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Toddler Development: Reasons for Acting Out

Gavin tore a book at school yesterday.  He ripped out a page and threw the book into the bin right in front of the teacher.  Clearly, he was seeking attention of some sort.  When the teacher told me about it, I was speechless.  My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach.  His punishment was that he would have to replace the school book with one of his favourite books from home.  By definition, that meant he had to give a Thomas book to school.

The natural instinct was to wonder how I’d failed him.  My son has always been so respectful of books.  I could count on one hand the number of books he has wrecked and those incidences occurred when he was very, very young.  What could be happening inside that caused such a reaction?  What have I been doing wrong?  I’ve been trying to reflect on the changes to his life that could be possible triggers…

Quite a long time ago, Gavin acted out in a similar, brazen manner.  We were playing side by side with his wooden Thomas train set.  I was building the railway track and got a little too absorbed by the task.  Gavin was constantly interrupting me to tell me his hands were dirty and needed wiping.  I must have wiped them about ten times even though they were clean.  If I had been paying attention, I would have realised that all he wanted was my attention.  Unfortunately, when I get absorbed by a project (in this case building the railway track) I tend to lose my objectivity.  It wasn’t until he swiped a cup onto the floor that I started paying attention.

In a very round-a-bout way, I guess I figured that this recent misdemeanour was a cry for attention.  Whose attention did he want?  Was it mine?  Had I been too distracted by Gareth lately and forgetting to give Gavin enough one-on-one time?  When I talked to him about it, he finally admitted it was one of the teacher’s attention that he wanted.  She was busy wiping the head of another child when Gavin wanted her attention.  Since she didn’t give it to him, he acted out.

We talked about it further and I reminded him that whenever he wanted my attention all he had to do was tell me, “Mummy, I want your attention.”  So if he wanted the teacher’s attention, he should do the same instead of tearing a book to get it.

Although we had addressed the issue, I couldn’t help but wonder if that was just the tip of the iceberg.  An isolated incident like that couldn’t possibly have trigger such an extreme reaction, could it?  Was it also because he felt he wasn’t getting enough attention at home?

Since Gareth was born, Gavin has been a wonderful older brother.  He adores Gareth and he’s extremely protective of his brother.  It has been heartwarming to see how well they interact with each other.  Although he adores his brother and has not intentionally tried to hurt his brother, the underlying sibling rivalry still exists.  It has just manifested in a different form.  Whilst I am glad he isn’t resorting to hurting his brother, I am still just as concerned about it.

The escalation of Gavin’s misdemeanours of late is potentially due to the increasing attention Gareth has received since he started solids.  As Gareth grows older, he naturally begins to assert himself as an individual.  Being quite the diplomat, Gareth certainly knows how to draw attention to himself.  I’m sure that can’t be helping.

Additionally, although I have always intended for Gavin to self-wean, he has indirectly been weaning himself because I haven’t been able to nurse both boys together at bed time.  With Gareth growing more and more wriggly, I’ve had to nurse him on the go which means Gavin usually has to wait.  Since he’s been falling asleep before we’re done, the only time he nurses is if he wakes up in the middle of the night and sometimes not even then.  By definition, Gavin has weaned.  He has gone days without nursing.  However, there are still the days when he wants to nurse, so psychologically, I don’t think he’s quite there yet.  Could this be a contributing factor?

At home, he has been demonstrating the desire to be a “big boy” and do everything himself.  He often tells me not to help him because he can do it himself.  However, the scene at school appears to be contrary.  He often tells the teacher that he doesn’t want to be a big boy and that he wants to be a baby forever.  This conflict of desires is not uncommon to children his age.  It could also be aggravated by the fact that he is often told off for doing things that Gareth (being a baby) gets away with.

I have also heard through a friend that it is common for such negative behaviours to escalate in the fourth year leading up to the fourth birthday.  Is this possibly part of the terrible threes then?  Based on what little I’ve heard and read, it seems that most kids only start to settle down after the fourth birthday.  If that’s the case, then we’ve got another eight months to go.

In summary, the possible causes for Gavin’s declining behaviour could be some or all of the following:

  • attention seeking
  • sibling rivalry
  • weaning
  • growing pains
  • terrible threes

Since there are many overlaps between these issues, they need to be addressed together.  Gareth calls so let’s examine some of the possible solutions tomorrow…

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of (a website on parenting, education, child development) and (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

4 thoughts on “Toddler Development: Reasons for Acting Out

  1. Wow! That sounds very unlike Gavin. Something must have really struck him drastically at school. Keep strong figur8. He’s an amazing kid.


  2. Yes, it is unlike him. My question is: “Is it at school?” The reason that because one of the teachers didn’t pay attention to him seems like a catalyst rather than the cause. Like when we take too much until we can’t take it any more and then we blow up.


  3. Is there such a thing as Terrible Three? Was looking at your old entries and noticed this. Described exactly what Ben is going through as well. Well, 4 years old is another 2 months to go. 🙂


  4. Yes, apparently so. Google “Terrible Threes” and you can read all about it. Personally, I think all children go through phases rather than a specific “terrible twos” or “Terrible threes”. Because there are times when Gavin’s behaviour have been exceptional. It’s like cyclical patterns of behaviour yo-yoing back and forth between being well behaved and poorly behaved. It’s been like that since he was a baby.


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