Development FAQ: 12-18 months – Behaviour

My son of 14 months has begun to throw tantrums when he is told he may not do something. He also seems to ignore the word “No” both at home and nursery, returning to what he was trying to do even when he has been moved away.

My son of 14 months is becoming very strong-willed and determined to get his own way. When he tries to do something, such as empty the fridge, and is stopped he throws himself backwards onto the ground screaming with rage. If I catch him about to do something such as fiddle with the video controls and say his name followed with “No” he will smile at me very cheekily. At nursery they have commented that he does not listen to the word “No”. Even if they remove him from what he was trying to do he will go right back and try all over again.

Am I expecting too much from him to really understand the word “No”? Is his natural curiosity just so strong he cannot resist doing things he has been told not to do? I am not sure if my son does not understand or if he does and is choosing to ignore us, which would mean he is becoming strong-willed and headstrong.

At this age a baby is beginning to explore every aspect of his world. He is naturally inquisitive about everything and still is not yet able to understand why you won’t let him empty the fridge. This can be the start of the “terrible twos” which refer to the second year of life rather than beginning at the age of two.

It can be a time of frustration for both you and your son. You will be trying to prevent him from touching things, or acting in a certain way, and he will show his determination by returning again and again to forbidden places that he is desperate to explore. This is not “naughty” behaviour as such. At this age he wants to explore everything he sees and even if he has been told several times before that he may not empty the fridge or fiddle with the DVD player he is unable to always suppress his desire to explore.

When dealing with headstrong and determined behaviour you need to be very specific to prevent it becoming a battle of wills. It can begin to feel as if you use the word “No” a lot of the time, and your son’s resulting tantrums are very tiring to deal with constantly. This is why you need to be aware of potential problems before they occur.

Look around your home from your son’s point of view. You may need to get down on the floor to see it from his level. You may notice that things such as the video player are at his eye level so he is bound to be attracted to the dials and flaps. Working out how to make his usual play area as child friendly as possible will go a long way to help stop a lot of confrontation between the two of you. There should still be one or two things which are restricted to him, as this is the way he will learn the meaning of the word “No” but, by removing a lot of potential flash points, he will be able to explore his surroundings more freely.

Move video, CD and DVD players to high shelves or into cupboards protected by child-proof locks. Take away any breakable objects and cover all power outlets. The fewer reasons you have to say “No” the more meaningful they will become.

At this age the use of distraction can go a long way to defuse situations before they get out of control. Rather than waiting until your son has got his hand on the fridge door anticipate what he may be about to do and distract him. Instead of saying “No, don’t go into the fridge” find something to take his attention elsewhere. This could be drawing his attention to something, such as a cat in the garden or taking him to another room to find a toy or occupation, to engage his interest. This does not mean he will not return to the fridge later on: his curiosity does often get the better of him.

When your son does continue with his course of action and you have to stop him, make sure you are at his eye level when telling him “No”. Your tone of voice will tell him that you disapprove of his actions. The word “No” will mean nothing to him if said in an everyday voice and without conviction. There is no need to shout at your toddler but you need to be firm. This will mean using a lower tone of voice than usual. If he tries to avoid looking at you when you are beside him hold his arms to his sides so he has no alternative but listen to you. At this age long explanations will just wash over his head so use short sentences. If he constantly tries to empty the fridge then always use the same words to stop him, “No, you may not empty the fridge. The door needs to stay closed”.

If your son goes on to throw a tantrum deal with it in the way best suited to him. Some toddlers will not mind being held whilst having a tantrum, but this may infuriate others even more and they are best ignored until it is over. If your son does let you hold him do this by sitting him on your knee facing outwards. Hold him firmly around the middle, and restrain his arms if you are able. This may help him get rid of his frustration and rage quicker and he will begin to calm down. Once he is calm again, give him a cuddle and then find something you can do together.

You do need to set limits on certain areas of your toddler’s life in order to keep him safe. He will not understand that but you must always be consistent, even if it means going through a tantrum until he understands that you are not going to change your mind. Everyday safety procedures such as being strapped into a car seat, holding your hand when crossing roads and not standing up in the bath always need to be observed. If you are inconsistent over matters of safety your son will not learn that some things in life are non-negotiable. As he gets older you will be able to use more explanations but at this age keeping it to a simple, “I am keeping you safe” is enough should he begin to refuse to co operate. If he insists on standing up in the bath remove him after one warning. If he refuses to hold your hand when crossing a road, ask him once and then pick him up and carry him over. You cannot take him out in the car unless he is in his seat, strapped in. Although he seems to be headstrong, most toddlers will realize very quickly it is just not worth having a tantrum over something which is not going to change.

Being prepared for confrontations goes a long way towards preventing them.Have a positive attitude and try to use language which gives your son the idea of co-operation. When you are going out in the car tell him where you are off to and what he is going to do. “Let’s go to nursery now, I wonder what you will do today” is better than “You must be strapped in “.

This age group can be very demanding as the limits imposed by parents and carers seem to be constantly tested by the toddler. By beginning to set reasonable limits now, which are acknowledged by all who deal with him, your son will get through this phase in time. Ask at the nursery from which activities your son needs to be removed. Explain to the nursery staff how you set limits at home by making his surroundings as child friendly as possible. In a nursery setting there should also not be too many restrictions although one or two are likely. Ask the staff to deal with your son in the same way as you deal with him. If they are unable to distract him in time then they must remove him from the undesirable activity and give him a short explanation as to why he may not do what he wants to do.