I was the world’s greatest parent before I had kids. I knew exactly what to do in every situation, and I couldn’t understand why more parents couldn’t keep it together to prevent their toddlers from having public tantrums. Then, I had a baby who learned how to walk and talk and defy me; he became a toddler, and my world was never the same. My simple solutions weren’t so simple anymore, and I found that this little person required more energy than I had given anything in my entire life.
I now have four children and a lot more experience with toddler behavior. My perspective on disciplining a toddler has shifted dramatically. In the beginning, I was focused more on punishment, the act of stopping the immediate behavior in its tracks. And while this produced results in the short term, my toddler kept repeating the offenses, much to my dismay. But when I started focusing on discipline as guidance rather than punishment, things changed.
The purpose of discipline is to disciple, to teach your child the ways in which he should live. So while certain actions require an immediate punishment, like touching a hot stove or hitting a sibling, the overall acts of discipline require a long-term focus. And when I started to remind myself that every interaction with my toddler was helping to shape him into the person he would one day become, it eased my frustrations and gave me a better outlook.
Yes, I still deal with tantrums and regularly hear “no,” but these tips for disciplining a toddler have given me confidence to keep doing the right thing, even when I want to give up and give myself a time out for the rest of the day.
Maintain a Routine
I am a big believer in routine. From the moment my oldest child entered the world, I established a rhythm for our daily life. As infants, my children would eat, play and then sleep, which regulated their bodies and helped them get enough food and rest. My oldest is now eight, and we still have regular times for homework, meals, stories and play. My children know what to expect each day, so there’s a lot less whining and complaining over getting to do certain activities. Since a regular schedule is all they’ve ever known, I don’t have to constantly fight with them over little things like brushing their teeth or bedtime.
Children give us a lot of joy, but that’s easy to forget in the midst of a toddler temper tantrum! And while negative behaviors must be addressed, focusing on all of the things your child does right not only makes him proud of himself, it changes the whole tone of the house. Offer verbal praise when you “catch” your toddler doing something right and watch the smile that comes over her face. To encourage a consistent behavior, offer a small reward such as a sticker chart that can be filled up and then traded in for a small prize.
My five-year-old still talks about his “LEGO jar” from when he was potty training. My husband took him to the toy store and let him pick out a LEGO set he wanted. Each time he used the potty, he was allowed to put one LEGO piece from the set into the jar. By the time the jar was full, he had learned to use the potty consistently and was rewarded with getting to finally assemble his cherished toy.
Model Good Behavior
Toddlers are forever imitating the world around them, even when we wish they wouldn’t. We’ve all seen or experienced a child imitating his parent’s “colorful” language or other less-than-flattering behavior. My toddlers have been like little mirrors, showing me all of the flaws in my actions and speech. This made me quickly realize that if I wanted my children to have good manners and behavior, then they would need to see it from me first.
One of the most gratifying parenting experiences I’ve had came when my oldest was three. I used to work in retail, and I know how thankless the job of a cashier can be, so I always go out of my way to be polite when checking out at a store. One day, as we were leaving the checkout, my son said, “Thanks a lot. Have a great day.” He had heard me say it so many times that it was second nature to him.
Establish Clear Consequences
If you regularly give your toddler empty threats, you may as well turn him loose in your home now. Toddlers are experts at testing just how far they can push their parents, and they know if they’re serious about what they say. If you’re constantly telling your child that there will be a consequence for an action but don’t follow through, he will learn that he can continue his bad behavior without reprimand. The old saying “give him and inch and he’ll take a mile” was probably written about a toddler.
Conversely, if you are serious about what you say, name a consequence and then follow through, your toddler will quickly learn that he needs to listen and obey or face something unpleasant. All kids act out sometimes, but those who know there’s trouble ahead think twice before doing it again.
Let the Consequence Fit the Offense
Parenting a toddler requires an abundance of patience and creativity; unfortunately, there’s no manual on how to go about it. I grew up in a household where spanking was the norm, no matter the offense. While it was a consistent consequence, it didn’t get to the root cause of my negative actions. And it was especially ironic to be spanked for hitting my sister.
Now, I try to make sure my consequences fit the offending action. My husband and I approach our children’s actions as a lesson in stewardship. If you take care of what you have, you can continue to use it. If you cannot, it gets taken away. This works for toys, art supplies and even food. Not only does taking away the item stop the negative behavior immediately, it sends a clear message to your toddler: when you don’t follow the rules, the fun stops. Period.
