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6 Emotional Tells Explaining Why Your Toddler Acts Out

The Real Reasons Your Toddler Acts Out?

The reasons your toddler acts out might not be what you expect. Because you’re a parent. You can’t help it. The instinct to tell your young child to, “Behave!”, is rooted in all of us. We know kids to run, laugh, and play. But it’s not asking too much for them to listen to us, every once in a while, is it?

Maybe you’re one of the patient parents, speaking speak slowly and carefully, explaining how things are going to unfold. (Parenting high five. You rock!) You receive a solemn nod in understanding, and a reluctant promise to behave.

A few minutes later, your child’s morphed into a monster. Whether it’s raucous behavior, flailing limbs, or seemingly angry actions–your child is not his or her self.

Do you ever wonder why? What are the real reasons your toddler acts out? No one can be that upset over such a minor thing, right?

We usually blame poor behavior on hunger, fatigue, or being “spoiled.” But those aren’t the only reasons your toddler acts out (or any young child).

Here Are 6 Common Emotional “Tells” You Often Face When Your Toddler Acts Out, And What They Might Really Mean


Is your child queen of the inappropriate laugh? Holding our daughter during a serious, adult conversation (not angry, just intense) will often result in peanut gallery laughs.

Why? Nerves.

Unsure of how to react to the environment, a fake, loud laugh is a sign of nervousness, and sometimes fear. Check the emotional environment and see if it’s time to offer a little reassurance.

Inappropriate laughter will often happen when an intense talk is taking place. That laugh is your child’s way of telling you she needs someone to reassure her she is safe, and explain that intense conversation is very different from anger.

Your toddler acts out through laughter to receive reassurance. Just like that inapropriate laughter guy at the office. 


Ever seen your child give or take a hit, for seemingly no reason?

Hitting is often triggered by feelings of fear, or anxiety. When your child is feeling overwhelmed, fear will manifest itself in more aggressive behaviors, because the youngest don’t have the developmental skills needed to discuss the emotions at play. Older children struggle with the identification of underlying feelings, too.

The fear, and consequent hitting, can be caused by playmates, or even by a frustrated parent who scoops a child up too quickly. Before you reprimand, consider what emotion caused the hit in the first place.


Does your child ramp up right before bed?

It’s common to hear parents, and especially grandparents, say, “He’s not tired. Look at him go!”

The opposite is true. Your wild child is exhausted which is code for you toddler acts out. They’re running on the fumes of Goldfish and juice.

 As we tire, your child’s body ramps up production of adrenaline-style hormones designed to keep us awake, like a natural caffeine. Children are affected by these energy surges, and unable to contain them.

Try an earlier bedtime (30-60 minutes), and you might find the wild behavior winds down quickly, or even better, never starts in the first place.

6 reasons toddler acts out


We all dread that kid. You know, the biter. The kid who will play nicely and then, for no apparent reason, take a chunk out of your kid’s arm without warning. They’ll even go after you, if you get too close.

The last thing you feel like doing at a playdate is playing shadow, in a preemptive strike on biting.

young child biting, while in a happy, calm social situation, is often acting out of excitement. It’s their version of an excited kiss.

A few more potential biting causes: a need for more active playtime, sensory overload, and tiredness. Triggers include an excess of: noise, lights, sounds, or people.

If your child successfully bites someone, let them view the reaction. Don’t rush away to time out, or to talk. Calmly, explain that biting hurts, and that’s why his friend is crying. Let him see the cause and effect of his actions.


Does your child suddenly demand to be carried? All.The.Time. This exhausting phenomenon commonly triggered by the need for additional support, in the face of life changes, or a busy schedule.

Life changes, like starting a new schedule, welcoming a new baby, or even toilet training, can trigger the demand to be held. It’s extra reassurance. A child will regress to old behaviors, such as wanting to be carried, in an effort to process new events.

Try setting aside a few minutes a day to spend cuddling your little one. Read some extra books, cuddle on the couch during a tv show, or draw out the bedtime ritual a bit. Your child just needs to feel connected.


Children are headstrong, possessive, and self-absorbed. Like the strongest dictator, they want things done a certain way. Now.

If you don’t abide by their rules, watch out.

This need for repetition (you want to wear that, again?) stems from the need for control. New sights, smells, and experiences constantly bombard your child, and repetitive requests allow them to realign their existence into some semblance of order.

Whenever possible, offer a choice. Limit the choices to 2 or 3 items, and this little bit of control will head off many a tantrum, and help your child develop a healthy sense of self-control.

Your Toddler Acts Out? It’s Not Naughty, It’s Normal!

Young children are fun, exciting, and exhausting. Identifying the underlying causes of challenging behavior can reduce frustration and anger, for both parent and child.

Kids are designed to test limits. It’s how they learn, and grow. Acknowledging their emotions is a critical step towards teaching children self-control. Help your child understand why they’re acting a certain way.

The next time you think your child is being “bad”, or challenging you, stop for a minute. See what might have caused your child’s challenging behavior. What you find might surprise you.

As parents, it’s easy to become frustrated with our toddlers’ outbursts and misbehaviors, and we often blame poor behavior on hunger, fatigue, or being “spoiled.” However, there are other emotional reasons behind these behaviors. 

Remember, the six common emotional “tells” you often face when your toddler acts out, and what they might really mean, are:

  1. Inappropriate laughter is a sign of nervousness or fear 
  2. Hitting is often triggered by feelings of fear or anxiety 
  3. Wild behavior is a result of being exhausted 
  4. Biting is often acting out of excitement 
  5. Carrying children is due to the need for additional support in the face of life changes, and 
  6. Repetitive requests allow children to realign their existence into some semblance of order 

To understand and teach our children to cope with these emotions, it is essential to put a stop to temper tantrums. Grab our free report on how to do just that — right now!

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Ashley Trexler is a passionate parent dedicated to debunking popular parenting advice that doesn’t work, and raising healthier, happier kids. Ashley is a contributor to CBC, Washington Post, Tiny Buddha, and more. Known for distilling complex topics into bite-sized, actionable tips, her work has been featured online and in-print around the world.

  • My youngest Minion bites, but his is absolutely out of anger and frustration. Not enough words quite yet, so biting is the go to.

    Either that, or he’s on his way to becoming Hannibal, and will start demanding fava beans.

    • Ashley says:


      You made me laugh out loud. I’m now picturing a sea of little Minion Hannibals….all zipping around the playground demanding fava beans. And yes, the biting is so often out of anger/frustration. Biting out of excitement is seen less often, but those are the ones that always seem to catch me by surprise! Thanks for commenting (and making me laugh). Love your blog, btw!

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