How to Discipline a Toddler
Don’t let your child off the hook because you think they’re too young to understand rules and consequences. Here are the 23 commandments of toddler discipline.
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."
Children aren't born with social skills, so you need to teach your little one about appropriate behaviors when they’re young. The rules and consequences you implement now will stick with them throughout childhood and adulthood. Here’s how best to discipline a toddler with 23 expert-approved tips.
1. Expect rough spots.
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. Certain situations and times of day might also trigger bad behavior. One of the biggest culprits is transitioning from one activity to the next (waking up, going to bed, stopping play to eat dinner). Give your child a heads-up so they’re 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) they’ll eventually stop doing it because they’ll see that it doesn't get a rise out of you.
"If you're always saying, 'No, no, no,' your child will tune out the no and won't understand your priorities," explains Pearson, author of The Discipline Miracle. 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).
3. Implement preventive measures.
Some misbehavior is preventable—as long as you can anticipate what will spark it and you create a game plan in advance. 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. And 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.
4. Make your statements short and sweet.
As a discipline strategy, overt-talking is as ineffective as becoming overly emotional, according to the late William Coleman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina Medical School in Chapel Hill. 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, try speaking 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. Stay 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.
6. 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 them from the bathroom and close the door. Eventually they’ll forget about it!
7. Introduce consequences.
Your toddler should learn the natural outcomes of their behavior—otherwise known as cause and effect. For example, if they loudly insist on selecting their pajamas (which takes an eternity), then they’re 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, they may choose their pajamas more quickly or let you pick them out.
8. 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 they 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!
9. Offer alternative solutions.
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.
10. Focus on the behavior, not the child.
Always say that a particular behavior is bad. Never tell your child that they are bad. You want them to know that you love them, but you don't love the way they’re acting right now.
11. Give your child choices.
If you give your child choices, they’ll feel as if they’ve 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.
12. Don't yell.
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 quickly.
"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 Dr. Coleman. 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.
13. Catch your child being good.
If you praise your child when they behave well, they'll do it more often—and they'll be less likely to act out to get your attention. Positive reinforcement does wonders for promoting good conduct.
14. Act immediately.
Don't wait to discipline your toddler. They won't remember why they’re in trouble more than five minutes after they did the dirty deed.
- RELATED: How to Stop a Toddler from Hitting
15. 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 they'll do the same. Little children tend to mimic the behavior of their parents, so it’s vital to be a good role model.
16. Don't treat your child like an adult.
Your toddler really doesn't want to hear a lecture from you—and they won't be able to understand it. The next time they throw their spaghetti, don't break into the "You Can't Throw Your Food" lecture. Instead, try calmly evicting them from the kitchen for the night.
17. Hear your child out.
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.
18. 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.
- RELATED: How to Stop a Toddler from Biting
19. 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 them of your attention is an effective way to get your message across. "This is an excellent discipline tool for kids who are doing the big-time no-nos," Dr. Karp explains.
A good guideline is not paying attention to them 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 their friend's arm, for example) and use a time-out every time the offense occurs.
20. 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.
21. Shift your strategies over time.
What worked beautifully when your child was 15 months probably isn't going to work when they’re 2. You’ll need to change your strategy as they age.
22. 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.
23. 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 them.
Remember: "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.
- RELATED: 8 Learning Activities for Toddlers
Partially taken from Toddler 411: Clear Answers & Smart Advice For Your Toddler, by Ari Brown, MD, and Denise Fields (Windsor Peak Press). For more information, go to toddler411.com.