Raising a toddler and mental health (ages 1 to 3)

Parenting an active, curious toddler can be both fun and demanding work.

Children between the ages of 1 to 3 are starting to explore and gain more independence. They use the safety of your relationship as a base to do this.

They’re also learning how to deal with feelings such as fear, frustration and sadness.

If managing your toddler's emotions feels as if it’s taking all your time and energy, you aren’t alone.

Knowing what to expect and having strategies to cope can help you to look after your mental health.

It will also mean you’re better able to meet your toddler’s needs.  
Illustration of man feeding child at the table

Understanding toddler emotions

A toddler’s emotional development happens through a warm and responsive relationship with you.

This helps them:
  • learn what feelings and emotions are 
  • understand how and why they happen 
  • recognise their own feelings and those of others 
  • develop ways of managing them. 
When you respond to your child’s cues and help them recognise and manage their feelings, they feel safe. They learn to trust that they have someone to help when they need it.

This is important for their development.

Listen to this Emerging Minds podcast to understand more about children’s emotions.

Learn more about temperament.

Common toddler behaviours

Toddlers are explorers.  

They’re moving around more, communicating and starting to experience big feelings. But they don’t have the language to express their range of pleasant and unpleasant emotions. 

They communicate feelings through:
  • behaviours (for example, showing defiance) 
  • physical reactions (for example, tummy aches or pains). 

Often, toddlers go through a phase where they may say “no,” throw objects or scream to communicate feelings such as frustration or helplessness. This is a natural part of development.

It can be tough to stay calm when your toddler does this. When you remain patient and responsive, it can help your child learn to manage their feelings.


Emotional outbursts 

Young children have emotional outbursts when they're overwhelmed. You might know these as tantrums or meltdowns. 

Toddlers in this state can scream, cry, push, kick or slam doors, among other behaviours. Though it’s a natural part of toddler development, sustained outbursts can be distressing for everyone.  

Regular meltdowns from your toddler may also interfere with activities or outings. This can be stressful if it causes both you and your child to miss out on valuable social interactions. 

Here are 5 things you can do to take care of yourself and your toddler when it comes to meltdowns. 

  1. Acknowledge your own response. Take some deep breaths if you need to stay calm.  
  2. Have empathy for your toddler. Remember that a child throwing a tantrum is finding their feelings intense and difficult to manage. This happens for every toddler. 
  3. After the tantrum, you may be able to help your child identify what they were feeling, and why. Connect with your child by speaking to them in a calming voice and cuddling them. 
  4. Try to name the emotion your child is experiencing. This helps them connect what they’re feeling with the word for it.  
  5. Talk about other ways to manage strong feelings (for example, using slow breathing or hugging a favourite toy). Reassure them that upset feelings always pass.  
Visit the Raising Children Network website to find more strategies for helping toddlers calm down.


Clinging behaviour 

While toddlers like to exercise their autonomy and independence, most also go through a stage where they become anxious about separation.

During this stage, your toddler may: 
  • want to be held more than usual
  • want to be close at all times
  • cry or cling to prevent you leaving 
  • show signs of anxiety around strangers or new people.  
This is a natural part of toddler development.  

A child may also cling or become anxious about leaving you due to: 
  • being hungry or tired
  • their temperament
  • what’s going on in your family life
  • changes in their environment
  • disruptions to their routine 
  • being ill or unwell. 
You may feel upset and unsure about what to do when this happens.

Remember, your toddler is clinging to you because they trust you. You can help them feel safe in the world by role modelling calm and supportive behaviour.

This includes:
  • listening to their concerns
  • continuing to gradually introduce them to new places and people
  • saying ‘goodbye’ before leaving and assure them you’ll be back (to foster trust)
  • praising them when you return and noticing how well they’ve

If you’re worried that your child’s reactions seem severe or increase over time, talk to a GP or other health professional.

Visit the Emerging Minds website to learn more about anxiety in toddlers.


Changes to eating habits 

Nutrition is important for a healthy toddler.  

