Handling Your Toddler's Not-So-Nice Habits

Two-year-olds behave in some peculiar ways, at least from a parent's perspective. Here's why they do what they do -- and why you shouldn't sweat the small stuff.

Weird Behaviors

Whether it's flagrant nose picking in a cherished wedding video or startling everyone in church with a blood-curdling scream, a toddler can be counted on to choose the worst imaginable moment to do something typical of the terrible twos.

The good news is that most of these behaviors, however disagreeable, are a natural part of development and important learning opportunities. To toddlers, the world and their bodies are all one big science experiment. "These places are fascinating to explore -- too fascinating to let a little thing like parental embarrassment get in the way," says Mary Sheedy Kurcinka, author of Kids, Parents and Power Struggles (HarperCollins, 2000). Here, expert advice on how to cope with five common toddler habits.

Nasal Excavations

Your 2-year-old can't keep her fingers out of her nose, nor can she resist playing with the sticky results.

Why she does it. For some kids, nose picking is simply a fun way to explore their bodies. For others, it is an indication that the child is seeking relief from allergy symptoms.

What you can do. If your child has a perennially crusty nose, have your pediatrician determine whether she has allergies. In the meantime, recognize that toddlers have no idea that nose picking is nasty. "Explain to your child that it's better to clean her nose with a tissue. Teach her to ask for one, and praise her when she does," says Lynn Clark, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green. You can also boost cooperation by supplying your child with her own tissues.

Toddler Hunger Strikes

For two days straight, your son has skipped breakfast and lunch. For dinner, he insists on macaroni and cheese -- and smears most of it on the table.

Why he does it. "Growth slows in the second year, so it's normal for your toddler's appetite to decrease," says William Carey, M.D., director of Behavioral Pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Also, toddlers are very busy people; the mere fact that it's dinnertime doesn't mean that your child wants to stop what he's doing, or even that he's hungry.

What you can do. Provide nutritious meals and snacks, with a variety of foods in small portions he can choose from. "Let your child respond to his own needs at mealtime," Dr. Carey says. If he doesn't eat much at lunch, he can make up for it at dinner.

Junior Exhibitionism

Your little girl has become obsessed with stripping down to her birthday suit at every opportunity, including at the mall.

Why she does it. "Two-year-olds are excited about performing tasks that they can do all by themselves, regardless of the location," says Kurcinka. "Taking off their clothes is often one of their first big-kid accomplishments." Not surprisingly, public embarrassment often doesn't register with toddlers; getting Mom's undivided attention in a public place, however, is highly desirable. Put these elements together, and you've got the perfect recipe for a toddler striptease.

What you can do. It's fine for your child to reveal all in the privacy of your home, but you should draw the line when it happens elsewhere. "Resist the urge to make a big deal about it, as this will only encourage the behavior. If your child disrobes in public, teach her about boundaries by saying, 'It's fine to take clothes off at home but not here,' " says Cynthia Whitham, coauthor of Win the Whining War and Other Skirmishes (Perspective Publishing, 1995). "If she balks, calmly and quietly take her out of the situation." Soon enough, she'll learn that stripping in public won't get her the results she wants.

Pulling Punches

When your toddler goes to his playgroup, his fists start flying.

Why he does it. "He's frustrated," says Kurcinka. "Two-year-olds have pretty limited vocabularies. As a result, they may not be able to communicate effectively, and so they lash out in frustration." Another trigger for anxiety is the fact that your toddler's mental abilities outpace his motor skills; if he can't pry his blocks apart quickly enough, for example, he may get upset and whack the child next to him.

What you can do. Take your child aside and tell him that it's not okay to hit. "Say, 'We don't hit, because it might hurt someone else,' " Kurcinka says. Encourage him to use words instead of fists to communicate. "Teach him to say such things as 'I don't want to share right now,' " Kurcinka suggests. Remember, too, that a well-fed, well-rested toddler is less likely to get riled up than a hungry, tired one, so schedule playtime accordingly. Fortunately, hitting usually stops as toddlers develop their language skills.

Repeat Offenses

Your toddler asks you to read The Cat in the Hat six times in a row.

Why she does it. "Repetition is soothing to toddlers. Knowing what to anticipate makes them feel secure," says Kurcinka. Repetition is also a vital part of how toddlers learn. Each time you repeat a story or your child rebuilds a block tower, she's learning about how the world works and taking her new skills for a spin.

What you can do. Be patient with your child's monomania, and attempt to broaden her repertoire by giving her alternatives. For example, if your child is obsessed with one particular book, offer to read a different story with the same characters. If she doesn't take the bait, don't be dismayed. Toddlers are naturally curious and will eventually seek new stimulation on their own.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the 2000 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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