9 Things To Do When Your Toddler Is Driving You Nuts

9 Things To Do When Your Toddler Is Driving You Nuts

Working from home with a toddler is near impossible.

Sometimes the sheer frustration of trying to send just one urgent email is more than enough to make me want to stab myself in the eye with a pen.

But then I realise something. Its not my toddler who has a problem, it’s me.

While toddlers sometimes have tantrums because they can’t have or do what they want, I honestly believe they aren’t driven by a desire to piss you off.

Most of all, they want to learn, explore, laugh, communicate and engage.

Their brain is growing and developing at an extraordinary rate, and all of those things are great for your toddler’s development, shaping his or her personality – for life.

Margot Sunderland, author of the must-read book, What Every Parent Needs To Know (which is based on hundreds of studies), explains that most tantrums are indeed genuine.

“Many tantrums are the result of genuine emotional pain, which should be taken seriously: the pain of impotence, deep frustration, loss, disappointment, and feeling misunderstood. Only some tantrums are primarily motivated by a wish to have control over a parent”.

Sunderland explains that there are two different types of tantrums toddlers have:

  • 1. ‘Nero’ tantrums, where “there is usually an absence of tears and the child is able to articulate her demands, and to argue when you say “no”. A child uses this type of tantrum because she has learned that it will get her what she wants. The more you reward this type of tantrum and with attention… the more she will continue to adopt this behaviour”
  • 2. ‘Distress’ tantrums, where you can see real anguish and distress in your toddler’s face. “During a distress tantrum, your child can’t think or speak rationally because his upper brain functions are hijacked by primitive emotional systems in his lower brain.” These sorts of tantrums result in stress hormones in the brain and require you to comfort and console them, or it can lay foundations for problems in future. Sunderland says, “Repeatedly getting angry with a child’s genuine distress can mean that the child never develops inhibitory mechanisms in his higher brain”. So, in a distressed state, your toddler cannot just ‘snap out of it’ or think rationally.

Unfortunately, toddlers don’t have the words or skills to be able to eloquently tell you want they need, which is how unhelpful labels like “the terrible two’s” have become so popular. They’re just 2 years old – meaning they have only been on this crazy planet for a measly 24 months. I find that helps me to put things back into perspective. They can’t be expected to know and do and think the way we would like.

So, if you find that you’re having a trying day where your toddler is driving you nuts, here are 9 things you can do to help de-fuse the situation, and stop it from escalating into a full-blown tantrum.

Toddler Tactic #1: Check Your Expectations

This is a big one for me, because like many other parents, I try to do too much. With four children in the house and a home business to run, I have a mammoth to-do list each day, and I want to knock everything off as quickly as I can… which is obviously not my toddler’s idea of fun. While I do have help three days a week (and I need it running a site of this size – so much more goes on behind the scenes than you could realise!), I really have to check my expectations.

How can anyone expect a toddler, who is only developmentally capable of a short attention span, to be patient and pleasant when you’re spending most of the day trying to tidy the house, chase up phone calls, do 137 loads of washing (well, it feels like that in my house anyway), get your work done, make three meals or more each day and entertain any visitors that drop in? Of course they are going to be a little (okay, alot) upset when you’re their only source of engagement and communication. You’d soon feel left out too.

The same goes for shopping at the supermarket. Even grown-ups find it a tedious and boring task. Imagine what it would be like if you didn’t have the skills to read anything around you to keep you interested, and you got in trouble for touching everything around you that looks interesting? And WOW, those huge isles look like they are especially designed for racing up and down! Urgh, can’t do that either. It’s best to shop either alone, with help or when your toddler isn’t approaching nap or mealtimes. That could result in some mega meltdowns, of no fault of their own.

Your children are little for such a short space of time, so if you’re a do-er like me, its important to get comfortable with slowing things down. Work out what the single, most important task is for you to get done in a day, and pat your back when you’ve done it. You’ve got a much more important job – teaching your child how to handle situations and relate to others, which one day, could bite you (or your children’s children) in the butt.

Toddler Tactic #2: Get Out In Nature

Toddlers absolutely adore having the freedom to explore and discover, and what better place than in the outdoors, surrounded by nature. The sights, the sounds and the opportunities for discoveries that are offered by nature fill toddlers with such immense joy and awe.

