How Do You Resolve Toddler Problem Behaviors? Try These Questions

Photo by Nasos Zovoilis / Stocksy United / 1334498
Photo by Nasos Zovoilis / Stocksy United

When a child does something “wrong”—pushing their brother, for instance, or sneaking off to eat a piece of candy that you said they couldn’t have—how do you typically respond to their “behavior problems?” If you’re like many parents, you might turn to consequences by sending your kids to their rooms or dumping the entire contents of the candy bowl into the bin. That’s an understandable reaction. Many of us were raised on discipline that included plenty of punishments.

Why Punishment Alone Doesn’t Work for Toddlers

But it turns out that punishment alone, especially for very young children like toddlers,  won’t necessarily curb or change the behavior. Why? Because their developing brains are still learning cause and effect. They don’t yet fully understand the consequences of their actions. But they’re learning, and talking through consequences with them can really help!

So not to worry—your sweet baby has not gone away. They’re still in there. Their toddler brain is simply discovering how to manage and control their emotions and actions, and with your help, they will increasingly be able to control to do so.

How to Work Through Toddler Behavior Problems

When we meet parents who are facing behavior problems, we always encourage them to use a method we like to call “curiosity questions” to help children explore what happened. Unlike punishment alone, curiosity questions encourage reflection. In other words, if you want kids to make good decisions, you need to help them learn to think through the results of their decisions—and that’s a positive skill that can build their confidence as they work through the myriad problems and choices that will inevitably arise in life.

Photo by Lea Csontos / Stocksy / 894925
Photo by Lea Csontos / Stocksy

Examples of Curiosity Questions that Work

Another benefit to curiosity questions? They keep your child connected to you and communicating. Whether you’re facing a child who will not pick up their toys or one who chooses hitting over hugs, take a look at the examples of questions you could use below: 

  • Is there anything you could have done differently?
  • How do you feel about what happened?
  • What did you learn from this?
  • What ideas do you have for next time?
  • What’s your plan for ____? (picking up your toys, finishing your puzzle, etc.…)

You’ll notice that none of the suggested questions begin with, “Why did you…?” That’s because even though the question may be a well-intended attempt to understand behavior, it can sound accusatory and trigger defensiveness in your child. The point of curiosity questions is to get into your child’s world without making them feel as though they’re being put on the spot or that they’ve done something wrong—and remember, deliver your questions with compassion and an even vocal tone, without making them feel belittled.

5 Guidelines When Using Curiosity Questions to Address Problematic Behavior

1. Address Challenging Behavior with a Cool Head

Wait until you are both feeling calm. Did your kid just dump a bin of crayons on the floor—on purpose? It’s okay to let them know you need to take time to breathe and calm down. Counting to 10 while taking big, deep breaths helps. So does taking a moment to walk away and wash a few dishes (anything to get your energy focused somewhere else for a moment). 

2. Before You Correct the Behavior, Try to Connect

Remember, all behavior for young children has meaning. Use your internal wisdom to show you how to get into your child’s world with empathy and acceptance. Kneeling down to talk to them can literally help you see the world through their eyes. As your child’s most trusted adult, you know what works best to help them feel seen and heard. Start there. You can begin to explore “curiosity questions” after they feel you are really listening—and when they are listening to you. 

3. Practice the Art of Listening

It can be surprisingly difficult to just listen openly to your child. Notice your own urges to jump in, offer the “right” solution, or to just fix the problem yourself—and quash them. Remember that curiosity questions are meant to help a child explore their thoughts and feelings. 

4. Encourage Your Child to Come up with Their Own Solutions

When the solutions come from your child—even if you help brainstorm and then hand over the reins—they will learn that they can make valuable contributions by using their decision-making skills and by being respectful. You might be surprised (and touched) by the sweet options they come up with, like making a card to say “sorry,” or giving their little brother a hug and helping him rebuild the block castle they just knocked over! 

5. Move On

After you’ve worked through things with your child, help them acquire that all-important quality of self-forgiveness by not dwelling on the situation. After all, mistakes—which we all make—are simply opportunities to learn. And once we’ve done a bit of emotional learning, it’s best to move on and get back to a fun activity!

Curiosity questions aren’t just for problematic behavior. After all, those teeth need to get brushed every morning and evening, and curiosity questions work great as a way to help kids stay on task. Once you find yourself replacing compliance statements (“Get your teeth brushed now!”) with questions, you might find that turning demands into questions becomes a habit.

Meet Kim and Ann.

Certified Parent Educators and Super Moms Kim DeMarchi and Ann DeWitt share a love for helping families create deeper connections, foster respect, and (of course) have a heckuva lot of fun. (Fun and laughter are key ingredients in family life, they’ll both tell you!) DeMarchi holds a Master of Education; DeWitt earned her Master in Clinical Psychology. They’ve been penning Positive Parenting articles for KinderCare’s wonderful families since 2015. Find them online at EmpoweredParenting.com and DeWittCounseling.com.


Read more articles by Kim and Ann.

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