Learning How To Discipline A Toddler takes time and lots of patience.
It starts off small with a few tears and a bit of whinging or moaning but in an instant can escalate into the “mother of all tantrums”.
Worse still, it can happen at any time, anywhere.
We’ve all been there, in the middle of a busy shopping centre with our irritable toddler. Then seemingly out of nowhere your child explodes into a full-blown tantrum, leaving you embarrassed, frustrated and running to the exit with shopping spilling everywhere.
If you’ve ever “given in” and let your toddler have a piece of candy before dinner, or “wear their favourite Disney t-shirt for the 4th day in a row”, then you know that learning how to discipline a toddler is not always set in stone.
Good discipline is about setting the correct rules and procedures to limit your toddler from engaging in too much disruptive or aggressive behaviour.
It’s impossible to stop it all, but a good set of rules will provide a framework for positive reinforcement and set an example for what the correct behaviour is for any given environment.
It will also provide clear boundaries and consequences for behaviour that push these boundaries too far.
Safety is your highest priority and a well-disciplined toddler will not lash out at others, throw food or importantly run out into the road.
Related: Signs Of Terrible Twos
Fits and Tantrums
Most toddlers have fits and tantrums to get attention. They could be hungry, worn out or just feeling a bit down and upset. Either way, they need you to help them solve their problem.
From the baby and toddlers years to the preschool and school years your child will seek out the best way to get what they want.
A temper tantrum is often the weapon of their choice, as they know that you will have to stop whatever you’re currently doing and attend to them.
Older children and more advanced toddlers will also try to get a different reaction from you. Power struggles and boundary testing are very common among certain children.
These children are very astute and can understand complex verbal and non-verbal cues to manipulate the situation to get what they want.
Learning how to discipline a toddler involves understanding why your child is acting in a particular way. Children often act out to get a reaction from you, to gain attention or to get noticed.
Remember, this behaviour is nothing to be worried about. It forms a part of healthy developmental growth and healthy learning.
Your toddler is growing and becoming more independent and actively finding more intuitive ways to seek out freedom and expression.
How To Discipline A Toddler: Rules
1. Stay Calm
Raising a toddler can be a very challenging and exhausting journey. If you are calm you can think about the best way to parent any situation. In that way, you’ll be able to deploy proactive discipline instead of reactive discipline.
With a cool head, you can make better decisions and handle any situation with more patience and empathy. This will help you become a role model as your toddler looks to you to set a positive example when stressed out.
Remember, you will always be your toddlers primary role model and the way you present yourself will have a direct impact on them.
For example, if your toddler is being oppositional or disruptive try to refrain from saying things you don’t actually mean.
“If you don’t stop crying right now I’m going to confiscate all your toys when we get home!”
Chances are you won’t be as upset when you get home and even if you are you’d probably not take away all the toys. Taking away a few may be a better way to handle the situation.
By staying calm you can say with more confidence what you intend to do and consciously show your child the correct way to express themselves when they feel upset.
2. Reward Good Behaviour.
A lot of emphases is placed around controlling and limiting bad behaviour.
Whilst this is very important and is apart of a healthy discipline framework, your first strategy to learn how to discipline a toddler should be to reward good behaviour.
Your toddler is at a crucial developmental stage and is constantly craving your attention. One smart way to keep their behaviour in check is to reward all the small and big things they do.
For example, if your toddler has helped to get himself dressed today or showed patience when you were changing his nappy, instead of fidgeting then give him direct praise for it.
“Well done, thank you for being so patience sweetie. It makes me very happy when you listen to my instructions. Now you can have an extra 10 minutes at the park!“
You can choose your own reward and make it specific to your child but highlighting the benefits of being polite and obedient is a smart way to manage your child’s behaviour and will help to promote self-discipline as your toddler get’s older.
3. Repetition is Key!
Toddlers need to be repeatedly told what to do and what not to do. Just like adults, children learn the majority of skills by trial and error and then constantly repeating what works.
This is a crucial skill step for learning how to discipline a toddler.
By repeating key disciplinary instructions to your toddler you will tap into the core learning ability. This will ensuring that your foundational house rules get etched into their memory for good!
Remember to keep it simple. If the house rule is not to throw food, to pick up after yourself or to wash hands before dinner, then try to keep the command as short as possible.
