1. Pick Your Battles
"If you're always saying, 'No, no, no,' your child will tune out the no and won't understand your priorities," says Pearson, author of The Discipline Miracle (AMACOM). "Plus you can't possibly follow through on all of the nos.'" Define what's important to you, set limits accordingly, and follow through with appropriate consequences. Then ease up on little things that are annoying but otherwise fall into the "who cares?" category -- the habits your child is likely to outgrow, such as insisting on wearing purple (and only purple).
For Anna Lucca, of Washington, D.C., that means letting her 2-1/2-year-old daughter trash her bedroom before she dozes off for a nap. "I find books and clothes scattered all over the floor when Isabel wakes up, so she must get out of bed to play after I put her down," Lucca says. "I tell her not to make a mess, but she doesn't listen. Rather than try to catch her in the act and say, 'No, no, no,' I make her clean up right after her nap." Lucca is also quick to praise Isabel for saying please and sharing toys with her 5-month-old sister. "Hopefully, the positive reinforcement will encourage Isabel to do more of the good behavior -- and less of the bad," she says.
2. Know Your Child's Triggers
Some misbehavior is preventable -- as long as you can anticipate what will spark it and you create a game plan in advance, such as removing tangible temptations. This strategy worked for Jean Nelson, of Pasadena, California, after her 2-year-old son took delight in dragging toilet paper down the hall, giggling as the roll unfurled behind him. "The first two times Luke did it, I told him, 'No,' but when he did it a third time, I moved the toilet paper to a high shelf in the bathroom that he couldn't reach," Nelson says. "For a toddler, pulling toilet paper is irresistible fun. It was easier to take it out of his way than to fight about it."
If your 18-month-old is prone to grabbing cans off grocery store shelves, bring along some toys for him to play with in the cart while you're shopping. If your 2-year-old won't share her stuffed animals during playdates at home, remove them from the designated play area before her pal arrives. And if your 3-year-old likes to draw on the walls, stash the crayons in an out-of-reach drawer and don't let him color without supervision. Also, some children act out when they're hungry, overtired, or frustrated from being cooped up inside, says Harvey Karp, MD, creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Toddler on the Block (Bantam). Make sure your child eats healthy snacks, gets enough sleep (a minimum of 10 hours at night, plus a one- to two-hour nap), and plays outside to burn off energy -- even in chilly weather.
3. Be Consistent
"Between the ages of 2 and 3, children are working hard to understand how their behavior impacts the people around them," says Claire Lerner, LCSW, director of parenting resources with Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers. "If your reaction to a situation keeps changing -- one day you let your son throw a ball in the house and the next you don't -- you'll confuse him with mixed signals."
There's no timetable as to how many incidents and reprimands it will take before your child stops a certain misbehavior. But if you always respond the same way, he'll probably learn his lesson after four or five times. Consistency was key for Orly Isaacson, of Bethesda, Maryland, when her 18-month-old went through a biting phase. Each time Sasha chomped on Isaacson's finger, she used a louder-than-usual voice to correct her -- "Nooooooooo, Sasha! Don't bite! That hurts Mommy!" -- and then handed her a toy as a distraction. "I'm very low-key, so raising my voice startled Sasha and got the message across fast," she says. A caveat: by age 2, many kids learn how to make their parents lose resolve just by being cute. Don't let your child's tactics sway you -- no matter how cute (or clever) they are.
4. Don't Get Emotional
Sure, it's hard to stay calm when your 18-month-old yanks the dog's tail or your 3-year-old refuses to brush his teeth for the gazillionth night in a row. But if you scream in anger, the message you're trying to send will get lost and the situation will escalate -- fast. "When a child is flooded with a parent's negative mood, he'll see the emotion and won't hear what you're saying," explains William Coleman, MD, professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School, in Chapel Hill. Indeed, an angry reaction will only enhance the entertainment value for your child, so resist the urge to raise your voice. Take a deep breath, count to three, and get down to your child's eye level. Be fast and firm, serious and stern when you deliver the reprimand.