Sure, it might sound boring, especially if you have a choked up to-do list and struggle to unwind. But it’s all new and exciting for your toddler, who is seeing some things for the very first time, and he or she is discovering the magic of nature that we often forget as boring grown ups. Heck, even those puddles we used to love jumping and splashing in as kids are now seen as an annoying inconvenience in our way.

But if you head outside and into the sunshine with your toddler, before you know it, you’ll enjoy being outdoors too. Get used to it! Let your little one jump in puddles or run freely in a safe space – the vitamin D you’ll both get will be great for your immune system and your mood. Don’t forget your puddle jumping boots too, mum and dad!

Toddler Tactic #3: Slow It Down

I’ve lost count of how many times I have seen parents grumpily rushing and hurrying up their toddlers, who have become momentarily captivated by flowers, bugs, or other attention grabbing objects along the way. We’ve become a society that is so fixated on how to go from A to B, in the shortest, easiest and quickest way possible, without stopping to smell the roses or take in what is around us.

This is something that I always plan for when we go for walks. I allow time for our daughter to have the freedom to explore and admire. If she gives me a rock or flower she’s picked, I make sure to get down to her level and get excited about it with her. The joy in her eyes is priceless. Take your time, you just might find it helps you to slow down too.

Toddler Tactic #4: Get Creative

Just as we forget the delights of nature, we too forget the captivating activities that we loved to do as tiny tots. It doesn’t have to be complicated – painting or playdough can sometimes mesmerise my daughter for longer than I expect. If you’re feeling a little clueless about activities to do with your toddler, then you must check out our article 17 Activities Your Toddler Will Love.

Toddler Tactic #5: Get Present – Give Your Toddler Some Undivided Time

The biggest, bestest (that’s a word, my kids used to say it) present anyone could give another human being is their presence.

If you’re a person who tends to be ‘in your head’ a great deal of the time, your toddler will pick up on it. Constant calls for ‘mum mum mum’ or escalating behaviours are a signal they are not feeling heard or understood. Yet, in all the time you try and delay play time so you can get something done, spending some quality, undivided time with your tot can fill up his or her cup again, meaning they have more fuel for independent play time.

If a toddler’s mamma or daddy cup is empty, they will keep finding ways to get your attention to fill it. Its tough going for a toddler – they are in the space between a dependent baby and independent child, so a gentle transition with love, patience and understanding is key to avoid feeling resentful by their requests for your time. They just love you and want to do lots of things with you – you are their world.

If you struggle to be present in your relationships, look into mindfulness and presence courses or information. It really does help to take a load off your mind, which helps you to have deeper, more rewarding relationships.

Toddler Tactic #6: Go On, Get Some Help

I realise finances are a roadblock for many families, but if you can budget it in, get some paid help in the areas troubling you the most. For example, if you’re stressing out about cleaning the house, get a cleaner either once a week, fortnight, or month, depending on your budget.

It can take a while to get used to the idea of having a cleaner, which may feel overly indulgent at first, then you may end up battling the mamma guilt demons of having someone clean your own home, while you carry on with every day life. But rest assured, it’s just like your first night out without the baby. At first you’re trying to stop yourself from calling or texting the babysitter every five minutes, but as time goes on, you eventually relax and feel like you’ve found ‘you’ again. It’s incredibly freeing and a load of pressure off.

In Australia, you can have someone clean your home for around $60-$70 in a 2-2.5 hour clean, which means you’ll have all your home surfaces sparking for less than what it costs for an hour in therapy. That’s what it will feel like too, bargain therapy.

Toddler Tactic #7: Take Care Of Yourself, Mamma or Dad

Whenever I am feeling run down because I haven’t had enough sleep, haven’t had any ‘me’ time or have put everyone else’s needs first ahead of mine, I am not the best parent (or partner) that I could be. Have a read of Janet Lansbury’s article, I Think I Know Why You’re Yelling, which talks about self care and other great advice for grounding yourself as a parent.

Most of us are familiar with the bank account analogy. If you keep making withdrawals without any deposits, you’ll end up bankrupt. And that doesn’t feel very good at all. When we have nothing left for us, we have nothing left to give anyone – nothing of quality anyway.

