What to do when your toddler won’t stop throwing things and driving you mad

When babies are first born, they often can’t even figure out how to let go of an object in their hand. Many parents may find themselves missing those days when their toddler first figures out that they can not only let go of an object but hurl it across the room. Throwing is easily one of the most maddening things toddlers do: it’s startling and can be both destructive and dangerous. What’s a parent to do?

Why do toddlers throw things?

One reason that toddlers are so keen on throwing is to learn about the world. Rules of physics that seem extremely obvious to adults — the existence of gravity, for instance, or the fact that a ball will fall faster than a feather if you drop them both — aren’t something we’re born knowing. Young children throw objects in part to learn about their environment and observe what happens. Toddlers are basically little scientists who need to test hypotheses all day long to learn about how their world works.

But, in addition to learning about the rules of the physical world, toddlers are extremely curious about what rules the adults in their life have, and how we will react when they disobey those rules. If their parent has told them not to throw food off their highchair, toddlers can’t help but wonder…what happens if I do? Throwing tends to be exciting; the object makes a big crash, and the parents will often have a startled or loud reaction. That combination is irresistible to a toddler, who is often excited to learn that it’s in his power to make a big sound and get a big reaction out of his parent.

How should parents react?

As much as possible, parents should try to avoid having a strong reaction to a child who throws things. Simone Davies, a Montessori educator who wrote the books The Montessori Toddler and The Montessori Baby suggests parents avoid having a big reaction and instead look for logical consequences for throwing. In The Montessori Toddler, Davies writes “Let’s say they are throwing the ball inside, and we have to ask them to stop. A logical consequence would be for us to put the ball away and let our child try again later.”

She also suggests that parents provide lots of opportunities for children to practice this skill in a safe environment (for instance, outside, and away from breakable objects) and that parents calmly offer alternatives for children who are fixated on throwing an object which they shouldn’t. For instance, if a child is gearing up to send a large toy sailing across the room, a parent could say: “I can’t let you throw that inside, but you can throw these little bean bags.”

What should you do if your toddler is throwing food?

Many parents look forward to when their child will be old enough to sit at the table and enjoy solid food. But often, soon after your little one starts sitting in a high chair, she discovers the joy of flinging your carefully prepared sweet potatoes or spoons of applesauce off her tray and onto the floor. Jennifer Anderson, a registered dietician, and the founder of the website Kids Eat in Color, suggests that there are many different reasons that kids throw food: boredom, fear, attention-seeking, or confusion.

Figuring out which of these disparate reasons is at the root of your child’s throwing can help you address the problem. If your child is a picky eater and is throwing a food you’ve offered in order to get it out of sight, you can offer a small napkin or sectioned-off area of their high chair to place food he doesn’t want to eat. If your child is throwing food as a way to communicate that he’s done with the meal, teaching him the baby sign for “all done” can give him another (less messy) way to get the message across. Anderson notes that parents may have unrealistic expectations about how long a child will sit and eat a meal before becoming distracted and bored. She suggests that many children can only sit for 1 to 2 minutes per year of age and that parents make mealtime shorter to cut down on throwing.

The best news for parents who are being driven to distraction by throwing behavior is that, like everything else, it’s a phase. By the time they’re 4 to 5 years, the magic of throwing will have worn off (though no promises that your child won’t have found a new way to push your buttons).

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