No hitting, No throwing, No shouting
Wash hands before dinner
You can even write these rules on the fridge or an obvious place on the house to highlight the rules on a daily basis. In that way, you can point to them to promote compliant behaviour more often.
As your toddler learns both verbally and visually you can strengthen the house rules and simultaneously strengthen your proactive discipline efforts.
4. Don’t Be Confrontational
They aren’t in the right mind frame to see the reasons why that behaviour isn’t appropriate as they are blinded by their rage.
Being confrontational won’t help. Additionally asking them to explain themselves will be to no avail: Try to refrain from using direct questions like these immediately after an incident:
“Do you think this behaviour is acceptable”,
“What have you done that for?”
“Don’t you think that was a bit silly?”
Conformational questions like this are not likely to help the situation and will probably only make it worse. Instead take a step back let them calm down, bring them to a quiet place and then explain to them this “behaviour isn’t appropriate and you won’t stand for it!”
Give them the reasons why “hitting, yelling, kicking isn’t an acceptable way to express their emotions” and show them better ways to do it.
Say, “I understand you are upset with your friend because he took your bike without asking, but hitting him won’t get your bike back.
and, “Instead let’s ask him to share. Mention that you had it first and remind him that once you are finished he can play.
Lastly, “If he still won’t share, then just say you won’t be able to play with him anymore”
Remember, always remind your child that you are here to help and they can always come to you if they have any questions.
5. Stay Firm
Toddlers are fast learners and even faster mini manipulates. They will try everything in the book to get what they want from you and if that doesn’t work will even play parents off of each other, as an ingenious way to get what they want.
Avoid this by staying firm. Being stern is a crucial step when learning how to discipline a toddler correctly.
For example: If you have a set rule of no snacks directly before dinner, or no loud toys after 7.30 then try and stay firm.
Allowing the occasion loud toy to jingle around the house at 8 pm, on the weekend, just once, may seem ok. But what happens on Monday night when your toddler tries to do the same thing again?
Now you’ve set yourself up to fail as you’ve allowed it to happen once or twice and a pattern has formed. It will be much harder to curb this noisy habit before bed then if you had stayed firm and curtailed it from the outset.
Effective discipline requires a firm approach. You will be teaching your toddler that rules and boundaries have consequences if they are deliberately crossed.
6. Plan Ahead
Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail. This phrase is a perfect depiction for how to discipline a toddler.
Effective planning is the cornerstone of proactive parenting and structured discipline.
Your toddler craves routines and will thrive in an environment when they are prepared for what’s coming next.
Keeping strict routines in place for the basic daily takes like, eating, sleeping and playing will propel your discipline efforts much faster than without.
Importantly learning your child’s moods and temperaments throughout the day and noting down when they show excessive disruptive behaviour is important.
For example, if your child hates car journey or gets very car sick then you will need to ensure you plan your car trips with plenty of stops in between.
Similarly, if they nap in the afterrnoon then use that as your best gateway to travel try without disruption.
Planning ahead will save time and prevent unwanted and unnecessary torment for both you and your child. It’s the smartest way to keep the peace ensuring a smoother transition between baby, toddler and child development.
7. Teach New Skills
Your toddler needs constant stimulation from you and the environment around them. If not you’ll routinely get whiny, whingy and understimulated toddlers.
A smart way to encourage growth and learning is to teach new skills.
In general, playtime is a crucial part of healthy development and will keep your toddlers mind active for longer parts of the day. A major reason for a disruptive toddler or a toddler crying for no reason is when they are unable to express themselves in a safe environment.
Try to support more brain stimulation by encouraging more proactive playtime. For example, painting, dancing, singing, riding a bike, drawing etc
Whilst it’s exciting teaching your toddler a new skill you also gain the advantage of being able to leverage this new activity when your child shows defiant or oppositional behaviour.
For example, if your child is not cooperating and you’ve tried everything else then you can say:
“Sweetie, I had planned to open up our NEW paints later together, but I’m not sure if we should do it anymore. If you aren’t listening to me now then how will paint together? It’s a shame as I was really looking forward to it”
The beauty here is you can frame the new skill as a bargaining chip for more compliant behaviour. Remember it’s not a bribe, just a reminder that good behaviour gets positively rewarded with parent and child time!
Learning how to discipline a toddler succesfully is about being flexible with your approach but also finding ways to compromise.
8. Show Empathy
Try to be empathic to your child’s sensitivities and their perceptions of you and the world around them. Your child is growing and learning every day and all this growth can be tiring, frustration and cause anxiety.
