Managing toddler misbehaviour


I spent 10 years in secondary classrooms in Australia and overseas, and 4 years at universities teaching educators across all levels of schooling. I know the theories behind child development and behaviour management and I align my parenting to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, that in order to be able to learn children require their basic needs to be met. This includes sleep in my books because without sleep there is limited availability in the developing brain for anything other than basic needs.

I want my response to be from a place of love but lately it is more likely to be exhaustion. I find myself saying ‘NO!’ way too often and too loud. And my level of tolerance for a two hour bed time is waning. How do parents cope with toddler misbehaviour?

But wait… a toddler refusing to go to sleep is not misbehaving!

The definition of misbehaviour includes mischievousness, which is what Mr 21 months is certainly displaying at bed time. He will move his little hands around under my belly or stroking my back in an effort to keep himself awake. For two hours. This time seems to stretch out in front of me every night when it is bedtime. It is as though he keeps all his energy pent up through a relatively calm bath and dinner time, ready for when we head to his room for some stories, a cuddle and eventually lights out. Last night, for example I gestured that it was time to turn off the light and he sprang into action, jumping up and down on the bed and saying ‘no, no, no, no’ in that cute way he has picked up.

Still, I persevered and turned out the light and he eventually conceded and snuggled in for a cuddle. Sweet. For the first 30 minutes until it becomes apparent from his wiggling and fidgeting that he did not have any intention of going to sleep at that moment, or in the near future. I persevered for another half and hour or so before caving and leading him out of the bedroom for some warm milk and cuddles with dad.

Toddler behaviour can be categorised as misbehaviour when it is testing boundaries in a less than ideal manner, much like the going to bed saga or the new trick Master X has learnt which is to slap a parent when they do something that he does not agree with. I admitted that Mr A and I have talked about smacking in the past but that it left such a sour taste that we vowed never to do it again to our children. Other behaviour that can be categorised as such includes:

  • screaming when told no or inappropriate behaviour is stopped e.g. grabbing Mr 21 months before he walks into the road of busy traffic resulting in him screaming and kicking me
  •  tantrums with no tears when it is time to leave a place e.g. Mr 21 months screaming and throwing himself on the floor when it is time for a parent to leave childcare
  • throwing food or utensils on the floor when advice is given regarding eating e.g. we asked Mr 21 months if he was finished dinner and he screamed and threw his fork on the ground in protest. He could have just said no.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs


So this all brings me back to Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. This is a foundational psychology theory that basically says that you cannot expect self-actualisation which includes learning, if basic needs have not been met. I see this in terms of toddler misbehaviour too and I think for our son it is to do with the third tier, ‘belongingness and love needs’. I know that Mr A and I love our son very much, but we have a lot going on at the moment and perhaps we aren’t meeting his needs in this area. If we go back to the example of bed time for instance, he will sit up, wide awake and call for dad. Every time Mr A or I leave him in the car with the other parent present, he will cry for the parent who has left. Last night on our way home from work we stopped at the grocery store to pick up some fruit and meat for dinner. Mr A got out of the car and as soon as the door clicked closed Mr 21 months was howling for dad. I did my best to distract him by playing The Wiggles, playing peek-a-boo with funny voices and even got out of the car and went around to his side to give him a cuddle. But he just shook his head and howled louder. It was at this point that I decided the best place for him was in the car, and the best place for me was standing outside the car, waiting.

So how are we trying to manage behaviour?

We are taking one day at a time. Considering this behaviour is active even before Baby is born, we need to be even more mindful of Mr 21 months’ security and feeling loved. One on one time is going to be paramount along with including him in our activities with Baby. And trying now to instil a sense of love when we respond to his behaviour is important. The longer that Mr 21 months goes without this level of security, the harder it will become for him to learn (self-actualise) and the more mischievous and attention-seeking behaviours he will exhibit. So as parents we need to look at ourselves and what we are, and are not doing to meet his needs and how we can change.

The root of behaviour in toddlers can be linked to basic psychology theories such as the hierarchy of needs. It is not to say that every time it is going to be the same tier that is causing the issue. Maybe a certain behaviour is triggered by security, whilst another is triggered by love, and another by thirst. If I think about the times when I am short tempered and struggling at relationships, including work performance, they can all be linked back to this theory. Just recently I was struggling with keeping an even temper with Mr A and we realised later when talking about it, that I was really tired that day. Lack of sleep is a major disturbance to my mental wellbeing and my ability to regulate my emotions and associated actions. Even adults can suffer from the effects of these needs, and understanding this places us in good stead for working with the young people in our care on how to recognise and remedy these gaps… of course when they are much older than 21 months and until then we as parents must fill those gaps for them.

5 thoughts on “Managing toddler misbehaviour

  1. I had a strong willed toddler and the more positive feedback I gave to negative behavior the more she displayed that negative behavior. He’s definitely old enough to understand the cause and effect of this on a basic level. It was definitely a struggle to balance providing the security she needed without enabling her negative behaviors.


  2. Don’t be too hard on yourself, you’re pregnant and dealing with this. Toddlers know how to push the right buttons. I found using time out really helpful with my daughter, I used to sit her on her chair, tell her why and leave her for 2-minutes with no attention. Didn’t always work but we got through it!


    1. I feel like my 20 month old wouldn’t understand that. I forget just because he can’t say many words doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand them. I might try this thanks


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