14 Tips for Disciplining Your Toddler

Even the best parents struggle with how to discipline a toddler. Follow these simple strategies to keep your 2- and 3-year-olds in line.

As a 2-year-old, Nathaniel Lampros of Sandy, Utah, was fascinated with toy swords and loved to duel with Kenayde, his 4-year-old sister. But inevitably, he'd whack her in the head, she'd dissolve in tears, and Angela, their mother, would come running to see what had happened. She'd ask Nathaniel to apologize, as well as give Kenayde a hug and make her laugh to pacify hurt feelings. If he resisted, Angela would put her son in time-out.

"I worried that Nathaniel would never outgrow his rough behavior, and there were days when I'd get so frustrated with him that I'd end up crying," recalls Lampros, now a mother of four. "But I really wanted Nathaniel to play nicely, so I did my best to teach him how to do it."

For many parents, doling out effective discipline is one of the toughest and most frustrating tasks of parenting, a seemingly never-ending test of wills between you and your child. Because just when your 2-year-old "gets" that they can't thump their baby brother in the head with a doll, they'll latch on to another bothersome behavior —and the process starts anew.

How exactly does one "discipline" a toddler? Some people equate it with spanking and punishment, but that's not what we're talking about. As many parenting experts see it, discipline is about setting rules to stop your little one from engaging in behavior that's aggressive (hitting and biting), dangerous (running out in the street), and inappropriate (throwing food). It's also about following through with consequences when they break the rules—or what Linda Pearson, a Denver-based psychiatric nurse practitioner who specializes in family and parent counseling, calls "being a good boss." Here are 14 strategies that can help you set limits and stop bad behavior.

toddler tantrum over food
Marcel Jancovic/Shutterstock

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. "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).

"Keeping a good relationship with your child—who is of course in reality totally dependent upon you—is more important for her growth than trying to force her to respond in ways that she simply is not going to respond," says Elizabeth Berger, M.D., child psychiatrist and author of Raising Kids with Character. You may worry that "giving in" will create a spoiled monster, but Dr. Berger says this common anxiety isn't justified.

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 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 toys for them to play with in the cart while you're shopping. If your 2-year-old won't share their stuffed animals during playdates at home, remove them from the designated play area before their 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 them color without supervision.

3. Practice Prevention

Some children act out when they're hungry, overtired, or frustrated from being cooped up inside, says Harvey Karp, M.D., creator of the DVD and book The Happiest Toddler on the Block. If your child tends to be happy and energetic in the morning but is tired and grumpy after lunch, schedule trips to the store and visits to the doctor for when they're at their best. Prepare them for any new experiences, and explain how you expect them to act.

Also prepare them for shifting activities: "In a few minutes we'll need to pick up the toys and get ready to go home." The better prepared a child feels, the less likely they are to make a fuss.

4. 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, they'll probably learn their 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—"No, 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.

5. 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 their 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," advised the late William Coleman, M.D., 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.

Trade in the goal of "controlling your child" for the goal of "controlling the situation," advises Dr. Berger. "This may mean re-adjusting your ideas of what is possible for a time until your daughter's self-discipline has a chance to grow a little more," she says. "You may need to lower your expectations of her patience and her self-control somewhat. If your goal is to keep the day going along smoothly, so that there are fewer opportunities for you both to feel frustrated, that would be a constructive direction."

6. Listen and Repeat

Kids feel better when they know they have been heard, so whenever possible, repeat your child's concerns. If they're whining in the grocery store because you won't let them open the cookies, say something like: "It sounds like you're mad at me because I won't let you open the cookies until we get home. I'm sorry you feel that way, but the store won't let us open things until they're paid for. That's its policy." This won't satisfy their urge, but it will reduce their anger and defuse the conflict.

7. Keep It Short and Simple

If you're like most first-time parents, you tend to reason with your child when they break rules, offering detailed explanations about what they did wrong and issuing detailed threats about the privileges they'll lose if they don't stop misbehaving. But as a discipline strategy, overt-talking is as ineffective as becoming overly emotional, according to Dr. Coleman. While an 18-month-old lacks the cognitive ability to understand complex sentences, a 2- or 3-year-old with more developed language skills still lacks the attention span to absorb what you're saying.

Instead, speak in short phrases, repeating them a few times and incorporating vocal inflections and facial expressions. For example, if your 18-month-old swats your arm, say, "No, Jake! Don't hit Mommy! That hurts! No hitting." A 2-year-old can comprehend a bit more: "Evan, no jumping on the sofa! No jumping. Jumping is dangerous—you could fall. No jumping!" And a 3-year-old can process cause and effect, so state the consequences of the behavior: "Ashley, your teeth need to be brushed. You can brush them, or I can brush them for you. You decide. The longer it takes, the less time we'll have to read Dr. Seuss."

