Scary but normal behaviors in toddlers

Move over, ghosts, spiders, snakes, and clowns. When you’re responsible for a toddler, that teensy-weensy human becomes the scariest thing around, and they don't need a mask on Halloween to get their spook on. All they have to do is start acting in one of those ways that’s probably normal, but just might not be, and they can become the scariest person their parent or guardian has ever met.

Luckily, most of those probably-normal-but-scary things toddlers do are exactly that: totally normal and harmless.

Playing copy-cat

Watching you is how your toddler learns, which is great when they're, say, learning a new language, but isn’t so great when it comes to learning behaviors you don’t want them to mirror back to you. The most obvious example, of course, is also language, and specifically cursing, but there are other copy-cat behaviors your toddler could pick up that are harder to pin down. Your toddler watches how you handle stress, how you treat people, and how you relate to the world. If you notice them yelling at the cat, it might take a few minutes to connect it with how you or your partner responded to finding Mr. Whiskerface clawing at the couch last week. The good news, though, is that your toddler is still watching you, and still learning every day.

Picking up “irrational” fears

If your toddler is scared, it can feel like there must be something wrong, but many toddler fears, even fears that sound completely illogical to most adults, go right along with a toddler’s developmental stage, and are totally normal. There’s a reason fears like monsters under the bed have turned into cliches, and it’s not because homes with toddlers in them have higher-than-average monster populations. Other developmentally appropriate fears include:
  • Separation from parents
  • Meeting new people
  • The dark
  • Imagined creatures like ghosts or monsters
  • Bad dreams or nightmares, and sometimes, by extension, bedtime
  • Familiar people in masks or costumes
  • Toilets and the drain in the bath or shower
  • Loud noises like weather or the vacuum cleaner

You can help a toddler move past fears first by acknowledging and respecting them, and then by helping them better understand what they’re afraid of.

Running into the road

Here’s the exception to the whole “harmless” thing. Once Baby can run, there’s a good chance they won't stop anytime soon, but the actual running isn’t the issue as much as the fact that your toddler doesn’t have the same concept of danger that you do. Several studies show that while young children generally have some concept of danger, it’s a concept that grows over time. Right now, your toddler is still young, and hasn’t picked up that much context about the world. More than that, their brain, and especially their frontal lobe, are still developing. One consequence of this is that a lot of the things they do – or tries to do – could put them into varying amounts of danger. As they grow, their ability to perceive danger will grow, too. Until then, they have you to look out for them.

Calling your bluff

You may or may not be much of a poker player, but the look a toddler gives you when they hear your “do that one more time and we’re going straight home” can make it clear that they think you’re bluffing. No, they don't think your warnings are a game, they are just trying to figure out where the boundaries are. Staying consistent is the best way to discourage them from testing you in the same way every time as they grow.

Hitting or biting 

Many toddlers go through a phase where they lash out at other children, or even their parents, by hitting, kicking, or biting. Part of this can be an extension of the way toddlers test the limits of what they’re allowed to do, but more often, aggression is the result of toddlers’ intense feelings that they don’t always have the skills to manage or the language to express. It’s still important to set firm and consistent boundaries around hitting or biting, though some parents choose to redirect their toddlers’ anger instead of addressing it more directly. Most toddlers move past this stage before too long as they grow.

Throwing tantrums

Tantrums can come on the scene suddenly, even for parents of children who were, up until that point, pretty easygoing. They’re not a sign that something horrible has happened, though – if anything, you could call them a positive sign, as they usher toddlers into the next stage of their emotional development.

Unusual self-soothing methods

Toddlers can turn to a lot of different ways of soothing themselves, from twirling or even pulling their own hair, to rocking themselves to sleep, to sucking their thumbs or biting their nails. Most children grow out of the more unusual methods of self-soothing in a few years, which is why many recommend ignoring or quietly redirecting these habits without making a very big deal about them. For habits parents are more concerned about, like hair-pulling, finding children replacement habits, like a specific toy, doll, or blanket to fidget with can be an effective way to discourage them. 

Habits that can worry parents don’t end with the toddler years, but toddlers are a good crash-course to help prepare parents for the rest of childhood ahead of them. Your toddler doesn’t mean to worry you – they are just trying to figure out how to navigate this big, confusing world. You’ve just got to work on how to figure out your little, confusing toddler.

  • Diana Daunheimer. “When Self-Soothing Behaviors Become a Problem.” Parents Canada., May 3 2011. Web.
  • Ros Hill, Vicky Lewis, George Dunbar. “Young children’s concept of danger.” British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 18(1): 103-119. Web. March 2000.
  • Katie LaMendola. “Hair Pulling & Twirling.” KidsPlusPDH. Kids Plus Pediatrics, 2016. Web.
  • Matthew D. Lieberman, et al. “Putting Feelings Into Words.” Psychological Science. 18(5): 421-428. Web. 2007.
  • D’arcy Lyness. “Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias.” KidsHealth. The Nemours Foundation, July 2013. Web.
  • Sharon L. Thompson-Schill, Michael Ramscar, Evangelia G. Chrysikou. “Cognition without control: When a little frontal lobe goes a long way.” Cur Dir Psychol Sci. 18(5): 259-263. Web. 2009.
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