The Weird (But Totally Normal) Stuff Your Toddler Does.
It may take a while to realise, especially when you're in the midst of those hazy newborn days, but once the fog passes, you'll suddenly become aware that your child is a complete individual. It's worthwhile remembering that fact when toddlerhood hits and brings with it some, let's put it plainly, kind of weird behaviour.
The feature would look at 5 'kind of weird' toddler behaviours (including hands down the pants, strange eating habits, breath holding, head banging, meticulously ordering objects based on size/colour), and why they're completely normal.
- Can you tell us a little bit more about what’s happening, developmentally, during the toddler and early-preschool years?
The early years of toddlerhood and preschool are the years where our children’s bodies do the most extraordinary amount of growth and learning. These are the years where all the concrete foundation is set down for future learning, kind of like the building blocks. Toddlers are notorious for emotional outbursts- the ‘terrible two’s’ and for ‘no its mine’ and ‘I will do it myself’. These years involve lots of different development whether it is mastering emotions, self control, learning manners,learning language, physically being able to do certain skills like balance, hopping, running, climbing – I often joke to parents in my clinic that they do not sit still from 1 year to 2 years, it is go-go, then at 2 years they tend to sit and concentrate again. Physically their body develops from head to toe, they learn about everything around them, they ask questions… I love Maria Montessori’s term for this age which is the ‘Absorbent Mind’ I find that it describes these years beautifully. She describes the needs of a child during this age and finds that they have a need for love and being accepted, respect, understanding, warmth and protection from the people around them. She also describes the needs they have for order-routine- they love knowing what to expect, feeling secure and safe and also you need to give them the freedom to try and independence to ‘do it themselves’. They need time to practice again and again to master what they are learning.
Why do certain behaviours sometimes seemingly ‘spring out of nowhere’ around this age?
These behaviours certainly spring out of nowhere it seems but they can stop just as suddenly as they begin. These are called ‘windows of opportunity’ where everything is just at the right stage in their brain-body and they develop a new behavior, obsession, skill and they practice and practice until they are ready to move on. It can literally last a few days, or a few months or sometimes longer like years. They never really master it they just complete and fill their need – like they’ve laid another step and will build onto this again in the future. Without these steps, and solid learning here, children do experience learning difficulties later on.
- The 5 primary habits we are looking at are:
Head banging is a self soothing behavior for some children, it is sensory self soothing, other children suck fingers or stroke their toys or hair. It is certainly distressing to watch as a parent. Toddlers have big emotions so it is better to be proactive and ensure your toddler is getting a good 12 hours sleep at night plus day sleep so that they are not overtired and try to self soothe in such a way. Also be aware that toddlers play well together with friends for a good 1 – ½ hrs and then it goes downhill, so staying for say 2 ½ hrs will only overtire your toddler and make it more likely that they will self soothe. Have a nice calm routine and try to avoid overtiring your toddler. Just be careful of your reaction as sometimes toddlers will quickly realize the response they get from a parent who comes running and hovers around in distress and what may have started as self soothing may unfortunately become an attention seeking behavior.
Hands down the pants
This is a common behavior that parents ask me about in whispers, but really it is fine, your toddler is simply exploring their body. Just like they explore noses, ears, eyes they explore what is underneath their nappy when the opportunity arises, eg. In the bath, during nappy change at the beginning it is easy to distract their hands away by just not taking any notice, and chatting about something else at the same time giving them something else to hold, usually this is all parents need to do to distract and move on. Whatever you do, don’t make a big deal of it, as the personality of toddlers is generally ‘oh you noticed…. Great…. I will do that again….’ Sometimes your toddler finds it of great interest and may even rub themselves if this continues then you do need to talk about it with them, calmly, at another time and explain that this is for their bedroom only, not around other people. Usually about 3 explanations is all that is needed, plus a few pairs of overalls in the time being.
