7 Secrets of Toddler Discipline
Just saying “no” doesn’t always work. How to get your child to live and learn -- and not lose your cool in the process.
By Stephanie Watson
Reviewed by Renee A. Alli, MD
Have you ever found yourself in deep negotiations with your 2-year-old over whether she can wear her princess costume to preschool for the fifth day in a row? Have you taken the "walk of shame" out of the local supermarket after your toddler threw a temper tantrum on the floor? There may be comfort in knowing you’re not alone, but that doesn’t make navigating the early years of discipline any easier.
Toddlerhood is a particularly vexing time for parents because this is the age at which children start to become more independent and discover themselves as individuals. Yet they still have a limited ability to communicate and reason.
Child development specialist Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources for the nonprofit organization Zero to Three, says, "They understand that their actions matter -- they can make things happen. This leads them to want to make their imprint on the world and assert themselves in a way they didn't when they were a baby. The problem is they have very little self-control and they're not rational thinkers. It's a very challenging combination."
Here are a few simple toddler discipline strategies to help make life easier for your whole family when your self-asserting toddler needs direction.
1. Be Consistent
Order and routine give young children a safe haven from what they view as an overwhelming and unpredictable world, Lerner says. "When there's some predictability and routine, it makes children feel much more safe and secure, and they tend to be much more behaved and calm because they know what to expect."
Try to keep to the same schedule every day. That means having consistent nap times, mealtimes, and bedtimes as well as times when your toddler is free to just run around and have fun.
Warn your child in advance if you do have to make a change. Telling your child "Aunt Jean is going to watch you tonight while Mommy and Daddy go out for a little bit" will prepare her for a slightly different routine and may prevent a scene at bedtime.
Consistency is also important when it comes to discipline. When you say "no hitting" the first time your child smacks another child on the playground, you also need to say "no hitting" the second, third, and fourth time your child does it.
2. Avoid Stressful Situations
By the time your child has reached the toddler stage, you've spent enough time with him or her to know what triggers reactions. The most common ones are hunger, sleepiness, and quick changes of venue. Avoid these potential meltdown scenarios with a little advance planning.
Pediatrician Lisa Asta, associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, says, "You have to anticipate, which means you don't go to the grocery store when your child needs a nap.
Try to make sure your child is home at naptimes, bedtimes, and mealtimes. If you are out, always keep food on hand in case of a sudden hunger attack. Keep excursions short (that means finding another restaurant if the one you've chosen has an hour-long wait or doing your grocery shopping at times when the lines are shortest). Finally, plan ahead so you don't have to rush (particularly when you need to get your child to preschool and yourself to work in the mornings).
You can ease transitions by involving your child in the process. That can be as simple as setting an egg timer for five minutes and saying that when it rings it's time to take a bath or get dressed. Or it can be as easy as giving your child a choice of whether to wear the red or the blue shirt to school.
Remember to think out loud and update your son or daughter about what is next on the schedule. Toddlers can understand much more than they can express.
3. Think Like a Toddler
Toddlers aren't mini-adults. They have trouble understanding many of the things we take for granted, like how to follow directions and behave appropriately. Seeing the scenario from a toddler's perspective can help prevent a tantrum.
"You might say, 'I know, Derek, you don't like getting into the car seat. But it's what we have to do,'" Lerner says. "So you're not coddling, but you're validating their feelings. You have to set the limit, but you do it in a way that respects the child, and you use it as an opportunity to help them learn to cope with life's frustrations and rules and regulations."
Giving choices also shows that you respect your toddler and recognize the child's feelings. Asking your child if he or she wants to bring a favorite book in the car or take along a snack can make the child feel as though he or she has some control over the situation while you remain in charge, Lerner says.
4. Practice the Art of Distraction
Make your toddler's short attention span work for you. When your child throws the ball against the dining room wall for the 10th time after you've said to stop, it's pretty easy to redirect your child to a more productive activity, like trading the ball for a favorite book or moving the game outside.
Rex Forehand, the Heinz and Rowena Ansbacher Professor of Psychology at the University of Vermont and author of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, says, "[Parents] need to create an environment that is most conducive to good toddler behavior. If they're into something they're not supposed to do, the idea is not to punish them but to get another activity going or pick them up and put them in another room."
5. Give Your Child a Break
Time-outs are one of the foundations of child discipline, but they may not be the best approach for the toddler stage. The negative implication of being sent away can teach kids that they're bad rather than promote good behavior.
If you do give your child a time-out, limit it to just a minute or two at this age. Instead of calling it a time-out, which can be confusing to children under 3, refer to it as something more positive.
Lerner suggests creating a "cozy corner," a safe place free from distractions and stimulation where your child can just chill out for a few minutes until he or she can get back in control. That time away can help you regroup as well.
Correct bad behaviors, but also take the time to praise good behaviors. Asta says, "If you don't tell your child when they're doing the right thing, sometimes they'll do the wrong thing just to get attention." When you tell your toddler he or she has done something good, there's a good chance your child will want to do it again
6. Stay Calm
It’s easy for your blood pressure to reach the boiling point when you’re in the middle of watching your child throw a tantrum. But losing control will quickly escalate an already stressful situation. Give yourself some time to cool off, Forehand says. "Otherwise, you're venting your own anger. In the end that's going to make you, as a parent, feel worse and guilty. And it's not going to do your child any good."
"I call it the 'Stepford Wife' approach," Lerner says. "As your child screams, say, 'I know, I know,' but stay completely calm as you pick him up. Don't show any emotion."
Sometimes the best tactic is to ignore the behavior entirely. "You just literally act like they're not doing what they're doing," Lerner says. "You ignore the behavior you want to stop." When your child realizes that his screaming fit is not going to get him a second lollipop or your attention, eventually he'll get tired of yelling.
Your child may drive you so close to the breaking point that you're tempted to spank him. But most experts warn against the practice. "When we spank, kids learn that physical punishment is acceptable. And so we are modeling exactly what we don't want our kids to do," Forehand says. At the toddler stage, redirection and brief breaks are far more effective discipline tactics, he says.
7. Know When to Give In
Certain things in a toddler's life are nonnegotiable. She has to eat, brush her teeth, and ride in a car seat. She also has to take baths once in a while. Hitting and biting are never OK. But many other issues aren't worth the headache of an argument. Pick your battles.
"You have to decide whether it's worth fighting about, and about half the time it's not worth fighting about," Asta says. That means it's OK to let your son wear his superhero costume to the grocery store or read The Giving Tree 10 times in a row. Once he gets what he wants, you can gradually get him to shift in another direction -- like wearing another outfit or picking out a different book to read.
Finally, know that it's OK to feel stressed out by your toddler sometimes. "Realize that none of us as parents is perfect -- we do the best we can. There are going to be days that we're better at this than other days," Forehand says. "But if we parent consistently and have consistent rules, then we're going to see more good days than bad days."