Consistency may very well be the most difficult task in all of parenting. There are days when I’m so tired, busy or frustrated, that I would rather give in than drag myself through another disciplining session. Yet just as establishing a clear routine models what your toddler should do each day, being consistent with consequences gives your child security in knowing that there are rules that need to be followed. Even though a toddler probably doesn’t like the consequences, knowing that they’re always there ironically provides comfort. Toddlers like order and knowing what to expect, and consistent discipline is a big part of that.
Remove Your Toddler From the Situation
Sometimes a time out is the best form of discipline. Toddlers are very tangible people, living in the here and now. So when you remove them from a situation, it forces them to stop their bad behavior by putting them in a restricted environment. We have a specific “time out chair” in our home, and my kids know to go sit in it when they’re placed in time out. They also know that I will not converse with them until they’ve calmed down and can talk things through with me. This has resulted in my three-year-old sitting in the chair until I hear, “I’m calm now, Mommy.” Not only is he more self-aware, he knows that when we talk, it should be in a peaceful manner.
Offer a Nap
Many parents stop naptime entirely too early in their toddler’s life. Just because your toddler resists going to sleep, doesn’t mean he can manage a full day without a nap. We always have quiet time in the afternoon at our house, and my kids have napped up until age five. Even when they didn’t want to nap, I still required them to lounge in bed and look at books quietly, which often resulted in them falling asleep.
Getting regular rest is essential to a toddler’s well-being and can do wonders for her behavior. When children are sleep-deprived, they’re cranky, irritable and much more likely to act out. By requiring your child to have downtime, you’re not only giving him the rest he needs, you’re helping him set healthy boundaries for later on in life.
Keep Extra Snacks With You
Nothing brings out the beast in a child like hunger and thirst. Toddlers have tiny tummies, so they need smaller, more frequent meals and snacks. Trying to squeeze in one more errand before lunchtime is practically asking for a meltdown in the middle of the store. Young children do not always have the vocabulary to express when they’re feeling hungry or thirsty, and by the time it’s apparent, you’ve probably already entered into a tantrum or heavy dose of whining. Keep healthy snacks and a bottle of water with you to make sure low blood sugar doesn’t bring out your child’s inner ogre.
Require an Apology
Toddlers have short attention spans, so by the time they’ve finished a time out, they may have actually forgotten the offense that put them there. Talking through what they did wrong helps them remember not to do it again. I always require my kids to apologize after their consequence, to me or to the person they’ve offended (usually a sibling).
However, I noticed that my three-year-old continually gave the same apology (“I’m sorry for screaming and yelling.”), which made me realize that he wasn’t thinking about what he had done, and many times couldn’t remember. Now, I require all of my kids to not only say, “I’m sorry,” but also tell specifically what they’re sorry for. This forces them to reflect on what they did wrong so hopefully they’ll think twice before doing it again.
Talk About the Rules on a Regular Basis
If you have a toddler, you probably get asked the same questions over and over again until you want to run down the street screaming. You’ve probably also been forced to read the same stories, listen to the same songs and watch the same movies for what feels like hundreds of times. This is because young children need to talk about the same things over and over again before they’re hard-wired into their brains. The same goes for the house rules.
Toddlers are so busy exploring their world, many times they forget to do the right thing or don’t even realize they’re doing anything wrong. But when you take time out to regularly talk about the rules in your home, they’ll start to catch on. Choose times when your toddler is engaging in positive behaviors to talk. Bring it up in conversation or point out when you see others following or breaking your house rules. Stories, television shows and movies can all serve as great conversation starters and reinforce your values (“That boy is doing a great job sharing his ball.”). Your toddler wants to build a relationship with you through talking, and these little conversations help reinforce that desire.
Managing meltdowns and toddler tantrums is no easy job, but if you keep at it, the benefits are well worth it! Use these tips to discipline your toddler and help her grow into the kind of person you’d want to one day be friends with. These early stages will pass, but the lessons you impart now will stay with her in the years to come.
For more, read:
How To Give a Successful Time Out
How To Get Your Kids to Clean Up After Themselves
How To Teach Kids To Be Thankful