14 Tips for Disciplining Your Toddler

Even the best parents struggle with how to discipline their toddlers. Follow these simple strategies for setting and enforcing boundaries with your 2- and 3-year-olds.

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 on the head, she'd dissolve in tears, and Angela, their mother, would come running to see what happened. She'd ask Nathaniel to apologize to his sister, give her a hug, and make her laugh to soothe her 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 they have to deal with, a seemingly never-ending battle of wills between them and their kids. Because just when a 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 (such as hitting and biting), dangerous (like running into the street), or inappropriate (throwing food, for example). It's also about following through with consequences when they break the rules. It's all part of what Denver-based family nurse practitioner Linda Pearson, RN, 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 attach 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, in reality, totally dependent upon you—is more important for their growth than trying to force them to respond in ways that they simply are not going to respond," says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Kids with Character. You may worry that "giving in" will create a spoiled monster, but Dr. Berger says this anxiety isn't justified.

For Anna Lucca of Washington, D.C., that meant letting her 2-1/2-year-old daughter Isabel trash her bedroom before she dozed off for a nap. "I found books and clothes scattered all over the floor when Isabel woke up, so she must have gotten out of bed to play after I put her down," Lucca says. "I told her not to make a mess, but she didn't listen. Rather than try to catch her in the act and say, 'No, no, no,' I made her clean up right after her nap."

To balance things out, Lucca also took care to praise her toddler when she did something good—saying "please," for example, or sharing her toys with her then-5-month-old sister. "Hopefully, the positive reinforcement encouraged 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, 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 pals arrive. 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., author of the parenting classic 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 the A.M., when they are at their best. Prepare them for any new experiences, and explain how you expect them to act.

Give them plenty of time to adjust to transitions, too. When you know a playdate is about to end, for example, you might say, "In a few minutes we'll need to pick up the toys and get ready to go home." The more prepared a child feels, the less likely they are to make a fuss over changes.

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 child development specialist Claire Lerner, LCSW, author of the book Why Is My Child in Charge?. "If your reaction to a situation keeps changing—one day you let your child throw a ball in the house and the next you don't—you'll confuse them with mixed signals."

There's no set number of warnings or reprimands it will take before your children stop a certain misbehavior. But if you always respond the same way, they'll probably get it after four or five times.

Consistency was key for Orly Isaacson of Bethesda, Maryland, who stayed the course when her 18-month-old, Sasha, went through a biting phase. Each time the toddler chomped on Isaacson's finger, she used a louder-than-usual voice to correct her—"No, Sasha! Don't bite! That hurts Mommy!"—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," Isaacson says. One caveat: By age 2, many kids learn to shake their parents' resolve by being cute. Don't let their tactics sway you away from being consistent and holding firm—no matter how adorable 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., a professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School in Chapel Hill. Indeed, an angry reaction may 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. Speak firmly to them, and be concise.

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 until your child's self-discipline has a chance to grow a little more. You may need to lower your expectations of their patience and self-control somewhat. If your goal is to keep the day going 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, validate their feelings and show that you understand your child's concerns. If they're whining in the grocery store because you won't let them open the cookies, you might say something like: "It sounds like you're mad at me because I won't let you open the cookies until we get home. It's OK to be angry, but it's not OK to whine." This won't satisfy their urge, but it may reduce their anger and defuse the conflict.

7. Keep It Simple

If you're like most first-time parents, you tend to reason with your child when they break rules, offering 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, this approach (called "overt-talking") is as ineffective as becoming overly emotional, noted Dr. Coleman.

Why? Because an 18-month-old doesn't possess the cognitive ability to understand complex sentences, and while a 2- or 3-year-old has better language skills, they still lack the attention span to absorb what you're saying.

It's best to 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."

By age 3, kids understand 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 something (or stop doing it), the real issue is usually control: You've got it; they want it. 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. Open-ended questions like "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 a specific behavior—not them—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," or, "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. An appropriate length is one minute for every year of their lives. "This is an excellent discipline tool for kids who are doing the big-time no-nos," Dr. Karp says.

Before imposing a time-out, put a serious look on your face and give a warning in a stern but calm 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 idea of a time-out can become enough to get them to reconsider their actions.

12. Talk Options

When you want your child to stop being aggressive with others, offer safe ways for them to express their feelings—say, by hitting a pillow or banging something with a toy hammer. They need to learn that while their emotions and impulses are acceptable, certain ways of expressing them are not.

Older toddlers can come up with different options for handling challenging situations. For instance, you might ask: "What do you think you could do to get Tiffany to share that toy with you?" Listen to their ideas with an open mind, then talk about the consequences of choosing each option.

13. Reward Good Behavior

It's highly unlikely that your child will always do whatever you say. It's normal for kids to resist control, especially when you're asking them to do something they don't want to do. When they do behave appropriately, consider giving them a little prize (on occasion). Rewards are like a spoonful of sugar: They help the medicine go down.

The judicious use of special treats and prizes—as well as lots of verbal positive reinforcement—is a way to show your child that you're aware of and respectful of their feelings. This, more than anything, gives credibility to your discipline demands.

14. Stay Positive

No matter how frustrated you get with 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 or her 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."

Every parent feels exasperated from time to time. If you reach that point, turn to your co-parent, 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.

18 months old

At 18 months your child is curious, fearless, impulsive, mobile, and clueless about the consequences of their actions. It's a recipe for trouble. "My image of an 18-month-old is a child who's running down the hall away from their mother but looking over their shoulder to see if she's there and then running some more," said Dr. Coleman.

"Though they're building a vocabulary and can follow simple instructions, they can't effectively communicate their needs or understand lengthy reprimands. They may bite or hit to register their displeasure or to get your attention." As a result, the consequences for their misbehavior must be immediate. If you wait even 10 minutes to react, your child won't remember what they did wrong or tie it to the consequence, says nurse practitioner Pearson.

2 years old

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, and become frustrated when they can't get their point across. They're self-centered, prone to tantrums, and don't like to share.

Consequences should be swift, as a 2-year-old is unable to grasp the concept of time. Since they still lack impulse control, give them another chance soon after an incident, says child development specialist Lerner.

3 years old

At age 3 your child is a chatterbox; they're using language to express 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 them the social contact they crave and let them release energy," says Dr. Karp. "At this age, kids need that as much as they need affection and food."

They also know right from wrong, understand cause and effect, and retain 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 sibling, remind them about the no-food-throwing rule and explain that if they do it again, they won't get to watch Bluey. If they still 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 Bluey today."

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