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The seven most effective ways to discipline a toddler

Your adorable toddler ignores your request to stop playing and come eat lunch. You repeat the statement, but they continue to ignore you. The third time you raise your voice and threaten discipline. Still, no results. Now what? You really don’t want to deal with another meltdown. 

Toddlers aren’t born with social skills so it’s up to you to teach them appropriate behavior. This can be a trying time for a parent, but remember: The rules and consequences you practice now will stay with them for the rest of their lives. But it’s also important to understand some underlying factors behind toddlers’ behaviors. 

Toddlers lack self-control, which is one of the major factors behind their tantrums and other displays of anger. They also lack the comprehension to understand their emotions. That means they don’t realize the sadness they feel over broken cookies will soon pass. Understanding these things and following helpful tips for disciplining your toddler will help you navigate this phase more effectively.

Toddler on couch having a tantrum
Jason Ligon/

Be proactive

Always think through the day ahead and ask yourself, ‘How can I make this a good day?” Make a mental checklist of  recurring daily events and make plans on how to handle each one. For instance, your toddler may want to dress themselves. So, make sure ahead of time that their choices are limited to elastic-waist pants and pull-on shirts. This will help eliminate a frustrated toddler who winds up in tears.

Give them choices

Between the ages of 1 and 3, your child is developing quickly in a lot of areas, including mentally and emotionally. This is the time they will start to express autonomy. They are naturally curious and are beginning to experiment with independence and preferences. One way to encourage this is by giving them reasonable and safe choices. “Do you want to go to the park in your stroller or wagon?” is a typical example. Others are allowing them to choose their own snack or practice brushing their teeth. Toddlers are typically full of energy and always on the move — which can get them into trouble. You can avoid this by giving them “chores” to do. Ask them to help you fold laundry, clear the table, carry in groceries, or water the plants. This fosters their feelings of independence and gets rid of excess energy.

Pick your battles

Like many things in life, there is a time to “go to war” and a time to ignore. Disciplining a toddler is the same way. Instead of doing battle over every little infraction, try assigning levels to your toddler’s misbehavior. Remember, if you are constantly saying “No!” every 5 minutes, it begins to lose its effectiveness. When deciding what level their misbehavior is — low, medium, or high — ask yourself if this episode will matter when your child is 25 years old. For example, if they refuse to get in their car seat, then yes, that’s a high level infraction because it could have dire consequences. However, if they refuse to say “thank you” when they receive a gift, that’s low-level disobedience that you can continue to practice with them but doesn’t really require punishment.

Expectations and consequences

No one can follow an unknown rule, and the same goes for toddlers. The rules you set should be simple and the instructions clear. Don’t overestimate what your toddler can understand. Some parents try to reason with their child by giving lengthy descriptions of what they did wrong and lengthy threats about what will happen if they continue to misbehave. This is both confusing and exhausting for your little one. Remember to use short phrases and repeat yourself several times. It is also important to establish eye contact during this process so you’re sure they are listening. Make sure you are clear about what happens if the rules are not followed.

Monkey see, monkey do

Toddlers are very visual and you are their most important teacher. Every day, they are watching you and learning from you. They are like little sponges at this age. When you are disciplining them for bad behavior, alter the tone of your voice and use facial expressions to show your displeasure. By the same token, model behaviors to help them learn. For example, put a toy back in the toybox right in front of your toddler and then ask them to do the same. Continue to take turns until all the toys are put away and then praise them for a job well done. 

Praise and reward

Toddlers are egocentric, but they still want to please their parents. The more you praise your little one when they behave, the more they will want to do it. Everyone likes to receive a pat on the back! Positive reinforcement is key to promoting good behavior. Also, a small prize might be appropriate when they do something especially good. 

When it’s time for a timeout

If your toddler is still having trouble listening and behaving, giving them a timeout is an effective punishment. Most of the time, what they really want is your attention, and a timeout deprives them of that. It also separates them from their toys. A timeout is an effective way to get your point across! A good rule of thumb is to give one minute of timeout for each year of age. When the punishment is over, make sure you end the time on a positive note and assure your child you still love them.

Mother talking to her toddler in hallway

Negotiating the toddler years is a tough job that takes lots of love, consistency, and patience. Hopefully, using some or all of these seven methods will lead to less tantrums and more peaceful resolutions for everyone.

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