Toddlers and young children are curious explorers who know how to push boundaries and your buttons. From making messes and refusing to share to the dreaded tantrum, you probably feel like the only word in your vocabulary these days is “no.”
Rest assured, even though it’s frustrating to discipline toddlers, this is a normal stage of development. Keep in mind that disciplining a toddler shouldn’t be about punishment, but about teaching boundaries and socialization so that your child understands acceptable behavior.
The strategies below will help you avoid bad behavior, diffuse sticky situations and discipline toddlers when appropriate. Whatever discipline techniques you choose to use, remember that consistency is important. Make sure you’re on the same page with your partner as well as any sitters or caregivers who also may need to correct your young child’s behavior.
Spanking is not OK.
Spanking has become extremely controversial in recent years with most parenting experts agreeing that it is counterproductive to discipline toddlers in this way. Studies have shown that spanking can lead to childhood anxiety and can actually show a child that it’s OK to hit. Try these toddler discipline techniques instead when your child misbehaves.
Strategy 1: Create routines, structure and safe places to explore.
Setting up an environment that promotes good behavior will help you avoid having to discipline your toddler in the first place. Start by childproofing your home so your toddler can safely explore and play without easily finding himself in trouble. Lock up items you don’t want him getting into or place items on shelves he cannot reach.
Remember that young children thrive on routines and structure because it helps them understand what to expect and what is expected of them. Ensuring that your child’s schedule includes sufficient naps and an early bedtime is also key. Sleep-deprived toddlers are more likely to be cranky and have tantrums over seemingly minor incidents, so if you’re hoping to improve your child’s behavior, an earlier bedtime might be a good place to start.
Of course, none of this means that you won’t have an occasional morning meltdown when your toddler doesn’t want to put on his shoes, but the more structure a young child has, the less likely you’ll be caught off guard with bad behavior.
Strategy 2: Notice and encourage good behavior.
It’s easy to focus on what your child is doing wrong — for the sake of her safety — but often, young children use bad behavior to get your attention. Try noticing what your child is doing right and encourage good behavior with positive reinforcement. Use words like “proud” and “appreciate.” Tell your toddler, “I appreciate when you clean up your toys,” or “I’m so proud of you for sharing your crayons.
Strategy 3: Turn a negative into a positive.
Your toddler’s natural curiosity combined with his tendency to be stubborn probably makes you feel like you’re constantly telling him “no.” And you may have noticed, “no” seems to hold little meaning. While there are times when a passionate “No!” is appropriate — like when a toddler is in imminent danger (think taking off toward a busy street or reaching for a hot stove) — allowing it to become the default word when a toddler is misbehaving just helps the word lose its meaning. Tell a young child what to do instead. Explain to the toddler who struggles to let others play with her toys that, “We share with our friends,” rather than reprimanding her with a stern “No” when she takes a ball away from her playmate.
Strategy 4: Distract and redirect.
Toddlers, especially those under 2, are often too young to understand why they’re being disciplined. Rather than a time-out, a better strategy is to distract and redirect them. This works well when toddlers are trying to get into something they shouldn’t. Simply set them up with another toy or activity that will divert their attention and keep them happy.
Strategy 5: Model better behavior.
Toddlers don’t always know that what they are doing is wrong. Instead of disciplining, it’s up to you to show them the correct way to interact with the world around them. For example, when young children come into contact with pets, their enthusiasm typically gets the best of them. Help them understand that they must be gentle with animals and show them how to safely interact with furry friends.
Strategy 6: Take a time–out.
Tried and true (though not without controversy), the time-out is a go-to method of discipline for toddlers and preschoolers. Not sure how long your child can sit in a time-out? A good rule of thumb is that the time limit should correspond to the child’s age — so a 2-year-old would get a two-minute time-out. Experts caution that parents should use time-outs sparingly and should not associate a toddler’s room with punishment. Have a designated chair or location for time-outs that doesn’t make the toddler feel isolated. Can’t get your child to sit in a time-out? They may not be old enough to understand the concept. Try a time-in instead — a couple of minutes where you both cool down together.
Strategy 7: Introduce consequences.
For older toddlers and preschoolers, taking away privileges can be a powerful motivator for good behavior. It can feel harsh, but it will lay the foundation for understanding that there are consequences for misbehaving. Consider taking away a treat or screen time if your toddler refuses to sit at the dinner table or get ready for school, but don’t make empty threats. If you’re going to take something away, it’s OK to warn your child before doing it, but you must follow through if his behavior does not improve.
Strategy 8: Ignore bad behavior when appropriate.
Sometimes the best way to discourage bad behavior is to ignore it. When a child is using his behavior to get your attention and it works, the behavior is reinforced — even if it’s negative attention. Sometimes ignoring the behavior is more effective. You have to decide what you can ignore. If your child isn’t hurting anyone else or in danger, minor offenses can be overlooked depending on the circumstances.
Strategy 9: Right wrongs together.
Learning how to right a wrong is an important part of child discipline, but your toddler may not know how to do that on his own. After you take time to explain to him why his actions were not acceptable, take him by the hand and show him how to fix it.
Strategy 10: Stay calm and under control.
Have you ever noticed that when you get frustrated and upset, your toddler also will get upset? It can be hard to keep calm when your little one is melting down in the freezer section, but take a deep breath. This is normal, and every parent has had to deal with toddler tantrums and less-than-stellar behavior from a young child. Keeping calm can help diffuse the situation more quickly — or at least help you stay level-headed when it comes to determining how best to discipline your toddler.
Keep in mind that toddlers change quickly — discipline techniques that work with a 3-year-old may not be appropriate for a 1-year-old and vice versa. If something isn’t working for your little one, try it again in a few months. You might see a big change. And don’t be afraid to combine discipline techniques — a time-out plus righting the wrong together or modeling better behavior plus redirecting can help you understand which strategies resonate most with your child.