Assess what’s going on in your life, and if there are any areas of stress or frustration that you can eliminate. A stressed, tired and self-sacrificing parent isn’t going to be a happy one. Talk to your partner, friends and family members and see where there are any opportunities for others to step in and help with certain things.

Toddler Tactic #8: Always Be A Trouble Shooter

Babies and toddlers can’t tell you the problem, so when we try to help them, there can be a bit of guesswork involved.

Of course, the older your little one gets, the easier it is to work out, but even into early childhood, sometimes they just can’t tell you exactly what the problem is. By the time your toddler is really screaming and throwing themselves around, they are past the point of trying to let you know what they want (in ways other than words sometimes) and they can head straight into meltdown.

For example, when I started the process of weaning my toddler, without realising it, she would still come to me first when she was hungry or thirsty. So when I would say no to a breastfeed, she would get a little upset. She’d keep asking, and it’d escalate to the point she would get very dramatic, angry and loud. Even though there was water out, her instinct was to come to me – it’s something she’s known all her life so I can’t blame her.

So, what did I do? Instead of just saying no to breastfeeds, I would try and work out if she was hungry or thirsty by offering her water or food – even then she’d refuse initially or outright. So I kept going with my troubleshooting. I would leave a few options out on the table, and then a minute or two later, she’d go get what she wanted, because she wanted to make the choice and do it herself. The times she wouldn’t do that either, she was usually tired. Tiredness is a big trigger for crankiness, especially when it’s escalating, because they just don’t know what to do with themselves.

So all you can do is keep trying different options, offer choices (not too many, just a ‘this or that’) and breathe. Trace your steps leading up to the tantrum/meltdown and see what you can identify as the trigger. Did you miss early tired signals? Had it been a while in between snacks? Have you been doing too much today, or been out and about with your toddler, and he’s just wanting time with you?

Ahhhh the joys. But you can make it a heck of a great deal easier if you accept that toddlers can be a bit of a puzzle sometimes, and it gets easier if you try to put the right pieces together rather than shove in what doesn’t fit. And remember, getting on top of things early is key.

Toddler Tactic #9: Embrace Pyjama Days

If you’re a do-er like me, pyjama days can really push your comfort levels – it just doesn’t feel right not to be doing what you do best – doing things! But when my toddler is beside herself out of the ordinary, and nothing seems to be working, I know that it’s time for a pyjama day. What does that involve? Saying no to doing. Saying yes to trusting that my toddler needs me to have downtime.

So we stay in comfy clothes (or my toddler will go au naturale, as she prefers), grab a drink each and maybe some snacks, then head for the couch to watch her favourite movie or DVD together, which is so much more peaceful and grounding. And you know what? Usually within a day or two, just when I start to think I can tolerate the crankiness or restless nights for much longer, the clouds part and it all makes sense – she pops a tooth, ends up with some sort of illness or any other good reason to explain why she was so upset.

Trust your toddler. He or she isn’t being naughty. Your toddler isn’t yet capable of saying anything like, ‘Gee mum, my head really hurts today, I don’t know what’s going on but I don’t like it and it makes me feel really grumpy and tired all the time.’ They can’t say they have a headache. But by assuming they are being naughty or manipulative, they just wont feel understood, resulting in even more of the behaviour you don’t like.

Remember the mantra, ‘My toddler isn’t trying to give me a hard time. She/he is having a hard time.’

Recommended Reading

I highly recommend supporting yourself by doing more reading – the more information you have, the more tools you have – and the better you will cope. Check out BellyBelly’s Recommended Parenting Books, particularly:

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Kelly Winder is the creator of BellyBelly.com.au, a writer, doula (trained in 2005), and a mother of three awesome children. She's passionate about informing and educating fellow thinking parents and parents-to-be, especially about all the things she wishes she knew before she had her firstborn. Kelly is also passionate about travel, tea, travel, and animal rights and welfare. And travel.


  1. I read this article when I needed it the most. My second child is quite a challenge and sometimes he drives me crazy! This article is comforting bcs I see I am not the only one having these situations. You did give me couple of ideas with terrible twos! Thanks a lot!!

  2. I really needed this article! I’m 38 weeks pregnant with baby #2 and my patience with my 2.5 year old is extremely limited. (Actually, my patience with everyone and everything is extremely limited) The “mommy cup” of needed attention is exactly what I needed to understand my little guy’s clingy, mommy-centric behaviour, and why he suddenly needs help doing things I know he is capable of doing himself! Thank you so much!

