6 Tips for How to Discipline a Toddler

July 16, 2015

Your toddler doesn't listen to you and it's making you crazy! What should you do? Some discipline techniques are more effective than others. Learn what works and what doesn't work with toddlers.

Your toddler understands "No-No," but does he understand and respond to discipline?

Toddlers can grasp and learn from some forms of discipline at this developmental stage, experts say. The trick is for you to understand how to discipline a toddler in ways that are effective versus not effective.

Here are six tips to keep in mind:

  1. Connect Before You Correct
    It's important to make a connection with your toddler before you can correct behavior, says Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist, founder of Aha! Parenting and author of "Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings."

    To handle a child's misbehavior, she advises, "Go to her when you're calm and make a physical connection by putting your arm around her. This cuts through everyone's rage and shows you're a nurturing mommy. Empathize by saying, "Wow, you were really mad, huh?!" See whether your child can tell you why she misbehaved. If not, tell her it's OK. Comfort her. Rise above your own anger.

    Tell her it's never OK to do what she did, but tell her you love her no matter what. Then ask her what she could do next time or give her alternative actions. Act out more suitable ways to behave.
  2. Be Your Child's Role Model
    "Children learn everything by watching -- their little eagle eyes miss nothing," says Dr. Pete Stavinoha, a co-author of "Stress-Free Discipline" and director of the pediatric neuropsychology service at the Children's Medical Center of Dallas.

    For this reason, he says it is better to show instead of tell. "If you stop at a crosswalk and wait for the signal before crossing, your children will learn to do the same," he says. You can model good behavior in many ways. Cleaning up around the house without complaining is good behavior for your child to learn. Some children imitate you immediately. It might take other children longer.
  3. Head Off Trouble by Redirecting
    "When you see a problem about to start, redirect your child to another activity," says Dr. Stavinoha. This is a great method for toddlers. "If your child can begin redirecting himself, as he gets older, he will be more prepared to avoid many problems of adolescence."
  4. Practice Makes Perfect
    Explain to your toddler that everyone needs to practice things to get them right. "Hold practice sessions for anything, such as a trip to the grocery story, a meal in a restaurant or calming down after a tantrum," says Dr. Stavinoha. Give your full attention without any other children around and rehearse situations. Make practice sessions a fun experience, says Dr. Markham.
  5. Count It Out
    Use a counting, or warning, system. "You can use this starting at 18 months," says Dr. Tom Phelan, a registered clinical psychologist and author of "1-2-3 Magic." Here's how it works: Your daughter wants a cookie before dinner. You say, "No." If she asks again or argues, you say, "That's one." If she keeps it up, you say, "That's two." If the bad behavior continues -- perhaps she calls you a name -- you say, "That's three." "When you get to three, your child gets a time-out rest period or a time-out alternative," says Dr. Phelan. "Toddlers don't understand if.../then... comments, such as, 'If you continue to do this, then you will have a time-out or lose a toy. But if you count, they get it.

    Kids don't stick their finger in a candle twice and get it burned." It might take a week or 10 days for a toddler to understand this method, but your child should soon stop the bad behavior at count one or two.
  6. Avoid Yelling and Spanking
    Yelling and spanking do not increase positive behavior or decrease negative behavior. "When parents get excited and lecture or yell, this does not have a positive effect. It only makes things worse," says Dr. Phelan. "Spanking causes pain. While it interrupts a bad behavior at that moment, psychological research does not support its benefit as a parenting strategy." Dr. Markam agrees.

    "People don't learn while in pain. The only way people learn is when they feel safe," she says. Furthermore, according to Dr. Stavinoha, spanking "can lower your child's self-esteem, academic achievement, peer relationships and conflict resolution."

Above all, as you consider how to discipline a toddler, remember that the point of discipline is education, notes Dr. Stavinoha.

Laura Agadoni is a mom and parenting writer whose articles have appeared in various publications, including Modern Mom, The Penny Hoarder, Tom's of Maine, Global Post and Livestrong.

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

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