Strange eating habits (i.e. refusing certain foods they’ve always liked or only wanting to eat potatoes etc)
Toddlers are notorious for being ‘fussy eaters’ and turning their noses up at what was literally their favourite food yesterday… this is really about testing the boundaries as they now can say ‘no’ and see what happens. Sometimes it is to do with sensory needs. Just remember at the end of the day, you are the adult and are in charge of what type of food is offered, as you have more nutritional experience than a two year old, so you decide what is for lunch and present it, your toddler however is in charge of whether they will eat or not. You cannot make them eat it. Do not battle this or take up the battle, side step it and calmly say, ‘this is lunch’ and offer no second or third options. If your toddler is hungry they will eat, if they do not eat, they are not really hungry. Remember toddlers eat about 5 times a day. This is certainly a normal toddler behavior and do not take too much notice or offer other foods as that is a very powerful position to put a toddler in.
Breath holding when upset or during a tantrum
Babies or toddlers do not intentionally hold their breath as a behavior. Older children certainly can though! For toddlers, holding their breath during a tantrum is a result of crying so hard they forget to inhale and can pass out. It’s quite scary as a parent but be careful how you react, while panicking. As for older children if it’s a really big deal and they get whatever they wanted that they were tantruming about it certainly can become an intentional strategy. The first time it happens, just try and stay as calm as you can and if you remember you can clap to startle your toddler and this may help them to breathe again. If they do pass out they will start to breathe again immediately. There is no danger, the danger would be hurting themselves on objects around them. Try not to make it a big deal and they should grow out of it, if you are worried talk to your GP.
Meticulously ordering objects
this is to do with a toddlers need for order and learning, they like to order the world around them, whether it be lining cars up in a row, again and again, having a routine, categorizing pom poms into size and colour, toy animals into lines and groups. They love for objects to be ordered and find disorder unsettling. They practice ordering the things around them to fill that need. Unfortunately we live in a world of lots of information and a little of the wrong type can stress parents immensely we may mistake the need for order to be a sign of ‘being on the spectrum’ and start to stress that everything may not be okay, your toddler is just ordering and sequencing their world and they will do it again and again from pegs to blocks to books.
Are you able to shed some light on each as to WHY each one occurs and whether or not it’s normal behaviour?
- When it comes to socially ‘inappropriate’ behaviours, like hands down the pants/general bodily exploration, what it the best way to reassure your child that this is ok to do but perhaps not in very public spaces?
- If certain behaviours (breath holding and head banging) are used as attention seeking strategies, how can they best be managed by parents?
In all my years of working with parents, when either of these behaviours become attention seeking, I have certainly found that often having the parent immediately walk away from their child at the first sign that they are indicating that they are going to use such behaviours, is ‘taking the audience away’ and once the audience is gone often the behavior simply stops, your toddler calms down and then finds something else to engage their attention, once they are calmer simply come back into view and talk and smile. Biting is another one that falls into this category too. Having mummy or daddy walk away is not what a toddler wants at all and they very quickly learn that tantrums mean daddy leaves so they soon leave that behavior to the side. At the same time look at your toddlers diet and sleep and fix any issues here.
- If these behaviours become extreme or are liable to actually cause damage, what’s the best way of approaching the situation with your child?
If you are avoiding going out because you are worried about your toddlers behavior or if it becomes ‘obsessive’ then it is easy to go and ask a professional for some advice on how to manage the behavior. They will work with you to find out if there is any other underlying reasons that are keeping the behavior going outside of normal developmental stages.
- Is there any time when parents should become concerned and if so, what should the next course of action be?
Anytime you have concerns, it is quite okay to make an appointment with your GP or child psychologist to discuss your concerns and work out what strategies would work best for you and your child’s personality. With the right strategies, if it’s attention seeking behavior, it will greatly reduce in a few weeks, if left it can go on for months and months. Make sure your toddler (and you) get a full nights sleep as trying to deal with a toddler with little sleep makes you more volatile too.