won't look you in the eye.


    Translation: "I'm embarrassed."


    When babies avert their gaze, they're telling you that they're overwhelmed and need a break from being the star of the show. But some time around her second birthday, your toddler develops the capacity for self-conscious emotions like shame. For instance, she knows that you're angry because she kidnapped her baby brother's teddy bear again. "When a young child refuses to look at you, it means she realizes that her actions may have disappointed you," says psychologist Kristin Lagattuta, PhD, assistant professor at the Center for Mind and Brain at the University of California, Davis.


    Your response: Acknowledge what your child did wrong in simple, short sentences -- "We don't rip books," "We never push" -- and offer up a way to make it right, like taping a torn page or giving a crying pal a hug. "You want her to know that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, but it's important to take steps to fix the damage," says Dr. Lagattuta.

  • Tara Donne

    He wants to take all of his stuffed animals into bed with him.

    Translation: "I'm scared."


    Not too long ago, your baby cradled his fuzzy blankie and slept soundly. Now suddenly, he demands to take so many comfort objects to sleep each night that his bed looks like a modern-art project. "This is the age when a child's imagination takes off, and he starts having nightmares and populating the closets with monsters," explains Kerstin Potter, director of the early childhood education program at Harcum College, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. "Keeping familiar objects nearby makes your child feel secure as he drifts off to sleep or wakes up in the middle of the night."


    Your response: Two-year-olds are literal beings -- the monsters they've imagined seem incredibly real, so it doesn't help to show them that there's nothing lurking in the closet. "They'll just think you can't see monsters," says Potter. So let your child surround himself with as many comforting things as he needs. If you're worried that he'll roll out of bed, appeal to another toddler trait: the desire to make his own decisions. Ask him which three animals, two board books, and one toy he wants as bedmates that night.

  • He lifts his shirt over his head when he meets a new person.

    Translation: "I'm anxious."


    Think about the last time you went to a social event where you didn't know a soul. You probably talked yourself through the discomfort in your mind -- "It's good to be out with other adults. Oh, she looks kind of cool. I like her top; maybe I'll walk over and chat with her" -- and grabbed a glass of wine so you'd have something to do with your hands. Consider your toddler's behavior the age-appropriate equivalent of an adult's social awkwardness. "Your child's not yet able to work through his nervousness, so he negotiates the situation in a purely sensory and physical way," says Lisa Nalven, MD, a developmental pediatrician at the Valley Center for Child Development, in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "Some kids will chew on their shirt or tug at their pants, while others might clutch your leg, suck their thumb, or drop to the floor and bury their face."


    Your response: Gently coax your toddler turtle out of his shell. "Young children look to their parents for cues on how to react to new situations," says Dr. Nalven. Relax your own shoulders, smile, say "Hi" to new acquaintances, and give your child a reassuring squeeze. This lets him know that his surroundings are safe and friendly. Then, give him time to warm up.

  • Tara Donne

    She hides behind the furniture when she poops in her diaper.

    Translation: "I want privacy."


    This common toddler behavior indicates two things: first, your kid is clued in to her urge to poop and knows there's a BM coming, and second, she's observed that adults do the deed in private. These are two positive signs that she's getting ready for potty training. But the number-one indicator? "She immediately asks to have her dirty diaper changed," says Parents advisor Ari Brown, MD, author of Toddler 411. "If a child doesn't care about sitting in her poop, then she's not ready for potty training." Most kids become interested in using the toilet between ages 2 and 3.


    Your response: Encourage your toddler's search for privacy, but steer her into the bathroom. "Just getting a child into the right room of the house is a positive step -- there's no need to pressure her to sit on the potty yet," says Dr. Brown.

  • Tara Donne

    She transforms into a total brat -- throwing food, hitting, breaking toys.

    Translation: "I'm feeling out of sorts."


    It's shocking -- and troubling too -- when your normally sweet, kind 2-year-old turns into Super Evil Child. But it's important to understand that her bratty behavior is probably just a reaction to the current situation and not a sign that her personality has changed. Usually, when kids this age act out, they want to tell you, "I'm bored," "I'm tired," or "I need attention!"


    Your response: Try to figure out what's going on. If she's acting out because she's bored, bust out the Legos and play together or head out to the park for a change of scenery. A time-out may also be a good idea. "Toddlers need to learn that there are better ways to get your attention than throwing a fit," says Dr. Nalven. "Putting your daughter in a two-minute time-out -- she sits alone in some place that's boring -- sends a clear message that you won't put up with inappropriate behavior." Then come up with a fun activity to do together.

  • Tara Donne

    She pitches a fit while you're cutting the strawberries she just asked for.

    Translation: "I want it now."


    Babies are born impatient as a matter of survival. They fuss and wail to be fed right now! Changed right now! Cradled right now! Your toddler's inability to hold her horses is a reminder that, though she's growing up at the speed of light, she still has a toe or two in the baby years. The prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain responsible for self-control -- including the ability to cope with a delay in having her needs met -- starts developing most dramatically somewhere between the ages of 2 and 7.


    Your response: Do not indulge your toddler's need for instant gratification by moving at warp speed to meet her every demand. Instead, tell her you've heard her request and will get her what she wants as soon as you can. Then gradually begin to draw out the time it takes you to fulfill her commands, talking her through the specific steps you're taking. Say, "Mommy's finishing the dishes, then she'll dry her hands, open the fridge, and pour you some apple juice." You're teaching your toddler a valuable skill -- patience -- by insisting she wait for things.

  • Tara Donne

    He yells, "No, my mommy!" when other kids approach you.

    Translation: "Pay more attention to me!"


    Clingy behavior could signal that your child feels like he's not getting enough of you, especially if you've been working long hours or have recently welcomed a new baby to the family. In the absence of any changes in the status quo, such possessiveness is probably part and parcel of your 2-year-old's blossoming sense of self. "The 'mine, mine, mine' phase is annoying, but it's actually a good thing because it means that your toddler is making progress figuring out who he is as a person," says Dr. Lagattuta. "At this stage, his self-image is tied to the things that are most valuable to him, and Mom is right up there."


    Your response: Hug your child, and tell him that, of course, you're his mother and you love him. You could also use this as a quick teaching moment about sharing. Say, "I'm your mommy, not Betsy's, but I can still be nice to other kids and say hello."


    Originally published in the September 2008 issue of Parents magazine.