Try to spend more quality time with your child to better understand what it is that triggers them both positively and negatively.
You may find that just bonding with them over 1 or 2 new activities could severely reduce the frustrations, anxiety and tensions they feel.
Every child, no matter the age, needs consistent one on one time with parents. Try to use this personal time to strengthen your existing bond, share more and learn new things about each other.
Children need to feel safe and know that their concerns are being understood. By trying to see the world through your child’s eyes you will be better equipped to see how they view you and things around them.
Every parent and child relationship is different and some have been built on the most extraordinary circumstances.
This will give you a better understanding of the uniqueness of your child, what pushes their buttons and what traits to encourage.
A perfect example is a child who seems to bang, shout and hit objects constantly. Instead of seeking professional help, try to see the world through your child’s eyes. Maybe they are showing rhythmic cues and need to vent their emotions in a more natural way.
Giving them a set of play drums may curb any disruptive behaviour and give them a safe way to express themselves.
Empathy is the cornerstone when learning how to discipline a toddler correctly and will improve your overall relationship with your child.
9. Time Outs
Time out’s work well for most toddlers as they begin to realise that there are consequences for disruptive and oppositional behaviour.
Time outs help to provide a safe and secure setting for your child to reflect on negative behaviour, refresh and then return to the original setting with a better mindset.
Older children will already understand the cause and effect nature of their actions. But showing actions have consequences, no matter your child’s age is a fundamental component to effective discipline.
Your role is to show your toddler that threatening, unruly and unnecessary behaviour will not be tolerated and is not acceptable. This includes shouting and screaming for no reason.
Whilst the jury is out with how effective a “Time Out” actually is, (sometimes called Time In’s) giving your child some “Cooldown” time will always help.
This is especially the case if they are very stressed or anger and tend to struggle with big emotions like fear, jealousy and guilt.
Keep in mind that the aim of the time out is not for them to be distracted and stimulated with other activities but to cool down.
The main purpose is for them to think about their actions and eventually come back to the environment with a more peaceful attitude.
10. It’s Not About You!
Many parents’ think, incorrectly, that defiant or aggressive behaviour is a personal attack against them. This is strengthened if you can see that your child is more disobedient and confrontational with one parent more than the other.
Often children lash out more with the parent they spend the most time with, feeling that this parent should understand them more. The disruptive behaviour is usually not about you or your parenting skills, so try not to blame yourself too much.
It’s a healthy and natural part of developmental changes and as you are the closest person to them you’ll get all of it… the good, the bad and the ugly!
Remember most toddlers behaviour is short-lived and they go through many phases that are linked to developmental cycles and changes. Try to see the bigger picture and show as much patience and resilience as you can!
Let’s now identify the different types of tantrums your toddler will go through, the reasons behind oppositional, disruptive and aggressive behaviour and effective ways to manage it.
Only once we completely understand why your toddler is acting in a certain way can we effectively manage the situation and provide a framework of rules for proactive discipline.
How To Discipline A Toddler: Tantrums
1. Attention Seeking Tantrums
Your child wants you to play with them but you are busy making dinner or doing the laundry. Here you should remind your child that you are busy but won’t be for too long. Allow them to see what you are doing and give them a clear time frame on when you will be free to play with them.
A Great ‘Win Win’ is to try and include them in the things you are doing (when it is safe to do so).
If you are sweeping, then ask them to help. In that way, you both win. They get attention for doing some housework and you get a cleaner floor!
2. Worn Out or Exhausted Tantrums
Your toddler has had a long day, has been very active and now they are acting out because they are tired. The solution here is to try to relax their minds and keep them soothed until bedtime.
Quiet games and ones that don’t need too much brain activity will work well. (I.e. A simple puzzle)
3. No, No, No, Tantrums
These are the ones that happen when your child refuses to co-operate with anything you ask them.
“Can you get your jacket on” – NO!
“Can you eat some more food please” – No!
“Can you play nicely with your sister” – No!
This is very common amongst toddlers as they begin to test boundaries and realise that have a direct influence over the things they do.
To deter this type of behaviour, get down to your toddlers level, look them directly in the eye and remind them that they “must listen to your commands or there will be consequences“.
Time out’s can work well as long as you explain to your child the reason for the punishment. Additionally, mention that disruptive behaviour like this is not acceptable.
