7 Tips for Disciplining Your Toddler

Ages & Stages

Effective discipline starts with understanding where your child falls on the developmental spectrum. Our guide:

  • At 18 months your child is curious, fearless, impulsive, mobile, and clueless about the consequences of her actions -- a recipe for trouble. "My image of an 18-month-old is a child who's running down the hall away from his mother but looking over his shoulder to see if she's there and then running some more," says William Coleman, MD, professor of pediatrics at the Center for Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina Medical School, in Chapel Hill. "Though he's building a vocabulary and can follow simple instructions, he can't effectively communicate his needs or understand lengthy reprimands. He may bite or hit to register his displeasure -- or to get your attention. Consequences of misbehavior must be immediate. Indeed, if you wait even 10 minutes to react, he won't remember what he did wrong or tie his action to the consequence, says Linda Pearson, a Denver-based psychiatric nurse practitioner.
  • At age 2 your child is using her developing motor skills to test limits, by running, jumping, throwing, and climbing. She's speaking a few words at a time, she becomes frustrated when she can't get her point across, and she's prone to tantrums. She's also self-centered and doesn't like to share. "People call it the terrible twos, but it's really the 'autonomous twos,'" Dr. Coleman says. Consequences should be swift, as a 2-year-old is unable to grasp time. But since she still lacks impulse control, give her another chance soon after the incident, says Claire Lerner, LCSW, director of parenting resources with Zero to Three, a nationwide nonprofit promoting the healthy development of babies and toddlers.
  • At age 3 your child is now a chatterbox; he's using language to argue his point of view. Since he loves to be with other children and has boundless energy, he may have a tough time playing quietly at home. "Taking a 3-year-old to a gym or karate class will give him the social contact he craves and let him release energy," says Harvey Karp, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California-Los Angeles Medical School. "At this age, kids need that as much as they need affection and food." He also knows right from wrong, understands cause and effect, and retains information for several hours. Consequences can be delayed for maximum impact, and explanations can be more detailed. For example, if he hurls Cheerios at his sister, remind him about the no-food-throwing rule and explain that if he does it again, he won't get to watch Blues Clues. If he continues to throw food, take it away from him. When he asks to watch TV, say, "Remember when Mommy told you not to throw cereal -- and you did anyway? Well, Mommy said the consequence is no Blues Clues today."

Freelance writer Cynthia Hanson lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and well-behaved 5-year-old son.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, February 2007.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.

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