Toddlers need discipline. It’s just a fact. But knowing how to discipline them without being mean, is not exactly an easy part of parenting. I’ll lay out some things to try when your toddler misbehaves or acts out, and also some things to try to avoid if you can. But first, stop by the Resource Library and grab your free printable flow chart for how to start disciplining your toddler.
Deciding How To Start Disciplining Your Toddler
Children start to have the ability to understand the word ‘no’ around 6-8 months. But most will not begin to stop what they are doing in response to the word until 12-18 months. The best way to begin is to use the word ‘no’ firmly, but gently. And then redirect them to another activity.
We do this when my 8-month-old daughter tries to go after her favorite things that she can’t have, cords. I tell her ‘no, you can’t have cords. They are dangerous.’ And I pick her up and move her to a safer, cord-free, place and give her one of her favorite toys. This usually works for a few minutes at least.
No matter what you choose to do when it comes to discipline you will want to start it early and be consistent. It doesn’t have to be more than using the words for the first several months. But you want them to be familiar with the words and begin to understand what they mean, even if they don’t do it on their own yet.
Discipline is Hard on Us
There is something that I want you to know. Most of the time, disciplining your toddler is going to be harder on you than it is on them. You are going to feel guilty, and you are going to remember it. Especially if you overreact to a situation.
But kids will push every nerve you have. And then they will push some more. They have to discover the boundaries and learn what they can do. And we need to let them do those things when we can. Making mistakes has to be okay. But they also need to understand that every action has consequences. So allowing your child the chance to make the right choice, but then make the wrong one, is an important part of parenting. And it is a good start to disciplining your toddler.
Just know, that you are not a monster for disciplining your toddler. Your child does not hate you. Temper tantrums are a daily (hourly?) occurrence with toddlers. And that is just fine. You are not doing anything wrong.
How NOT To Discipline Your Toddler
I’m going to be honest. I can’t tell you exactly how to discipline your toddler. Because your child is different from mine. Consider yourself lucky, because mine responds to nothing, HA! Anywho, there are things that make a big impact on one child then do nothing for another. But what I can do, is give you some things to pay attention to that can have a negative effect on your disciplining efforts.
Before I start listing them, I just want to say that I have done almost all of them myself. So if you have too, don’t feel bad. We are a work in progress as parents and we make mistakes too. (Don’t forget to tell your kids that! Being able to say “Mommy made a mistake” can teach your kids it is okay for them to do it too.)
Okay. I yell. Being a stay at home Mom with 2 kids 15 months apart in age has made me yell more than I wish I did. But I know that I want to change it and that is the first step. So if you yell too, don’t worry. I GET IT.
You screaming at your kids has no actual effect on your child’s behavior. With the exception of teaching them that it is okay for them to do it too. Do your best not to yell at your toddler as your method of discipline. I know mine usually just bursts into tears on the floor. Or screams back. *shakes my head in shame*
To begin trying to change that behavior in yourself try to remind yourself, that you don’t want to be yelling. I have actually gotten much better about this since I started to stop and think about the words I am using, the volume I am using them at, and take a deep breath before continuing.
Last thing to realize about yelling to discipline your toddler. Yelling has a time and place. If your child is about to do something that will hurt himself or someone else, you want to be able to get their attention now. Yelling will do it. But now, think about how desensitized your toddler is to your yelling because you do it on a daily basis.
If he were about to grab a cup of hot coffee that would spill and burn him off the table, and you yelled to stop him before he got it, would he stop?
You want the answer to be yes. So save yelling for the important times when it is needed.
Offer Empty Threats
This one is simple. Don’t threaten to do something and then not follow through. If you do that your toddler will see a weakness and take advantage. You didn’t do it that time so why would you this time?
If you say that hitting the dog will get him put in time out and he hits the dog, then you need to put him in time out.
If you say that he has to finish his chicken nuggets before he can have french fries and he doesn’t finish his nuggets, he doesn’t get french fries.
You are doing your child a favor by teaching him that you mean what you say. It will stick with them throughout life and they will appreciate it later.
Fail to Set Expectations and Rules
The first time you gave your child a ball to play with, did you tell them not to throw it in the house? Or did you just take it away the first time that they did and say “We don’t throw the ball in the house” assuming they knew?
Okay, so that is kind of an outrageous example. But I hope it made my point clear. If you do not set the rules and communicate them clearly to your child, they can’t possibly follow them.
The same goes for expectations. Back to the chicken nugget example. My son knows that he is supposed to eat his chicken nuggets before he can have french fries. Some days that means he sits down and eats them just fine, then has fries. Other days that means he spends 20 minutes picking at his nuggets and throwing them on the ground while whining for french fries. But on those days, he doesn’t get any fries because he did not meet the expectation.
Most days, he eats well because we have been doing this for almost a year. And he knows the expectation.
Set a Bad Example
If you tell your child not to lie, you should not be lying in front of them. Don’t let them see you call off work because you are ‘sick’ so that you can do something else. It makes it acceptable for them to do it too.
It also makes the discipline your toddler receives seem pointless, unfair, and mean. Of course, there are some things adults can do and toddlers can’t. But at this age, they don’t understand that. And it will only cause a frustrating situation for you and them.
Saying “Why can’t you be more like your cousin Bobby?” is nothing but hurtful to your toddler. To a child, you may as well be saying “I don’t like you how you are. You need to change because you aren’t good enough.”
That’s not what you mean, but it is what a child will hear. So instead, use Bobby as an example. Try saying something like “If you watch Bobby, he gets to eat his french fries because he finished all of his chicken nuggets. If you finish your chicken nuggets, you can have fries too.”
You don’t want to be compared to others, so try not to do it to your kids either.
Give It a Try
The most effective discipline in my house has been timeouts. It works the best when I just pick my son up, and put him in timeout (he gets strapped into a chair in another room without everyone else) without speaking to him. Stop by the Resource Library to get a printable flow chart for this method.
I give him multiple warnings for most things. Some things are immediate. But he knows if I say “last time and you go in timeout.” that I mean it. He will often do it anyway, but he is learning. And he will stop and do something else a lot too.
If you’d like to read more about discipline for your toddler, please check out