This is also often the age when your child may start refusing foods they used to like. They may eat only their favourite foods or become fussy about how their food looks on the plate. 

While frustrating for parents, this is a normal part of a toddler’s development.  

Your child may need to gain confidence in trying new foods. Or they may be trying to show their independence.  

Try to make mealtimes as pleasant and low-fuss as possible. This can encourage your toddler to taste and eat a variety of foods. 

Most children outgrow this phase in time. If you’re concerned about your child’s nutrition, speak to your GP or maternal and child health nurse. 

Visit the Better Health Channel website to find strategies to avoid food becoming a power struggle.


Social and emotional development for toddlers 

When your child has a strong relationship with you, they have a secure base. They can then feel confident exploring the world.

Through their relationships with you and other family members, your toddler begins to develop social skills to get along with others.

They also start to learn emotional skills to help them recognise and express their feelings.

Supporting social and emotional skills

Here’s what you can do to support your toddler’s social and emotional development.
  • Spend quality time with your child. Talk about what you’re doing, ask questions and problem-solve.
  • Teach your child helping skills, such as packing up their own toys.
  • Use everyday situations to catch them doing the ‘right’ thing or show them positive behaviours you’d like to see. For example, saying “great packing up” when you notice your child putting a toy away. Notice if you’re giving your child attention mainly when they do the ‘wrong’ thing.
  • Help your child show interest in what others are doing. For example, sharing with their playmates.
  • Praise your child for being friendly and caring to others. 
  • Help children to use words to say what they need. For example, “I would like a turn with that.”
  • Help children to use words to say what they feel. For example, “I’m tired” or “I’m sad.” 

The importance of play

You can encourage your toddler to understand, express and manage their emotions through play.

Playing with your toddler and supporting them to play with others helps build their confidence and communication skills. This is a good foundation for their mental health and wellbeing.

These are ways to play with your child to encourage their emotional development.
  • Read stories. This can help them identify with characters and recognise a wide range of emotions.
  • Practise taking turns. For example, roll a ball backwards and forward between you or put blocks on a tower.
  • Play with other children. They will learn how to share and to consider others.
  • Be active outdoors. Can help them to release emotional energy.
  • Use imaginative play. Play such as ‘dress-ups’ will help them explore ideas and creativity. 
Visit the Raising Children Network website to find more information on play and play ideas.

Routines and rituals for parents

A daily routine can help you feel more organised.

It can also support your wellbeing by creating space for you to have time to yourself.

Learn more about wellbeing routines and mental health.

For toddlers, routines and rituals create a sense of safety. A daily routine provides a sense of belonging and helps set expectations for family life. This can build life skills for your child.

Toddler routines and rituals include: 
  • getting ready in the morning
  • eating meals
  • bath time
  • bedtime rituals
Visit the Raising Children Network website to find 4 practical steps to create a daily routine.

Seeking support for your toddler 


Illustration of man holding a baby


Ages 1, 2 and 3 are times of rapid development.  

There are many factors that affect your child’s development. These can include: 

  • your own health and wellbeing
  • stresses in your family life
  • changes in your child’s environment
  • medical conditions that impact development.
Children grow at different rates. Some toddlers may take longer than expected to develop certain skills. This is a normal part of a child’s development.

If you're worried about your toddler’s development, talk to your GP, maternal and child health nurse or a pediatrician. 

Looking after your mental health and wellbeing

It can be easy to put your own wellbeing aside when you’re raising a toddler. 

You might no longer have the same amount of time or energy for the things you used to do to support your own mental health. That’s okay.  

If you’re struggling with your mental health and wellbeing, it’s important to get the support that’s right for you.  

This could include talking to family, friends or a healthcare professional.

Take the anxiety and depression test (K10)

Look after you mental health with our Wellbeing Action Tool.

Get mental health support.

Supporting someone caring for a toddler

If you're concerned for the wellbeing of someone who's raising a toddler, it's worth talking to them about it. 

Use these tips to talk to a parent you’re concerned about.

Further resources

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