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Dramatic Behavior Changes in Toddlers

by Carly Seifert, studioD

While toddlers certainly have their share of behavioral ups and downs, sudden and frequent shifts in behavior can and should be concerning to parents. While certain changes are a natural part of your toddler's growth and development, others may require further exploration and examination by a health care professional.


The Children's Grief Education Association points out that each age group processes grief differently, and a toddler's sudden change in behavior may be in reaction to a traumatic event -- the death of a loved one, his parents' divorce or a move. Toddlers often handle grief by regressing to earlier behavior -- perhaps wanting a bottle again, having potty accidents throughout the day or throwing tantrums.

Sexual Abuse

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that dramatic behavior changes may be an indicator of sexual abuse. The changes may include -- but are not limited to -- regression in potty-training, withdrawal, aggressive behavior, clinginess, frequent bouts of crying or a preoccupation with sexuality and parts of her body. Some children may try to engage their peers in performing sexual acts and others may demonstrate an aversion to a particular person and fear being left alone with him. If your child is exhibiting any of these behavioral changes, it is important to discuss them with his pediatrician immediately.

Behavioral Disorder

While toddlers have a tendency to act out, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry warns that a toddler who consistently engages in power struggles -- especially struggles centered around eating, toilet-training and sleeping -- and throws extreme temper tantrums may have something more serious going on inside. While disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder are not often diagnosed until the grade-school years, symptoms are often present during the toddler and preschool years and should not be overlooked.

Night Terrors

If your toddler formerly slept soundly and now awakes with night terrors, he may just be going through a normal stage of toddler development. Dr .Julie Gallegos, professor and researcher of the Center for Treatment and Researcher on Anxiety in Mexico, points out that many toddlers have -- at this stage in their lives -- experienced an event that caused them fear or pain. Gallegos also reminds parents that toddlers have wild imaginations and a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. If your child is particularly sensitive, his imagination or a fearful event may stick with him a bit more, and his anxiety may manifest itself in the form of night terrors and bad dreams. Gallegos suggests reading books that explain fear to your child, and demonstrating appropriate ways to handle fear in your own day-to-day life.

About the Author

Carly Seifert has been a piano instructor since 2001. She has also covered adoption and introducing children to the arts for "Montana Parent Magazine." Seifert graduated from University of California, Irvine with a Bachelor of Arts in drama.

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