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How to Interpret Toddler Behaviour

When words fail them, toddlers’ behaviour can take a turn for the worse – but they are still trying to communicate through their actions. Learning to interpret what they are saying is vital, says Sarah Ockwell-Smith…

Sarah Ockwell-Smith
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Looking after toddlers is hard. Most have limited verbal communication skills and a fairly small vocabulary, so although their non-verbal communication skills are strong, they’re often difficult to understand.

However hard it is looking after a toddler, though, it surely must be harder to be a toddler. Imagine not being able to communicate some of your simplest needs. Imagine not being understood by those caring for you, or worse – them labelling your attempts to communicate as ‘naughty’.

Underlying concerns

All toddler behaviour is communication; the task of the adults caring for said toddlers is to try to understand what those messages are.

A toddler may be telling us that they are hungry, thirsty, cold, hot, tired, over-stimulated, under-stimulated, sad or so on through his or her behaviour. This behaviour may include crying, shouting, throwing, hitting, biting, kicking, screaming and whining.

The most important thing we can do as adults is try and interpret what the child’s underlying concern is. In most cases, the worst thing we can do is to punish or chastise toddlers for behaving in an undesirable way without trying to understand what it is they’re trying to communicate through the behaviour. As early years practitioners, adapting our own communication skills, in order to maximise a toddler’s chances of being able to both understand and listen, will help everybody.

What are they saying?

There are four main areas of need that toddlers have to communicate. These are:

1. Tiredness One of the top causes of unwanted behaviour in toddlers is tiredness. Many toddlers find it hard to switch off and nap well in a daycare environment. This leads to their bodies compensating by releasing the hormone cortisol in order to keep them awake.

Cortisol inhibits melatonin (the sleep hormone) and can cause toddlers to seem ‘wired’ and act in a hyperactive and often aggressive manner, even though they’re actually overtired. Preempting the tiredness is the key here.

2. Physical well-being and comfort Hunger, thirst, feeling too hot or cold, needing the toilet or a nappy change; feeling unwell, wearing uncomfortable clothing; these can all cause toddlers to behave in ways we may find unacceptable in order to communicate their need to us.

If a toddler is not very verbal, his or her communication of physical needs may include crying, whining, becoming withdrawn, not paying attention to adults, shouting and behaving aggressively.

3. Emotional well-being and comfort Spending time in daycare away from mum or dad is stressful for many toddlers – especially if other things in their life have changed recently, such as the arrival of a new sibling or a house move.

Toddlers often don’t communicate their many complex emotions with us verbally; we have to work out what they’re feeling from their behaviour, which can often involve crying, whinging, tantruming, ‘clinging’, refusing to eat or sleep and not wanting to be involved in activities.

4. Psychological hunger This refers to an unmet psychological need that a toddler may possess. These unmet needs can result in many undesirable behaviours, most of which the toddler will be unable to explain. They can be subdivided into three needs:

The need for more, or less, stimulation If a child’s brain is under-stimulated, they will often resort to aggressive behaviour; if they are overstimulated, they may tantrum, cry and whine. They key is striking a good balance, making sure toddlers are stretched and stimulated enough so that they are not bored, but not so much that they are overwhelmed.

The need for recognition Toddlers need one-to-one attention from adults, and good, strong connections with their key workers. If they don’t receive these, they will act in a way that gets the attention that they need. It’s therefore far better to ensure that they get appropriate one-to-one attention in the first place!

The need for structure Most adults like to live in a predictable world, and toddlers need this predictability more than us. Imagine if you knew you had to go to your office five out of seven days this week – but your boss only told you on the day itself whether it was a work day or not. Imagine then that once you were at the office, you wouldn’t know whether you would be told to go home at lunchtime, mid-afternoon or later. How would you feel?

As adults, we often take the rhythm of our days for granted and underestimate how much being able to plan ahead gives us a sense of safety and security. Being able to predict their day gives toddlers a sense of being in control, which will in turn lessen the need for behaviours that seek to take more control.

General Tips for Great Toddler Communication

Listen with your ears and your eyes Toddler communication is frequently more about what you can observe, than it is about the verbal

Offer empathy and respect Toddlers are more likely to communicate if they feel safe and heard by you

Redress the balance of power Crouch down so that you’re eye-to-eye with children; it’s far less threatening.

Repeat what toddlers are telling you Help them to clarify things and show that they are being heard by you.

Help toddlers understand and name their emotions You can do this by giving them words for how they are feeling; for example, “You wanted to play with the toy that James has, but he won’t let you, so you feel angry and sad.”

Have patience If a toddler is trying to tell you something and you don’t understand, ask him or her to repeat it and allow as much time as possible. It’s vital that toddlers feel validated, and that adults try hard to understand their attempts to communicate

Help toddlers understand non-verbal communication by pointing out body language cues For example, “Can you see how Lily is holding her head in her hands? Do you think she might be sad? Shall we go and see if she’s okay?”

Don’t finish sentences for toddlers, or tell them what they want to say Even if you know what they want, give them time to tell you themselves so that they can acquire a feeling of autonomy and validation

Ask questions, especially ones that may help toddlers to communicate what they want more easily For example, “You’re pointing into the corner, that’s where we keep the puzzles; Do you want to come and pick one with me?”

Ask open-ended questions where possible, even if a toddler does not have good verbal skills Conversations like these will show the child that you trust them to be a good communicator, which will in turn motivate them to keep on trying.

Use short, simple sentences Ideally ones that covering only one ‘command’ at a time

Give toddlers time to process what they’ve heard Don’t expect them to react immediately

Toddlers use visual clues too Producing a changing mat could signal to the toddler that it’s time for a nappy change; an empty drink cup could be left at toddler height, so that children can request a drink by using the cup as a visual prop.

Use positive, rather than negative commands Say what you want, rather than what you don’t want; for example, “Use kind and gentle hands” instead of “Don’t hit”.

Keep your voice calm Never shout – model the behaviour you want from the toddler

Read lots One of the best ways to improve toddlers’ verbal and non-verbal communication skills is through using of stories. Allow them to choose books wherever possible, and include them in the experience by asking them questions about the book you’re both reading. Reading is a wonderful way to improve vocabulary, encourage turn-taking conversational skills and build empathy

Try to limit saying the word “no”!

Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a parenting expert and mother of four. She is the author of BabyCalm: A Guide for Calmer Babies and Happier Parents and ToddlerCalm: A Guide for Calmer Toddlers and Happier Parents. Her third book, The Gentle Sleep Book, was published last year. Sarah is also the founder of GentleParenting – visit

For more information, visit or follow @TheBabyExpert

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