Understanding your toddler


Between one and three years of age children move from being babies who need you to do everything for them, to becoming separate, independent people. 

They want your love and to feel safe and close to you, but they also want the freedom to do things for themselves.

Parents can find this time challenging.

It can help to know what’s happening for your toddler so you can support their independence and help them learn while keeping them safe.

What you can expect

Your toddler will be active and curious. They have to touch, open and shut, explore, run, climb and throw. 

They are learning who they are - what they like and don’t like - and trying out their will.

They are also learning how to be in charge of themselves and live with others.

This means learning how to walk, talk, feed and dress themselves, use the toilet, show love, share and take turns, and to not hurt others. 

What toddlers can't do

Your toddler will not be able to:

  • understand your reasons - they can’t see things from your point of view
  • sit still, wait, share or control their feelings - these things take time and support to learn
  • have the words to say how they feel
  • always stop themselves from doing what they have been told not to do.

Your toddler doesn't mean to disobey you. They are on the way to learning self-control but haven’t quite got there yet.

They still need you to gently remind them and keep them safe.

Your toddler is learning lots of new skills as they become more independent.

Try to be patient. Adults often expect too much of toddlers.

How toddlers behave

Your toddler is likely to:

  • say ‘No’ and show they have a mind of their own
  • get cross and frustrated, and have a tantrum at times
  • not be ready to share because they are just learning about ‘me' and 'mine’ - for a toddler, everything is ‘mine’
  • want to make some choices for themselves
  • find it hard to cope with changes
  • want to be like their parents - eg: try on lipsticks and use parents’ phones and keys
  • show any stress they feel through how they behave such as being ‘naughty’ or quieter than usual, or having aches and pains.

What toddlers need

Your toddler needs:

  • understanding, love, patience and encouragement
  • time to explore
  • to be allowed to make simple choices
  • to test out their independence and come to you for comfort
  • your support when struggling with feelings and behaviour
  • to be kept safe - they don’t understand danger yet
  • you to pick up on cues in their behaviour that can show how they are feeling - eg: upset, frustrated, angry or sad.

Things that can stress your toddler

Toddlers like routine - it helps them feel safe and secure. Things that can stress them are:

  • the arrival of a new baby
  • being sick
  • moving house, or into a new bed
  • being separated from parents - eg: starting childcare, when a parent goes into hospital or the family breaks up
  • parents being angry, fighting, crying, or when there is violence.


The information in this section was adapted from the Parent Easy Guide series © Parenting SA, Government of South Australia.

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Last updated: 11 March 2016

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