Please Don't Do That! How to Handle Inappropriate Toddler Behavior

It sometimes seems that toddlers do mortifying stuff at the worst moments just to drive you crazy, but the truth is that kids this age are naturally uninhibited. The good news is that these publicly humiliating moments get a lot easier to deal with once you understand why they happen. And you can encourage better behavior without making your child feel ashamed in the process. Read on for tips on managing the most common offenses.

The Nose-Picker

Your child plunges a finger into his nostril whenever the mood strikes, even when all eyes are on him.

Why he does it: Toddlers are fascinated with their body and its functions, and they won't put off self-exploration simply because other people are around. And since kids this age have limited self-control, they tend to act on every immediate physical urge.

The fast fix: The second you see your toddler's finger near his nose, offer him a tissue and say, "It looks like you need to blow your nose. Here, you can use this." Be nonchalant about it -- if you act disgusted or angry, he may keep picking just to provoke you.

What to say later: Talk about the difference between public and private behavior in simple terms. "Say that private is what you do by yourself at home, and public is what happens at preschool and at the store," says Jay Hoecker, MD, of the Mayo Clinic's Department of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, in Rochester, Minnesota. Explain that public nose-picking is rude because it makes other people feel uncomfortable. Remind him that if his nose is clogged or itchy, all he has to do is ask you for a tissue.

The Bigmouth

No topic is off-limits to your toddler. If you and your spouse have an argument, your child will make sure everyone from Grandma to the pharmacy cashier knows about it.

Why she does it: Two- and 3-year-olds love to jump into a conversation just to be part of a social situation and to test out their growing verbal skills. Unfortunately, they have a natural urge to share things that made a big impact on them -- like when Mom and Dad yell and scream at each another.

The fast fix: Squat down to your child's level and calmly say, "That's not something we need to talk about right now. Why not tell Grandma about our trip to the zoo?"

What to say later: Don't just lecture about taboo topics. "Tell your toddler what she can talk about," says William Coleman, MD, professor and specialist in child behavior and development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Explain that she can share happy family news, but info that may not make people feel good, like a fight, should be kept to herself. (Also, you may want to argue in hushed tones next time!)

The Critic

Your child doesn't hesitate to tell people what he really thinks about how they look or what they're wearing.

Why he does it: The world is still new to toddlers, and they're very observant. They use their growing language skills to express what they see -- very honestly!

The fast fix: Apologize to the offended person without going overboard. If you can get your child to apologize too, great, but don't turn it into a power struggle -- you don't want to make a bigger deal about the apology than the insult itself.

What to say later: Toddlers don't yet realize how powerful words can be, so use the incident as a teachable moment. Say, "Sometimes words can hurt people's feelings, so you need to use words to make other people feel good." If his insult was spurred by curiosity ("Mommy, why is that man so fat?"), assure him that he can always come to you with questions in private.

The Pottymouth

Just when a hush falls over a public area, your child yells "%$#@!"

Why she does it: As your toddler's vocabulary expands, she'll naturally repeat words she hears -- bad ones included. But are you encouraging her R-rated chatter? "Toddlers can learn how to push their parents' buttons," says Dr. Coleman. If you freaked out in the past when she blurted a bad word, she may be curious to see what happens when she does it again.

The fast fix: Don't overreact. A simple "excuse us" to everyone in earshot is enough. Calmly tell her, "We don't use those words," then drop the subject.

What to say later: If you've cursed in the past, explain that you shouldn't say those words any more than she should. Then, brainstorm some funny words you can both use in place of the bad ones, like "bananarama" or "monkey toes."

Little Exhibitionists

Of all the embarrassing quirks toddlers have, few are as bizarre as their love of randomly stripping down. Disrobing at home is one thing, but what do you do when your child decides that grocery shopping is a clothing-optional event?

Distraction is key, says Dr. Jay Hoecker. "Toddlers sometimes strip in public when they're frustrated or bored," he explains. If your child starts lifting up his shirt in the middle of the produce aisle, for example, he may be trying to tell you that he's sick of shopping. Give him a task, such as holding your coupons or picking out apples, to occupy him. If he does doff his clothes, try to be matter-of-fact about it. Focus on the behavior you do want instead of lecturing ("I liked it when you were keeping your hands in your pockets before").

Teaching Kids to Say "Excuse Me"

It's never too early for kids to learn the magic words -- just don't stop at "please" and "thank you"! "Excuse me" is a must-know phrase for gaffe-prone toddlers. Here's how to make it stick.

Cover all its uses. Tell her to say "excuse me" if she accidentally does something private in front of others (like burping), as well as when she interrupts or bumps into someone.

Don't forget to excuse yourself. It's much easier for your child to learn manners if you always use yours.

Include the phrase in pretend play. For example, have a stuffed animal excuse himself if he behaves inappropriately at your child's next tea party.

Don't force an "excuse me." It's more effective to praise your child when she says it than to argue when she doesn't.

Copyright © 2008. Used with permission from the April 2008 issue of Parents magazine.

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