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 mothers, 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 she can't thump her baby brother in the head with a doll, she'll latch on to another bothersome behavior -- and the process starts anew.
What exactly does it mean to "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 he breaks 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 seven strategies that can help you set limits and stop bad behavior.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
If you're like most first-time mothers, you tend to reason with your child when she breaks rules, offering detailed explanations about what she did wrong and issuing detailed threats about the privileges she'll lose if she doesn't stop misbehaving. But as a discipline strategy, overtalking is as ineffective as becoming overly emotional, warns 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, Dr. Coleman advises. For example, if your 18-month-old swats your arm, say, "No, Jake! Don't hit Mommy! That hurts! No hitting. 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."
If repeated reprimands, redirection, and loss of privileges haven't cured your child of his offending behavior, consider putting him 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 she doesn't listen, take her to the quiet and safe spot you've designated for time-outs, and set a timer. When it goes off, ask her to apologize and give her 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.
No matter how frustrated you feel about your child's misbehavior, don't vent about it in front of him. "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.
Effective discipline starts with understanding where your child falls on the developmental spectrum. Our guide:
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.