How to Discipline a Toddler

Surviving the Toddler Years

The terrible twos are no joking matter. Many moms can tell you surviving the toddler years is a test in endurance. From major meltdowns to constant demands, keeping your toddler in line is challenging. Fortunately, a couple of different approaches can help you see the behavior you want. The approach you take depends on the type and severity of the behavior.

Reasons Behind the Behavior

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Whether your toddler is hitting her sibling or throwing a meltdown in the grocery store, it’s probably pretty normal behavior for her age. As troubling as this behavior is for you as a parent, it’s just as frustrating for your little one.

Toddlers are now old enough to explore their independence and discover their little personalities, but not quite old enough to handle or communicate how they feel about all these new things. They’re eager to explore the boundaries, but they get frustrated when they can’t push those boundaries.

Toddlers also experience many new feelings like pride, shame, guilt and embarrassment. It’s your job to help your little one work through and express these new feelings.

Preventing Meltdowns

One of the most effective approaches when it comes to disciplining your toddler is to prevent any situation where you have to discipline him in the first place.

This age group thrives on routine. Toddlers feel safe when they know what to expect. This means having consistent mealtimes, nap times and bedtimes. If you’re going off the routine, give your little one a warning to prep him for the change.

It’s also important to realize the triggers behind meltdowns. For most toddlers, hunger, sleepiness or a change of routine are the culprits. Try not to be out and about when you know your little guy isn’t 100 percent. If you can’t avoid being out during important times of your toddler’s routine, be prepared. It’s amazing how far a little bowl of Goldfish snacks can go in preventing a temper tantrum.

If your little one does throw a temper tantrum, you can take a few different approaches. Try to talk to him and tell him you understand how he feels and hold him close. If that doesn’t work, ignoring the tantrum might be a better option. Hopefully, he’ll wind down on his own. If he can’t, give him a few minutes, then step in and tell him you’ll help him calm down.

Redirecting Your Toddler

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You probably already know toddlers have short attentions spans, but you may not realize you can use that to your advantage. If your little one keeps repeating the action you’ve asked her not to, pick her up and move her to a different area. Most likely, she’ll quickly forget what she was doing and get busy with some new toys.

Natural Consequences

Another approach that doesn’t require much on your part is letting your little one see the natural consequence of his actions. For example, if he drops food off his high chair tray for the umpteenth time, soon he won’t have any food left. If he keeps tearing down the fort you made, he won’t be able to play in the fort anymore.

Time Outs

Time outs are not always the best approach for the toddler stage, but may be necessary for more serious behaviors like biting or hitting.

Talk to your little one about the behaviors that will result in a time out. Choose a boring, safe spot for the time out. When your toddler misbehaves, explain to her what she did and take her to the time-out spot. If she won’t stay there, hold her there gently and explain that you’re holding her because she needs to stay in time out. Once the time out is over, let your little one get back to whatever she was doing. Don't lecture her after the time out.

A good rule of thumb is one minute of time out for each year of life. So, a two-year-old would get a two-minute time out.

Pick Your Battles

Life with a toddler will be much easier if you learn to pick your battles. Reading the same book 20 times or going to the library dressed as a superhero are battles that may not be worth fighting. On the other hand, getting buckled into the car seat and taking baths aren’t options.

Speaking of options, give your little one some say in certain situations. Maybe you can set out two appropriate outfits and let him choose which one he wants to wear. Offering two healthy snack choices for him to choose from is another area where he can feel like he has some control.

Other Tips

Whatever approach to discipline you choose, be consistent. The more consistent you are, the sooner your toddler understands how she should behave. She won’t be perfect, but she’ll most likely improve.

Talk to your little one about feelings and how to deal with different emotions. A good way to do this is by reading age-appropriate books. “My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss, “Lots of Feelings” by Shelly Rotner and “Grumpy Bird” by Jeremy Tankard are good places to start.

Take time to let your toddler know you understand how he feels and it’s okay to feel that way.

If your toddler has trouble with transitions, setting a timer and giving warnings is helpful. For example, tell her that you have to pick up toys in five minutes and then set a timer. Remind her again at two minutes.

Take time to point out and praise good behaviors to encourage. Parenting toddlers is not for the faint of heart, but this stage will be over before you know it. Along with sometimes trying behaviors, toddlers have many funny quirks. Take the time to enjoy those.