    1. It’s a very hard question to answer with so little information, you may need to get some in-person help. But off the top of my head, is something making him/her feel unsafe? Any big life changes happened, like moving house, new childcare, relationship issues, new baby in the house etc? Also I would be looking at diet, cutting out sugar, wheat and colourings (any additives really). Spending more time burning energy in the outdoors/nature and make sure you’re having enough one on one quality time where you are focused on your toddler (not your phone or anything else). These things really make a difference with kids. Make sure you have firm boundaries in place without losing control or yelling too, that will make him/her feel even more unsafe. Parent Effectiveness Training is awesome, see if they have some offices in your area, else they have a book. I highly recommend the book ‘What Every Parent Needs To Know’ by Margot Sunderland.

  3. Hi Kelly, this is a great article. I work 4 days a week, my hubby is studying from home & a stay at home dad with our 18mth old daughter. This arrangement has given them the opportunity to bond really well. We also have a 6 yr old at school. Our 18mth old is very strong willed, stubborn & determined. Other than throwing huge tantrums for many reasons, within the past two months she has been whinging, squealing & crying when I get home. She sits at my feet behaving like this & pulling at me until i pick her up. Hubby comments that she has been good all day. This only occurs when I get home, she is excited to see me & clearly wants my attention & cuddles. She continues to whinge while I hold her but she wont let me put her down, screams & hangs on tightly to my clothes. She has just stopped separation anxiety when I leave. I haven’t seen her most of the day, it would be nice to spend the time with her when I get home as a positive time. It is upsetting for her, me & hubby gets frustrated. Do you have any quick suggestions? She is my fourth child, two are grown up & I never had this with the others. But this is also the first time that hubby stayed home & I worked. Ideas would be really appreciated. Thanks

  4. Just this morning when my two year old woke up,crying straight away,opened the door and hiding underneath the chair. Sometimes when tantrums attack i just leave her cryings due..because the more i gives her attention during tantrums the more she screams.but sometimes she listens and just want my cuddles…i just dont understand her crankiness…but this time pyjama day will be applied-:)
    More thnx!

  5. I came across similar ideas (years ago) that toddlers tantrums are them expressing their feelings and I used that idea to help deal with my tantrum prone twin (when I had no energy or time ) and it made a big difference to tell him I understood that he was feeling frustrated.

    Looking back the time that went so quickly and I am glad I don’t have to regret being too tough.

  6. Thank you for your tips and facts about toddlers. My 2 year old girl seems to suck up all the energy, she just demands and demands and is strong willwd and set in her ways! She is a very clever girl who learns things so quickly but her tantrums has made me grow inpatient with her (i feel so guilty time to time) but i often snap at her…i so want to be patient and calmly just console her but having an infant means that i cannot focus on her all the times. Recently she started saying “mama mama” all the times for no apparent reason and when I reply she says something i cannot seem to understand. I know this time is very short and that it passes but it seems like FOREVER that she started playing up (since she was 14 months or so) . Every night I go to bed with a sense of dread about her behavior. My husband is usually calm and patient with her but she wont listen to him either and rather plays up even MORE with him. So the whole day of trying to give her attention and go through hwr tantrums and then wen her dad comes it becomes WORSE…i sometimes hate my life because of her tantrumy, terrible screaming and attention seeking behavior as it makes going out unbearable. My life is good otherwise and the baby is much less of work for me than my 2 year old who just pisses me off sometimes for no reason. I know that is so wrong and selfish of me to expect her to act all nice and play by herself but I would love some peace around the house. I canr even go to the roulet toilet without her checking in on me!! I feel like my heads in a constant state of panic sometimes even though shes calm and happy but just listening to her scream 10 or more times a day is enough to make me angry at her. The area where I live isnt too safe for a lone mum to take her kids with her to a nearby park so we stay indoors during the day…I would love to just go to a park and sit down while my toddler does her thing. Secondly, my husband is always tired after he comes from work (hes an excellent dad) but his lack of energy means i am running around the house doing 90% of the chores. Even during sleep.times he has to stay in my toddlers bed in case she wakes uo screaming….so I do not get.much time with my husband either. I often daydream of being somewhere else where I am taken care of

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