4. Volcano Tantrums
These are the biggest and the worst and usually happen due to compounding factors. (tiredness, boredom, doesn’t want to share toys etc)
These type of explosive behaviour is often linked to 2 year old tantrums and 3-year-old tantrums. At these ages, your child is still learning the correct way to express themselves and may use rage as a way to vent stronger emotions.
Try to find a quiet place to allow your child to calm down. There is no point trying to proactively discipline, negotiate or distract your child when they are being extremely aggressive, abusive or violent.
It’s more effective to let them calm down in a safe and quiet environment first and then once they are more settled re-engage in fixing the behaviour.
With so many big emotions colliding together they won’t see sense until they have cooled down first.
Once they are in a better state, remember to explain to them what the appropriate way to express themselves is. Also, remind them to apologise and then let them know that any more aggressive outbursts may result in harsher consequences.
5. Ignoring tantrums
It’s not uncommon for parents to ignore tantrums. Although it is important that children learn the correct way to get attention, you must remember that ignoring tantrums altogether will have a severe effect on your child’s behaviour.
If you’ve ignored tantrums without trying to rectify the cause of them in the past then as your child gets older the tantrums and mini meltdowns may get a lot worse.
Toddlers display their frustrations by venting emotions through tantrums. They are not able to express themselves sufficiently with words so lean towards physical action and aggression to show you how they feel and what they want.
Older children have developed the basic vocabulary necessary to express what they want and how they want it. Therefore a tantrum usually isn’t linked to frustrations with language but with something else.
Don’t ignore the tantrum, instead ignore the plea for attention and try to find the route cause of the reason behind it. By ignoring your child you may be fuelling the fire and contributing to more defiant behaviour as they get older.
Ignoring tantrums example
For example, you are in the kitchen cooking dinner and your toddler is screaming and fussing as they can’t find their favourite teddy bear. Your first instinct may be to just ignore the tantrum. You can’t stop what you are doing and look, but you can tackle the issue head-on.
The tantrum is probably not just about the lost toy, it’s more likely due to your child being hungry and wanting your attention so they can eat dinner.
Here you must explain what is happening and why you are unable to help.
“Sweetie, I understand you are upset and maybe a bit hungry. Mummy can’t find teddy right now as I am busy cooking dinner. But as soon as I’m finished I will help find him and we can all sit down together to eat dinner. I’m making your favourite tonight!”
Remember, by ignoring the tantrum you are only making the craving for attention worst.
How To Discipline A Toddler: Other Factors
1. Too Many Rules
It’s not uncommon for parents to put too much pressure on their children, even from as young as 1 or 2. Many parents have unrealistic expectations for their children and too often compare their child’s developmental progress with other children.
Remember, not all children develop at the same time and in the same way as others. While comparing small attributes is trivial, caution should be taken when comparing bigger differences (like speech, mobility, potty training)
Putting too much pressure on your child to learn in a particular way will usually lead to tensions. Each child is different and some need more care and attention to progress whilst others need less.
It’s very normal for a toddler who is struggling with basic memory or basic literacy (ABC’s) to be more advanced in other areas like play, sleep or comprehension.
Conversely, a child who is very smart with literacy may find it hard to socialise with other kids.
Pushing your child too hard in any direction is disadvantageous and may cause future behavioural problems. Try to encourage your child to take part in a variety of activities and then push the ones that they naturally take an interest in.
2. Severe Stress or Emotional Strain
Many children go through severe stress from a big life change or life event. If you’ve had a significant life change or severe emotional experience recently, you will need to be very cautious when learning how to discipline a toddler.
Examples of this include:
Death in the immediate family
A recent Divorce,
A Particular harsh sickness,
Having a new baby
Children use temper tantrums and disruptive behaviour as a coping method to handle bigger emotions. If your child has suffered a big emotional experience, they may lash out at others around them as a defence mechanism to deal with this trauma.
You will need to be more sensitive to their needs and provide a disciplinary framework that supports this vulnerability. You will also need to be more patient and more empathetic as your child needs more help to handle bigger emotions.
Try to keep track of any big environmental changes that have happened and keep a close eye on your child’s behaviour to see if there is a direct or indirect connection. Sometimes you’ll find disruptive behaviour started as soon as a new baby arrived and it has not been addressed correctly yet.
