My toddler is acting out, is this normal?

When toddlers act up, it’s natural to wonder if it’s normal childhood behavior or a sign of a larger issue. Behavioral problems around age 2 are generally completely normal (and even manageable!) and knowing what to expect will help you deal with the ups and downs of life with a toddler.

Why does it happen?

The reason your little angel may suddenly be acting not-so-angelic has to do with developmental changes, the need for independence, and curiosity. Between the ages of 2 and 3 toddlers make major strides in their physical and motor development, and experience just-as-major intellectual, social, and emotional changes.

Toddlers have words to describe some of the new things they’re thinking and feeling, but not all the words they need, which can make communicating their desires very frustrating. Combined with limited control over their emotions, this frustration can lead to misbehavior and tantrums. At the same time, they are beginning to notice that the world has structure and rules, but they don’t know what all of them are yet. Their development is allowing them to function more independently, but it’s not always clear to them how to use this desire to act independantly. It makes them curious. They test boundaries (like, say, by taking off all their clothes in a supermarket) and watch for your reaction in order to learn what is possible, expected, or totally off limits.

Naughty but normal

Although decidedly unadorable, tantrums, meltdowns, screaming fits, and crying are common. So are lying, interrupting, hair pulling, teasing, whining, running away, saying “no,” refusing to follow instructions, biting, pushing, refusing to share, taking off their clothes, escaping designated toddler zones, refusing to eat certain foods, and throwing things. These behaviors, although frustrating, are driven partially by toddlers’ limitations, and partially by a drive to become independent and to learn which behaviors will fly, and which ones won’t. Being understanding of their emotional limits, setting and enforcing clear expectations, using consistent discipline techniques, and rewarding good behaviors will all go a long way in managing these issues.

Causes for concern

Many toddlers will showcase a few of these behaviors from time to time, and most respond well to caregivers setting boundaries to prevent it from happening again. But if your child is displaying these behaviors in every tantrum they throw, it may be a sign of a larger behavior issue and talking to your child’s healthcare provider is recommended:

  • Aggression (hitting/kicking caretakers, objects, or both in over half of past 10 to 20 tantrums)
  • Self-injury during tantrums (biting self or hitting head against hard objects)
  • Very frequent tantrums (10 to 20 a month at home or 5 per day away from home)
  • Very long tantrums (25-minute or longer tantrums 90% of the time)
  • Inability to self calm (consistently needs bribes or to be removed from the situation)

  • Hoecker, J. 2016, April 21. “Terrible 2s: Why are 2-year-olds so difficult?” Mayo Clinic Online. Accessed May 16th 2017. /

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