Toddlers can be demanding and unrelenting. And if you have one, you know they're also kind of strange. Doorknob licking and barking like a dog are commonplace. But these freaky behaviors do pass. "The vast majority of strange toddler behaviors are short-lived phases," says Heather Wittenberg, PsyD, psychologist and author of "Let's Get This Potty Started! The BabyShrink's Guide to Potty Training Your Toddler."
Rhythmic, repetitive motion helps calm an overstimulated nervous system, Wittenberg explains. And while you'd think that means just rocking or riding in a car, head banging qualifies. "What looks disturbing to us can be very soothing to a child," she says. Unless your kid is hurting himself or would rather bang his head than socialize, eat or play, just ignore it. "When your child gets a reaction out of you for something he's done, he realizes there's a big red button he can push when he needs attention," Wittenberg explains. Suggest a replacement activity ("Try rubbing your bunny's ears when you get tired") to redirect the behavior.
HANDS IN THE PANTS
And you thought you wouldn't have to worry about this until puberty! But self-fondling is another habit that isn't considered a problem unless your child chooses to do it over, say, playing with the kid next door or eating ice cream. Wittenberg says not to say no to it but to give guidelines: "You can do this alone in your room, but you can't do it in the store or at school." And give him interesting things to do to keep him from being bored.
We know a mom whose daughter picks fuzzies off the couch and eats them -- like a delicious snack! Wittenberg explains that kids use their mouths as tools for exploring the world. "They may be experimenting, or there may be some oral needs or a nutritional deficiency going on." At the end of the day, it comes down to severity and frequency. So once-in-a-while weird cravings can be brushed off, but if your child is obsessed with eating, say, dirt or cat litter, it's time to talk to the pediatrician.
We know, it grosses you out, but a nostril is an interesting hole to explore. The key is to keep calm. Try something like this: "You can do this in your room or the bathroom with a tissue, but nobody wants to see it."
IMAGINARY AND STUFFED FRIENDS
Know a toddler who's so obsessed with her stuffed animals that she lines them up perfectly at bedtime or who's made up a whole family of imaginary friends? This is a normal reaction to the realization that the world is confusing and difficult to understand. "A world of the child's making is much more comfortable," Wittenberg says. When you embrace your child's imaginary world, you honor her creativity. When a furry friend gets lost or needs to be washed or sewn, it might be rough, but it's an opportunity to show her how she can cope without her usual comforts.
PLAYING WITH THEIR POOP (SORRY)
Then there's that sneaky toddler who takes off his diaper to explore the mess that he made during naptime. Ick! "It's way more common than people realize, and most of the time it's just that they've discovered an intriguing new plaything," Wittenberg says. Make poop not so interesting by giving your child plenty of acceptable opportunities to make messes (by building mud castles together or playing with modeling clay, for example). If he keeps it up, you can fasten the edges of his diaper with skin-safe tape and put his pajamas on backward, so he can't take them off. "Prevention is critical," she adds. "That, and watching them like a hawk."
GENERALLY BIZARRE STUFF
Some toddlers insist on wearing a cape all day or want to be naked no matter what. "My 2-year-old thinks he's a dog," says one mom. "When I come home, he barks to greet me and tries to lick my face." Wacky phases are a normal part of being a kid and figuring out his place in the world. As with other weird behaviors, so long as it doesn't interfere with normal activities, it's fine. You may have to explain that it's a thing he can do at some times but can't at others. Tolerate it, but make sure you record it on video, too. This is great footage to show at his wedding or bar mitzvah.