How to discipline a toddler: 9 expert-backed methods that work

April 15, 2021

As adorable as toddlers are, their behavior can sometimes feel like the opposite. The tantrums, the flagrant disregard for directions, the needing to do everything “by myself.” It’s enough to drive any parent or caregiver crazy! Here’s a hot tip, though: The maddening behavior? Totally normal.

“Toddlers are just now learning to be their own people,” explains Tovah Klein, who holds her doctorate in clinical and developmental psychology and is the director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of “How Toddlers Thrive.” “To figure that out, they test rules, limits and boundaries to see who is in charge and how everything works. They’re not being bad; they’re learning how to interact with people.” 

While there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to toddler discipline, Klein advises taking a positive approach, no matter your tactic. “Positive discipline is based in child development and helps children learn to regulate and move forward over time,” she explains. “It recognizes that toddlers are learning — about themselves and how to interact and behave in the world. They may not always behave in a way you like, but it’s a parent's and caregiver's role to support and guide them — not punish or shame them, which may work in the moment, but winds up making fear the basis of development.”

Wondering how to lovingly discipline a toddler in a way that works? Here are nine expert-backed techniques. 

1. Adopt "You hit, you sit" 

Without a doubt, hitting (or biting) is one of the most upsetting toddler behaviors — and while it shouldn’t be taken personally (in addition to lacking communication skills, toddlers don’t yet understand everyone’s feelings), it shouldn’t be tolerated. A solution? You hit, you sit. 

“When your child whacks a sibling, act fast,” says Sharon Silver, founder of Proactive Parenting and author of “Stop Reacting and Start Responding: 108 Ways to Transform Behavior into Learning Moments.” “No need to raise your voice or put them in timeout. Instead, place them on your lap, encircle them lovingly and say: ‘Uh-oh! You hit, you sit.’ Count between three to five seconds, and then say: ‘Now let’s try that again.’”

According to Silver, this reaction models calm behavior while stopping the hitting and teaching your child that it’s not OK. 

2. Use redirection 

All day toddlers are told what to do and how to do it, so using redirection — instead of just saying “stop that!” — shows them what they can do. 

“Redirection is great because toddlers’ worlds are full of ‘nos’ and ‘can’ts,’” says Annelise Cunningham, clinical psychologist and neonatal intensive care unit neurodevelopmental assessment and infant mental health postdoctoral fellow at Lurie Children’s Little Ones program in Chicago. “So, instead of saying ‘stop running!’ say ‘show me your quiet feet’ or ‘I wonder how quietly you can walk.’” 

Cunningham even suggests making a list of things your kids can do in lieu of unwanted behavior ahead of time, so you always have something ready. 

3. Set limits 

According to Klein, clear limits and routines are the best approach to curbing unwanted toddler behavior — and luckily, they can be put into place before you want to pull your hair out. “Toddlers do well when there is consistency and predictability in their lives, such as regular bedtimes and meals and rules that go along with these things,” Klein notes. “I see limits as discipline, and there’s no punishment needed.” As an example, Klein explains that if a toddler begins throwing food at dinner, simply respond with: "I see you are done eating. I'll put your plate away, and you are done."  

“It’s a clear — not angry — limit,” she says. “When parents use lightness and clarity, children respond.” And once you find a system that works for your child, stick with it. While no one rule or limit will work universally, consistency is always key. “Try tactics a few times to see if they’re going to work,” Cunningham says. “Your child will give you the data you need. And once you find something they respond to, be consistent.”

4. Practice planned ignoring 

When a toddler is engaging in obnoxious (but not dangerous) behavior, such as kicking a toy, in order to get your attention, it’s OK to not pay it much mind. However, there are a couple things to remember. “Planned ignoring is the specific, consistent ignoring of certain behaviors while still being emotionally available,” Cunningham explains. “If your child is kicking a toy, simply say: ‘I can see you’re having a hard time right now, but we don’t kick toys in our house. I’m going to go make dinner.’ When the kicking stops, be sure to follow up with emotional connection.”

5. Model good behavior

“Toddlers are testing the waters to see what’s allowed and what’s not, but they don’t have a good sense for consequences,” explains Dr. Brandon Smith, general academic pediatrics fellow in the Department of Pediatrics at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. “The best discipline is to get ahead of their actions and model what they should be doing in a positive way. Show them what is allowed and what behaviors are expected, so that they begin to learn those and act like you.”

And while you’re at it, take notice when they’re killing it in the behavior department. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends praising your child when they do something good, not just letting them know when they do something naughty. And instead of using the all-encompassing “good job,” be specific with your words. For instance, say, “Nice job sharing your toy with your sister!”

6. Try time in 

Instead of timeout, try time in. “When you put a toddler in timeout, you’re essentially saying: ‘You’re having a hard time right now. Go be by yourself.’ That’s the opposite of what they need,” Cunningham says. “There obviously are scenarios where removing a child from a situation is helpful, such as aggressive behavior at a birthday party, but even then, it’s important to follow up with reconnecting and talking about things.”

When toddlers are behaving in a way that feels like it warrants a traditional timeout, Cunningham advises snuggling up and trying to talk about things. “Keep things developmentally appropriate, but in general, be there for them,” she says. “Parents underestimate their power. You being who you are [as their parent] is enough.”

7. Choose your battles 

If you’re going to try to address every transgression from your toddler, you’re going to drive yourself — and your toddler — crazy; so choose your battles. “Parents’  relationships with their child should be healthy, positive ones, so it’s important for them to think about what is important and what is truly needed to show children ‘that’s not OK,’” says Smith. “Allow toddlers to be their natural explorer-selves while drawing the lines on the map that they can’t cross.”

8. Give alternatives 

Similar to redirection, giving toddlers alternatives provides them with a new action, instead of just telling them “no.” “In response to a child throwing toys, a parent could say: ‘I can't let you throw this. It could break. Here is a softer toy you can throw right into this bucket!’” Klein notes. “The response works with the child to guide them to more appropriate behaviors. Giving alternatives (a pillow to pound when upset) and labeling feelings can help a child learn how to handle negative feelings, which is what generally underlies 'misbehavior.'”

9. Above all, make sure you have a secure attachment 

You can have an arsenal of toddler discipline techniques, but ultimately, the thing that affects behavior most is the parent’s and/or caregiver’s relationship with the child. “Kids thrive off of positive experiences with their parents and caregivers,” Cunningham says. “Small, saturated chunks of time, where you’re just delighting in the child and not telling them what to do helps them feel safe and shows them how to navigate the world, which, ultimately, will be reflected in their behavior.”

Also, keep in mind, kids can pick up on what you’re feeling, so if you’re feeling rushed to squeeze in quality time, they’ll notice. “You’d be surprised where you can get in time with your child, where you’re not being passive or directing them,” Cunningham adds. “It can be in the bath or going about their bedtime routine differently. Whatever the scenario, be in the interaction with your child. The more naturally occurring it is, the more success you’ll have.”

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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