8. Offer Choices

When a child refuses to do (or stop doing) something, the real issue is usually control: You've got it; they want it. So, whenever possible, give your preschooler some control by offering a limited set of choices. Rather than commanding them to clean up their room, ask them, "Which would you like to pick up first, your books or your blocks?" Be sure the choices are limited, specific, and acceptable to you, however. "Where do you want to start?" may be overwhelming to your child, and a choice that's not acceptable to you will only amplify the conflict.

9. Watch Your Words

It helps to turn "you" statements into "I" messages. Instead of saying, "You're so selfish that you won't even share your toys with your best friend," try "I like it better when I see kids sharing their toys." Another good technique is to focus on do's rather than don'ts. If you tell a 3-year-old that they can't leave their trike in the hallway, they may want to argue. A better approach: "If you move your trike out to the porch, it won't get kicked and scratched so much."

Make sure your tone and words do not imply that you no longer love your child. "I really can't stand it when you act like that" sounds final; "I don't like it when you try to pull cans from the store shelves," however, shows your child that it's one specific behavior—not the whole person—that you dislike.

10. Teach Empathy

It's rarely obvious to a 3-year-old why they should stop doing something they find fun, like biting, hitting, or grabbing toys from other children. Teach them empathy instead: "When you bite or hit people, it hurts them"; "When you grab toys away from other kids, they feel sad because they still want to play with those toys." This helps your child see that their behavior directly affects other people and trains them to think about consequences first.

11. Give a Time-Out

If repeated reprimands, redirection, and loss of privileges haven't cured your child of their offending behavior, consider putting them in time-out for a minute per year of age. "This is an excellent discipline tool for kids who are doing the big-time no-nos," Dr. Karp explains.

Before imposing a time-out, put a serious look on your face and give a warning in a stern tone of voice ("I'm counting to three, and if you don't stop, you're going to time-out. One, two, THREE!"). If they don't listen, take them to the quiet and safe spot you've designated for time-outs, and set a timer. When it goes off, ask them to apologize and give them a big hug to convey that you're not angry.

"Nathaniel hated going to time-out for hitting his sister with the plastic sword, but I was clear about the consequences and stuck with it," says Angela Lampros. "After a few weeks, he learned his lesson." Indeed, toddlers don't like to be separated from their parents and toys, so eventually, the mere threat of a time-out should be enough to stop them in their tracks.

12. Talk Options

When you want your child to stop doing something, offer alternative ways for them to express their feelings: say, hitting a pillow or banging with a toy hammer. They need to learn that while their emotions and impulses are acceptable, certain ways of expressing them are not. Also, encourage your child to think up their own options. Even 3-year-olds can learn to solve problems themselves. For instance, you could ask: "What do you think you could do to get Tiffany to share that toy with you?" The trick is to listen to their ideas with an open mind. Don't shoot down anything, but do talk about the consequences before a decision is made.

13. Reward Good Behavior

It's highly unlikely that your child will always do whatever you say. If that happened, you'd have to think about what might be wrong with them! Normal kids resist control, and they know when you're asking them to do something they don't want to do. They then feel justified in resisting you. In cases in which they do behave appropriately, a prize is like a spoonful of sugar: It helps the medicine go down.

Judicious use of special treats and prizes is just one more way to show your child you're aware and respectful of their feelings. This, more than anything, gives credibility to your discipline demands.

14. Stay Positive

No matter how frustrated you feel about your child's misbehavior, don't vent about it in front of them. "If people heard their boss at work say, 'I don't know what to do with my employees. They run the company, and I feel powerless to do anything about it,' they'd lose respect for him and run the place even more," says Pearson. "It's the same thing when children hear their parents speak about them in a hopeless or negative way. They won't have a good image of you as their boss, and they'll end up repeating the behavior."

Still, it's perfectly normal to feel exasperated from time to time. If you reach that point, turn to your spouse, your pediatrician, or a trusted friend for support and advice.

How Development Affects Toddler Discipline

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 their 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," said Dr. Coleman. "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, your child won't remember what they did wrong or tie their action to the consequence, says nurse practitioner Pearson.
  • At age 2 your child is using their developing motor skills to test limits, by running, jumping, throwing, and climbing. They're speaking a few words at a time, they become frustrated when they can't get their point across, and they're prone to tantrums. They're also self-centered and don't like to share. Consequences should be swift, as a 2-year-old is unable to grasp time. But since they still lack impulse control, give them another chance soon after the incident, says Lerner of Zero to Three.
  • At age 3 your child is now a chatterbox; they're using language to argue their point of view. Since they love to be with other children and have boundless energy, they 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 Dr. Karp. "At this age, kids need that as much as they need affection and food." Your child 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 they hurl Cheerios at their sister, remind them about the no-food-throwing rule and explain that if they do it again, they won't get to watch Blues Clues. If they continue to throw food, take it away from them. When they ask to watch TV, say, "Remember when Mommy told you not to throw cereal and you did anyway? Well, the consequence is no Blues Clues today."
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