3. Creating Boundaries
Learning how to discipline a toddler can be difficult to master. On the one hand, you need firm boundaries and a positive framework to follow. But on the other hand, you need to promote independence and give your toddler enough freedom to experience the world in a safe and natural way.
Nonetheless, if you don’t provide enough boundaries your child can act out and show defiance or oppositional behaviour to highlight they need more structure.
This can be particularly important when faced with a strong-willed child who pushes your buttons and wants more independence.
Children need a framework that they can depend on. This helps them to understand what activities are going to happen and in what time frame.
By not providing your child with clear boundaries or giving them too much freedom to set their own rules you, leave yourself exposed to disruptive behaviour as your child fights to feel safe.
For example, if you let your child set their own bedtime or dont enforcing the one you have, you’ll find problems will occur.
Remember, If your toddler doesn’t go to sleep on time they will be more exhausted and feel more restless once they are awake.
Instead, find a suitable time that gives them a framework to work with. If it’s 8 pm but on Friday night you’ve been busy and missed the bedtime deadline by 10 – 15 minutes then don’t beat yourself up.
Being flexible, when it’s reasonable, is a smart way to keep your toddler onside and will help to promote a more suitable framework for your toddler. This will allow them to feel safe and secure as you constantly adjust their boundaries based on their behaviour.
4. The United Discipline Approach
Many toddlers will play their parents off each other so it’s important you keep a united front and have the same disciplinary structure.
Problems occur when one parent has a more lenient or more rigid parenting regime and there isn’t consistency and unity.
Here, you’ll find your child feeling disgruntled and outraged with the conflicting approach.
For example, you are in the middle of making dinner and your child is a bit hungry. They ask you for a cookie, but you know they can wait and if they are really that hugry they can eat something healthy (like cucumber or a carrot sticks)
If they turn around and ask daddy, who, on the first attempt just gives in and goes to cookie jar you’ll be setting confused rules.
It’s vital that both parents show a united front and stick a previously agreed disciplinary program.
Remember teamwork is a proactive way to avoid temper tantrums, disruption and disobedience from happening in the first place.
How To Discipline A Toddler: Mental Health
Any successful discipline framework needs to be adaptable. This is more so if your child suffers from a mental health condition.
It’s becoming more common for children of all ages to suffer from serious mental health conditions. If you suspect your child to suffer from a particular disorder then getting a diagnosis from a professional paediatrician is recommend.
1. Sensory Overload (autism)
Some children suffer from a sensory overload condition. Autism is an example of a clinical condition that a lot children suffer from.
Children who suffer from autism or an autism-related condition struggle to concentrate due to hyper (extreme sensitivity) or hypo (low) sensitivity. Here their senses seem to be working in overdrive or they do have difficulty working correctly altogether.
If this is the case, your child will struggle with day to day activities leading to fear, anger and resentment. This, in turn, will explain very aggressive temper tantrums and will be crucial in your efforts to learn how to discipline a toddler.
2. Sensitivity and Stimulus Factors
Some children just need to cry and shed tears more than others. These children need more time to express and effectively vent their emotions.
Your toddlers day to day life could be more eventful than other children’s. This increased pressure can cause stress leading to more confusion, fear and anger.
Having a very sensitive child is not uncommon and means you will need to pay more attention to their environment, social life and general daily activities to limit too many negative triggers.
Examples of overly sensitive children are those that are especially overwhelmed by:
Big Spaces or Big Buildings
Loud noises like Dogs or sirens
New activities (riding bikes, playing an instrument etc)
Developmental challenges (Telling Time, tying shoes etc)
If your child is particularly sensitive to their environments then they may need more freedom to let off steam and vent their emotions in a safe place.
3. Undiagnosed Learning Disorders
Many children who start nursery or preschool have learning difficulties and the most common is dyslexia. Here your child may have problems with reading, writing and spelling everyday words. It’s very common among children and can affect different children at different times.
If your child has a learning disorder (ADHD, APD) then they will feel misrepresented at school and home leading to fear, anger and loneliness in their condition.
Learning how to discipline your toddler takes a great deal of care and attention. It’s time-consuming and often very repetitive and can sometimes feel very frustrating and slightly overwhelming.
Hopefully with the tips and strategies above you can put your mind at ease as you deploy proactive parenting and put it to your advantage.
A great aim is to create a rigid discipline framework that leaves some room for flexibility allowing your toddler to learn, explore and grow within it.