A Guide To Strange Toddler Behaviors And How To Respond

Are they supposed to do that?

toddler holding pencil
flickr / Aikawa Ke

About the time your kid hits 18 months, their brain will explode. It’s kind of like that scene in Scanners where the dude’s head goes kablooey and makes a giant mess. Except it’s happening inside your kid’s noggin, on a cognitive level. Sure, you might not think that’s anything like a dude’s head bursting from psionic torture. But your kid’s exploding brain can result in just as much mess and horror. Particularly when it comes to discipline.

That’s mostly because this sudden burst of toddler brain activity promotes some truly bizarre behaviors. Luckily much of this behavior is totally normal. It’s your job to figure out how to react (then go get the mop … and the bleach).

Normal But Bizarre

So, imagine you had to wear a black pillowcase over your head for an entire year. Now imagine that when it was finally taken off, you were in an entirely new world among alien beings whose social and cultural norms and customs were completely foreign to you. So, Canada.

This is pretty much what’s going down with your kid right now. Their senses are wildly alive in a place they’re just beginning to understand. They have insane amount of curiosity, limited language resources and a deep desire for independence. It’s are going to get weird, but here are a few things you might see that are totally normal:

Nose Picking

Think about it. Wouldn’t you want to know what was in that body hole? And wouldn’t you want to see why the consistency and color changes so frequently?

Your Response: Hand them a tissue and tell them to do it somewhere else.

Junk Touching

Your kid is messing with their junk for the same reason they’re picking their nose: genitals are incredibly fascinating. What’s more, boys and girls have different stuff, and differences are crazy interesting too. What happens if you poke it!?

Your Response: Should be as mellow as possible. Use this as an opportunity to open a dialogue about what should be kept private and who can touch what. And then direct them to a place to where they can figure junk out in private.

Sudden Hiding

This can happen when someone new (or even familiar) comes into the house, or says hello to them out in the world. They might pull their shirt over their head, or hide behind your legs, or dive under a nearby blanket. And it’s basically their way of letting you know they’re a bit freaked out.

Your Response: Don’t force the issue. Your kid will warm up when they want to. You can give them a hug and continue to talk confidently with the friend or family member until the kid comes around. Which they might not. But, that’s okay too.

Eating Non-food Items

Your head has a whole bunch of sensory input (which is an understatement). So sticking something in your pie hole is actually an incredible way to get to know something new about an interesting object you just found.

Your Response: Find out what’s dangerous, poisonous, or otherwise too gross and act accordingly.

Role Play Commitment

Sometime your kid might give James Franco a run for his money in their commitment to a certain role. Whether it’s pretending to be a dog, a cat or a superhero, they may go as far as rubbing against your legs, barking in response to questions or wearing a cape. All. The. Time.

Your Response: Roll with it. This too will pass. They’re learning about identity and where they fit in the world. Let them work it out. Unless they’re pooping in the yard. Which opens the door to the next topic …

Normal But Alarming

Yep. Sometimes your toddler’s behavior is going to be pretty hair raising. Enough so that you might wonder if they are going to turn out normal. Take a deep breath. It’s okay. Here are things you shouldn’t be surprised by:

Sudden Aggression

Your kid suddenly kicks, bites, hits or throws something in a fit of rage and without any kind of warning. It’s not the best way of communicating their emotions but they have a very limited vocabulary and it sure as hell gets your attention.

Your Response: Be calm. Be cool. And let them know it’s not alright. In times they’re not aggravated, help them work on naming their emotions. Make faces and have them name how you’re feeling. Role play with stuffed animals or adapt If You’re Happy And You Know It to other emotions.

Poop Play

Diaper digging is super awful and horrifying. But, it’s also linked to sensory exploration and curiosity. Just imagine what you’d do if you didn’t know what was regularly coming out of your butt.

Your Response: Give your kid tons of opportunity for messy play. Go in for crazy sensory stuff, like a simple mix of cornstarch and water, and let them dig in. If they continue to go in for the poop do the old backwards footie pajamas trick or tape their diaper up with a tape that won’t cause a rash.

Head Banging

Bonk. Bonk. Your kid bumping their head against the wall or the floor can be insanely frightening. But this is a repetitive self-soothing behavior that is normal.

Your Response: Ignore it if they’re not hurting themselves (blood, lacerations, etc.). The bigger you yelp the more likely they’ll keep it up.

And that last point is really the key to a good deal of this odd behavior. Your kid loves it when you react. The smaller and more mellow the reaction, the less likely they will be to continue to be provocative.

Finally, much of the behavior is about communicating needs. Talk with your kid about feeling and emotions as often as you can. Need help? Pick up one of these great tools.