How to Handle Moody Toddlers

Expert advice on how you can better understand your toddler's random mood changes.

Q: I can't get a handle on my 20-month-old's moods. He wakes up happy, then five minutes later he's furious at me for not letting him pour his own Cheerios. And I never know if he wants my hugs or will shrug away from me if I try! Is this normal?

Very much so. Toddlers are a lot like teenagers, which means they can be very moody. Your child's temperament is also a big factor. Some kids are easygoing and flexible, and their moods are more stable. (I always envied parents of such children!)

On the other end of the spectrum are kids who have much more intense emotions and reactions. They are either ecstatic or enraged, and their moods are variable. They also tend to have a hard time making transitions, such as going from sleep to waking or switching from one activity to another. These children are usually highly sensitive and absorb everything going on around them. Taking in so much means they can get overwhelmed easily and feel out of control, which leads to their intense responses.

Most kids fall somewhere in the middle of the intensity continuum; your child may lean toward the intense end. However, there are many easy ways to help your son regulate his moods and feel more in control. Try to:

  • Be as consistent as possible in your own moods and responses to him. When he is having a hard time, he needs you to be his rock. If you have a big reaction (shouting, waving your arms) to his outbursts, his emotions are likely to intensify, making it harder to help him calm down.
  • Validate his feelings and give them words. Say, for instance, "You're angry that Daddy won't give you another cookie." This doesn't mean you're giving in to what he wants, but if your child feels understood, it will help him settle down.
  • Offer advance notice about when an activity is about to end. Say, "When this book is finished, we're going home" or "When the timer rings, it's time for your bath."
  • Tell your son what will happen next: "Now we are going home to see Mommy and the kitty!"
  • Help him feel more in control by offering him as many choices as possible. Ask, "Do you want the blue or red cup for your milk?" or "Can Mommy give you a hug?" (Don't take the answer "no" personally; he may just not want to be touched right then.)
  • Anticipate blowups. Gently remove your child from potentially explosive situations. Try redirecting him by getting him engaged in a different activity. Or distract him with another toy.

Finally, as the parent of two intense reactors, I can tell you that their intensity also means they can be very passionate, creative, and delightful children. So hang in there!

Claire Lerner, LCSW, is a child development specialist at Zero to Three, a national nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers (zerotothree.org).

Originally published in American Baby magazine, July 2004.

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