Don’t let your child off the hook because you think she's too young to understand rules and consequences. Here are the 20 commandments of toddler discipline.

By Ari Brown, MD, and Denise Fields
Updated May 22, 2020
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Children aren't born with social skills, so you need to teach your little one about appropriate behaviors when she’s young. The rules and consequences you implement now will stick with her throughout childhood and adulthood. Here’s how to start disciplining a toddler with 20 expert-approved tips.

1. Expect rough spots.

Certain situations and times of day might trigger bad behavior. One of the biggest culprits is transitions from one activity to the next (waking up, going to bed, stopping play to eat dinner). Give your child a heads-up so he's more prepared to switch gears ("After you build one more block tower, we will be having dinner").

2. Pick your battles.

If you say “no” 20 times per day, it will lose its effectiveness. Separate bad behaviors into high, medium, and low priority—and expend most of your energy on the worst offenders. If you ignore a minor infraction (like your toddler screaming whenever you check your email) she'll eventually stop doing it because she'll see that it doesn't get a rise out of you.

3. Implement preventive measures.

Make your house kid-friendly, and have reasonable expectations for your toddler. Moving your expensive jewelry from the nightstand, for example, will eliminate temptation to play with it.  Along those same lines, go to a restaurant early so your family doesn’t need to wait for a table.

4. Make your statements short and sweet.

Wondering how to discipline a 1-year-old toddler? Young kids have limited vocabularies, so speak in brief sentences, such as "No hitting." This is much more effective than long explanations ("Honey, you know it's not nice to hit the dog. We shouldn’t be doing that.")

5. Distract and redirect.

Parents distract and redirect their toddlers all day long, but the key is sticking with it. Even if your child unrolls the entire toilet paper roll for the tenth time in one day, calmly remove her from the bathroom and close the door. Eventually she’ll forget about it!

6. Introduce consequences.

Your toddler should learn the natural outcomes of his behavior—otherwise known as cause and effect. For example, if he loudly insists on selecting his pajamas (which takes an eternity), then he's also choosing not to read books before bed. In this scenario, the cause is prolonged PJ picking, and the effect is no bedtime story. Next time, he may choose his pajamas more quickly or let you pick them out.

7. Don't back down to avoid conflict.

We all hate to be the party pooper, but if you’re trying to learn how best to discipline a toddler,  you shouldn't succumb to negative behavior. Say your child is insisting on buying the sugary cereal she saw on TV. In this case, it’s best to stick with your guns (even if you risk a showdown at the grocery store)—you’ll be glad you did later!

8. Anticipate bids for attention.

You best believe your child will act up when your attention is diverted (making dinner, talking on the phone, etc.). That's why it's essential to provide some entertainment, such as a favorite toy or quick snack, to keep her occupied.

9. Focus on the behavior, not the child.

Always say that a particular behavior is bad. Never tell your child that he is bad. You want him to know that you love him, but you don't love the way he's acting right now.

10. Give your child choices.

If you give your child choices, she’ll feel as if she's got a vote. Just make sure you don't offer too many options and that they're all productive, such as, "It's your choice: You can put your shoes on first or your coat."

11. Don't yell.

Don’t raise your voice when disciplining a toddler, but definitely change your tone to get your point across.

12. Catch your child being good.

If you praise your child when he behaves well, he'll do it more often—and he'll be less likely to act out to get your attention. Positive reinforcement does wonders for promoting good conduct.

13. Act immediately.

Don't wait to discipline your toddler. She won't remember why she's in trouble more than five minutes after she did the dirty deed.

14. Be a good role model.

If you act calmly under pressure, your child will take the cue. And if you have a temper tantrum when you're upset, expect that he'll do the same. Little children tend to mimic the behavior of their parents, so it’s vital to be a good role model.

15. Don't treat your child like an adult.

Your toddler really doesn't want to hear a lecture from you—and won't be able to understand it. The next time she throws her spaghetti, don't break into the "You Can't Throw Your Food" lecture. Instead, try calmly evicting her from the kitchen for the night.

16. Use time-outs wisely.

When figuring how to discipline a toddler who hits or doesn’t listen, parents always try the time-out, and with good reason: depriving him of your attention is an effective way to get your message across. A good guideline is not paying attention to him for one minute for each year of age. Realistically, kids under 2 won't sit in a corner or on a chair—and it's fine for them to be on the floor kicking and screaming. Just make sure the time-out location is a safe one. Reserve time-outs for particularly inappropriate behaviors (if your child bites his friend's arm, for example) and use a time-out every time the offense occurs.

17. Don't negotiate with your child or make promises.

Try to avoid saying anything like, "If you behave, I'll buy you that doll you want." Otherwise, you'll create a 2-year-old whose good behavior will always come with a price tag.

18. Shift your strategies over time.

What worked beautifully when your child was 15 months probably isn't going to work when he's 2. You’ll need to change your strategy as he ages.

19. Don't spank.

Although you may be tempted to act like a child, remember that you’re the grown-up in this situation. There are many more effective ways of getting your message across than spanking or screaming. If your toddler is pushing your buttons for the umpteenth time, try to take a step back to gain a fresh perspective on how to change your approach.

20. Remind your child that you love her.

It's always smart to end a discipline discussion with a positive comment. This shows your child that you're ready to move on and not dwell on the problem. It also reinforces that you're only setting limits because you love her.

Partially taken from Toddler 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice For Your Toddler, by Ari Brown, MD, and Denise Fields, 2006 Ari Brown, MD, and Denise Fields (Windsor Peak Press). For more information, go to toddler411.com.

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