The Crazy Things That Toddlers Do

WebMD unlocks the mysteries of toddler behavior, from running around naked to snacking on Fido's food.

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Shu, MD on September 15, 2015
6 min read

Melinda Roberts had just moved to a new neighborhood and was busy getting the bath ready for her 2-year-old son. But when the San Jose, CA, mom spun around, there was no sign of Dylan. So she checked the house and spied the front door wide open.

"Uh-oh," she thought. Peeking outside, she spotted her mischievous toddler, assuming the starter's position and sprinting down the sidewalk stark naked. Luckily, she caught up to him before his wild dash made the neighborhood news.

Toddlers like Dylan are known for their outrageous habits -- from acting like nudists to sticking their finger up their noses, from drinking the bath water to snacking on Fido's food. They play by their own rule books and manage to surprise even the most unflappable parents.

Today, Roberts, mother of three and author of Mommy Confidential: Tales from the Wonderbelly of Motherhood, laughs when she thinks of Dylan's antics as a toddler.

"He was a combination of a leprechaun and a Tasmanian devil," she recalls. "Once in a while he'd just stop what he was doing and run in circles, screaming at the top of his lungs, and then go back to whatever he was doing. He knows he's pushing you to the limit."

That's because toddlers are like cavemen, says Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician and author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block. He also has a DVD of the same name. "They spit and scratch when they are angry," he says. "They pee in the living room. They pick their nose. They put food in their hair. They'll suddenly shriek out of nowhere, even in a crowded place."

Toddlers live in the right side of the brain, Karp says, which is the impulsive, emotional, and nonverbal side; the left side is the impulse-control center.

"All of us shut off our left brain when we get upset," he says. "We become less eloquent, less patient, less logical. We call that 'going ape.' Toddlers start out 'ape,' and when they get upset, they really go Jurassic on you. They turn into these primitive little cavemen."

"Children don't have the same bodily shame that we do about things like picking their nose and looking down their pants," says Rahil Briggs, an infant-toddler psychologist at Children's Hospital at Montefiore in New York.

"There's no superego inside of them, saying, 'Don't pick your nose. That looks funny to outsiders,'" she says. "Instead, there is this enormously powerful sense of curiosity and exploration."

Allison Ellis, owner of Hopscotch Consulting in Seattle, admits that her son, Wilson, who is nearly 2, acts like a "dirty old man."

He pinches her nipples in public, slaps her bare bottom while she is getting dressed, and chases after his older sister and other toddler-age girls with an open mouth, followed by a licking attack.

"Right around my son's 18-month checkup, my pediatrician said, 'Be aware of willful behavior,'" she says. "At the time, I thought, 'Who, my son? He's such a sweet, docile kid.' And then, I'm not kidding, maybe a few days later my son started acting out a bit and testing limits."

Ellis uses timeouts to calm him down. "Most of the time I think he does it to get my attention," she says. "If someone else is around, I usually laugh and say, 'Wow, look at my crazy kid,' and they laugh, too."

Toddlers just love attention at this stage, Briggs says. "They don't actually care so much if it's adoration or funny looks or giggles. They'll take any kind of attention."

The key is the more you offer attention for positive behaviors, she says, the more you pre-empt that attention-seeking behavior.

A hot topic of conversation for parents of toddlers is "sexploration" -- fondling or touching themselves as they become more aware of their bodies.

"The first thing for parents to know is that it's a normative phase of development," Briggs says. "As long as it's a moderate amount of exploration and touching, don't get worried at all."

She emphasizes that it's important to let your child know: "It's your private part, and if you want to touch it, you need to do it in your private time." Also, you should explain the difference between "good touch, bad touch" -- who can touch it and what are appropriate times, like during bath time or at the doctor's office.

Roberts remembers how her toddler thought "poke the pee-pee was the funniest game in the world." He and the other boys would be fully dressed and giggle hysterically as they pointed out that somebody had a penis.

Kids at this age, Briggs says, are fascinated by the concept of "same and different" in gender. If your child is getting hands-on with other children, explain calmly: "Sweetheart, we don't touch other people's private parts, just as nobody touches your private part."

How should parents deal with this type of toddler behavior? Stay calm and deliver your comments in the same voice that you use for an explanation of how to tie shoes, she says.

Beatrice DeArmond in Gallup, NM, says her 2-year-old granddaughter Isa can't get enough of doggie treats and Charlie the dog's water bowl. As soon as she could crawl, Isa would head straight for the kitchen, where the dog's food and water are stored.

"She sticks her face in it like she's bobbing for apples and then sticks her tongue out and tries to drink like the dog," she says. "The family tried a lot of tactics, including putting up barricades and eventually taking Charlie's food and water from him during the day."

Karp says that toddlers are little scientists, wanting to try everything out firsthand. "They want to interact," he says. "They want to touch, feel, roll, taste, smell, see, and experiment with the properties of objects. That's how they are observing and learning about the world."

Briggs refutes the bad reputation of "the terrible twos." "Your toddler is caught in the middle" she says, "between this incredibly exciting and exhilarating feeling of independence -- 'I can walk, I can talk, I can feed myself, I can dress myself, the world is mine' -- and on the other side, just a year away from not having been able to do any of those things. There's that tension that the child is feeling between thinking they can be on their own and feeling like Mommy's little baby."

A job of parenting is to civilize your child, Karp says, "so by the time they get to be 4, they say 'please' and 'thank you,' wait in line, share their toys, and have impulse control. But they don't start out that way."

When you think your kid is acting like a little caveman, bear in mind these simple strategies for handling toddler behavior:

Tone it down. Karp says that in situations that are "yellow light" behaviors, you need to be clear but empathetic. For example, you can say: "Yes, you are taking off your clothes, but no, sweetheart, we don't take off our clothes at church." Or if your child is using a bad word, try a stern voice: "Say it again and we have to go home."

Find a solution that works for you. Roberts admits that she resorted to duct taping Dylan's diaper to keep him from ripping it off. "I'm not one of your finicky, perfect moms," she says. "I'd rather be sane than perfect."

Reinforce what you like. "Catch your child being good," Karp says. "Encourage them when they are doing good things. Too often, when your child is being quiet in the other room, we take that as an opportunity to finish all the things we need to do. Go and spend time with them."