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Why toddlers misbehave

By Mirra Ghosh

Toddlers around the world share the common trait of trouble: the terrible twos, the tantrums, the tearing down of all appropriate social conduct.

As South Asian parents we are sometimes mortified to find that our toddler has stripped naked in front of her grand uncles, snatched the food off of a stranger’s dinner plate, or screamed profanities in the temple.

Why do they do this? Here are simplified explanations for some of the strangest behaviours we find in our little ones.

What is the fascination with taking their clothes off, but not putting them back on?

As body coordination improves, toddlers are eager to explore what they can do, including learning how to dress and undress. The hitch is that taking clothes off is far easier to do than putting clothes on. For this reason, they are more than happy to strip down at the slightest inclination, yet go screaming in the other direction when they have to put clothes back on. Combined with lack of social inhibitions and a need to assert their will, toddlers will often continue to undress as a means of getting attention, as parents almost always react instantly when a child begins to take clothes off.


Do not reinforce the behaviour by punishing or scolding the child in a harsh manner. Even negative attention is attention, and will reinforce the behaviour in your toddler.

Positively reinforce your child when he does carry out the right behaviour.

At an entirely different time, explain in simple words why it is inappropriate to take clothes off at certain times and in certain places.

Why do they play more with the box than the toy that’s in it?

We feel terrible when someone gifts our child the latest electronic toy and our ungrateful toddler spends all the time playing with the cardboard packaging instead of the expensive toy! This is because research has found that simpler toys, such as boxes, particularly flexible boxes, provide endless opportunities for imaginative play. Although manufactured toys may seem to provide more educational value and appeal more to adults, they only offer children a limited way of playing or operating with them. To a child, a box can be a hat, a home to crawl into, a table to pretend eating dinner on, or a doghouse for an imaginary pet. In line with a heightened sense of exploration is an even more developed imagination, and anything that is constraining or limited in its use is less appealing to a toddler.

Why don’t they like to share?

After having been babies entirely dependent on their carers, toddlers suddenly understand independence. They realize they are part of a bigger world, and that they are no longer the center of it. Although toddlers enjoy this independence and exploration, they are learning for the first time that they must interact with others in a cooperative way.

Like an employee who has just been demoted, toddlers don’t like that they are no longer the center of attention. For this reason, when something is taken away from them, or they are asked to give something of their own to others, they do not like it one bit. They are attached to the concept of ‘mine’ and they do not want to give it up.

Why do they like shoving things into places—the toilet, the DVD player, the AC vents…?

This comes from toddlers’ curiosity about the world and their environment. As they are not born with the knowledge of all objects and their relation to one another, they explore freely with whatever they come across. Although sometimes this behaviour leads to them handling expensive or dangerous items, it is not altogether a bad thing. A child who frequently experiments with the world around him is showing signs of curiosity, imagination, and ultimately, intelligence.

What’s with the terrifying temper tantrums?

Although you may find that your toddler throws tantrums in many different situations, the underlying reason for them is an inability to adequately express emotions. Toddlers struggle with a whole new set of feelings, needs, and experiences, and are often unsure how to express them or explain them. A temper tantrum is the easiest way for a toddler to express negative feelings. Tantrums can be caused by situations that anger or frustrate a toddler, but often are also a result of stress, hunger, tiredness, or overstimulation.


The most important thing is to make sure you don’t give in or even accidentally reward your child’s tantrums.

Why are they sometimes violent or disrespectful?

To begin understanding a child, you have to sometimes stop being an adult. You have to remember that a toddler has no idea what the word respect means, does not understand that certain behaviours are violent, or that certain words cannot be uttered in certain situations.

As a toddler, your child is a sponge that is soaking in information, all the time, in every single place. Even when you think your toddler may not be paying attention, the likelihood is that anything within earshot will be absorbed by their overactive minds.

Then at an entirely different point in time, you will find that your toddler says something completely inappropriate. This is because he/she has no idea what the word means or the context in which it is to be used.

For this reason, it is important to be aware of the environment to which your toddler is exposed, and to always remember to correct or explain if your child has picked up something you do not want him/her to repeat.

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One Response to Why toddlers misbehave

  1. aya osseiran February 14, 2010 at 3:29 pm #

    hey, thats a really good article. I really like it. now i understand why they like playing with boxes. last time i brought a box for my baby brother. The box contains tons of balls inside it. instead of playing and examining the balls, he played with the box:P

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