Your High-Energy Toddler Explained

Kids have plenty of energy and curiosity. And that can add up to a real challenge.

Living with a Whirlwind

Jack Rosen is just 3 years old and barely 3 feet tall, but he has enough energy to fuel a turbine -- and then some. There's never a dull moment around Jack.

Not long ago, when he was out with his mom, he spotted a fire alarm in a public building, and, before anyone could stop him, he scampered up a landing and set it off. The scene that followed was pretty dramatic.

"I was mortified," says his mother, Robin, of Atlanta. "Trying to keep up with this child is exhausting."

Living with a whirlwind of a toddler can be trying, but it's actually a common challenge: Kids this age have lots of physical energy -- and a great sense of curiosity that drives it. "The world is very stimulating for 2- and 3-year-olds, and they love to explore," says Parents advisor Kyle D. Pruett, MD, clinical professor of child psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine. They're also pretty agile, so they can get where they want to go -- sometimes surprisingly quickly.

It's Fun to Run

The reason toddlers love to race around is simple: It feels good. "As adults, we forget what it's like to acquire a new skill," says Dr. Pruett. "If your world were just starting to open up, would you pass up an opportunity to check it out?" You, however, might not find this stage of childhood quite as enchanting. But toddlers aren't being "bad" or purposely trying to make your life difficult. The 2-year-old who runs off to chase a bird at the park isn't intentionally defying you.

"Toddlers don't have the self-control or the cognitive ability to stop doing things they enjoy," says Susan J. Schwartz, clinical director of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the New York University Child Study Center. What's more, as they begin to realize that they're unique individuals, they are also testing limits. In trying to figure out how the world works, they question ("I wanna pet the dog across the street. Can I make it over there?"), make predictions ("Yep, probably"), and experiment ("Well, I'll try it and find out").

Reining 'Em In

While it's important to encourage your toddler's exuberance and to give him room to explore, it's also critical to teach him that sometimes he simply needs to settle down.

Batten down the hatches. By now, you've probably childproofed your home, but this is a good time to recheck everything: Are electrical outlets covered with plugs that your child can't pry off? Are windows securely guarded and the cords short and out of reach? Do you have temperature controls on faucets and safety latches and locks on cabinets and drawers? Think beyond the basics too. Can your 3-year-old move a kitchen stool and use it to climb onto a countertop? Is there a bookcase that your agile child kid could scale -- and topple? Of course, you can't rearrange all your furniture, but if you scope out danger spots, you can close doors or watch your child more carefully when he's around them.

Let her loose. Toddlers need to roam so they can develop confidence in their abilities, so make sure they have plenty of time to be a little noisy and wild and let off steam. "When a toddler can run around safely, it's easier for you to relax," says Dr. Pruett. So just as you schedule "quiet time," carve out lots of "active time" when your child can bang pots and pans together, jump on an air mattress, or toss around a ball. Follow that up with a low-key activity to help her calm down.

Be prepared. When you do need to rein in your toddler, make it easier by announcing your expectations in advance. Be positive: Instead of, "You can't run away from me when we're walking to the park," say "You need to hold my hand until we get to the playground, and then you can play on the swings." When running errands, always bring toys along to keep your child occupied. At the supermarket, have him "help" you by holding a few small items or pointing out the color red whenever he sees it.

Expect meltdowns. Energetic toddlers are prone to tantrums when they get worked up, so be prepared. Don't make too big a deal out of them. Instead, acknowledge your child's feelings ("I know you feel angry that we have to end a playdate"). Then, redirect her attention to something else or move her to a different location. If that doesn't work, try to soothe her with a warm bath or a calming CD.

How to Travel with a Toddler

Taking a plane trip with an energetic toddler can be a real challenge. Be prepared for these common tantrum triggers.

The fear factor. Go over in advance will happen at the airport and on the plane. Don't forget to discuss what you'll encounter at security checkpoints. If a child gets frightened by uniformed guards and frustrated by the long lines, that can start things off on a bad note.

Boredom and hunger. Bring healthy snacks, such as raisins, cheese sticks, dry cereal, and animal crackers. Load a backpack with favorite toys, books, and crayons. Active kids thrive on novelty, so wrap up a few new trinkets.

Boarding too fast. Although many airlines offer priority boarding for passengers with young kids, don't rush to get on the plane. There may be delays both on the runway and in the air, and your child doesn't need to be cooped up any longer than necessary.

Too much sitting. When it's safe, walk the aisles with your child. Don't worry about annoying other passengers -- pacing is better than letting your child scream. If your toddler has a meltdown, apologize to fellow travelers. But remind yourself that every parent on board knows what you're going through.

Hyper to Mellow in Three Steps

  1. Get close. Look your child in the eye and hold her firmly by the shoulder as you speak to her.
  2. Keep it simple. Now's not the time to explain why her actions are dangerous. Just say "No running" or "No climbing" in a gentle but no-nonsense voice.
  3. Give her a say. If possible, offer options. ("Do you want to hold my hand or hold onto the stroller?" or "Do you want to play on the swings or the slide?")
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