How to Discipline a Toddler
You are not alone.
When I am fielding questions from my Facebook group or working with a new client, there is one question that I get asked more than any other question:
Is it okay to flush my two year old down the toilet?
My answer is definitely, no - they are much too big for the plumbing.
I’m kidding. But I think that most parents can identify with the sentiment. Whether your child is a teen or a toddler, we all have moments (myself included) when this parenting gig is too much, too soon, and I would much rather be on a beach in Baja.
Most of the questions parents come to me with involve discipline. Everyone wants to know the “best” way to discipline their child, and I totally get it. Trying to help a new tiny human understand their limitations and your expectations - all in the confines of a small (but growing) vocabulary - can be a really tough job. Even still, most parents intuitively know that boundaries and limitations are the most valuable thing we can give a child, and they want to do their duty with as little pain as possible!
If you want to know even more about how you can use structure, routines, and rules to build your baby’s brain, you should take my // Intro to Parenting eCourse //.
I love helping parents love boundaries.
No matter what folks might say or how Hollywood might be trending, boundaries will always be super important to the healthy development of any child. Even if the limits you set initially cause anger and friction, they are still absolutely worth it.
Let’s consider a few tips (and one book recommendation) to make discipline less dramatic, and more effective.
HOW TO DISCIPLINE A TODDLER:
>> TIP 1 - You should never reach a place where your children don’t test their boundaries.
You heard me. Let’s go ahead and make sure our goals and expectations are reasonable. You are welcome to expect less drama when you discipline, but healthy children in secure attachment relationships WILL + SHOULD test their boundaries.
They do this because they feel safe to explore and they trust that their base (you) will ultimately choose to be a loving presence.
It is normal and healthy for a child to be angry and express anger at his parents. If you have done a good job communicating that your family can survive big emotions without running away, being destroyed, or becoming punitive, then your child will likely use the safety of your relationship to explore anger or even aggression.
Your goal should not be to eliminate anger, but to come alongside and find healthy forms of expression.
>> TIP 2 - You really can be nurturing, respectful, and also have clear consistent boundaries.
Okay, so this isn’t really a tip so much as a piece of encouragement. This wouldn’t be A Friendly Affair if I didn’t try and remind you, right from the jump, that better parenting and more love really is possible and right around the corner. It might be hard work but your relationship with your child is ALWAYS worth fighting hard for.
I love that you’re reading this and wondering how you can be better - you’re on the right track. Discipline with less drama and more success really is possible.
>> TIP 3 - Think again about consequences.
For most parents, their go-to discipline is some kind of immediate consequence: time-out, spanking, or taking away a privilege. So you may be surprised to learn that the research is pretty clear (and getting more so with every passing year) that immediately defaulting to a consequence or a reward is actually counterproductive. Sometimes consequences are necessary and important, but think through it first.
Your first step should be to “connect and redirect,” say child specialists, Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson (2016). The first step in effective discipline is emotional connection. We begin managing behavior with the intention that no matter our action, everything we do communicates the full force of our deep love and support for them. Whether we are allowing their behavior or not, we always respect our children enough to listen to them, pay attention to them, value their ideas about problem solving, and clearly communicate that we are on their side.
Only after we have done this, and ensure that a nest of security has been established, do we institute consequences. Connect, find out what is going on with your little person...but DON'T MISS THE NEXT TIP...
>> TIP 4 - Connection isn’t the same as permission.
Just because you are respecting your child and listening to their feelings/experience, doesn’t mean that you’re going to let them do whatever they want. Truthfully, one of the most loving things you can do for your children is create clear and consistent boundaries, a predictable structure, and high expectations for their behavior. And that will include consequences.
I believe this with my whole heart and mind. So, my husband and I work really hard (with varying degrees of success) to help our parents understand our structure so that they too can be consistent. Discipline is really hard for some people, and sometimes grandparents think they are off the hook. Wrong! If a grandparent sees your child regularly, then being inconsistent is ultimately unloving and selfish. Inconsistency of expectation, discipline, and limitations across caregivers can cause insecurity and pain in children. No matter how good it might feel to be permissive or to never implement consequences, indulgence is not the best way to connect with your child in a meaningful way.
>> TIP 5 - Be consistent.
Most parents think they are being consistent, but after a little digging, we usually find major inconsistencies across caregivers and caregiving environments. If you have rules, expectations, or certain structures and routines - do the work to teach the other caregivers and get everyone on board. That includes both the parents!
Referencing Tip 4, sometimes people are inconsistent and permissive because they think it is loving, but it helps to remind everyone: inconsistency is unloving and it causes pain by creating insecurity, doubt, and extending a painful learning period.
If you don’t think a new boundary is a painful affront to a toddler, you aren’t from this planet. They can get through this difficult realization more quickly, and they can swiftly come to a place of joy, through consistency from ALL CAREGIVERS.
>> TIP 6 - Stick with the kid even when it Is hard.
Discipline and limits are hard for any of us. Now imagine that you don’t know the laws of human safety, nutrition, or even gravity and you are having to learn it all constantly and really quickly. Now imagine doing all that while someone yells at you. A lot of times parents discipline and reprimand their child then ask that the child remove themselves from the room. This subtly communicates that you only want to be with your child when they are happy. Plus, it leaves them learning to deal with anger and frustration by themselves, upset and alone.
When you put down firm limits that hurt, join with your kids to help them cope. You may say something like, “I know this is a really hard thing to understand. I am not going to change my mind, but I will be right here to help you deal with the tough feelings you’re having.” You might even share a personal story of how you learned this same lesson.
>> TIP 7 - Involve your child in the discipline
You’d be surprised at what kind of solutions kids can come up with to resolve with their own behavior problems! Showing interest in what they think would be the best solution is a smart way to respect your kids. If you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, they might feel that way too. Asking them what they think is a great way to get both of you feeling better.
>> Wrapping it Up
You may have come to this post hoping for an easy 1-2-3 plan to zero drama. My tips might seem more informative than actionable. It may be true that the insight AFA supplies is super info-heavy, but for the sake of honesty, information and support (rather than instruction) really is the best way to dole out advice about toddler discipline.
I can’t tell you where to put your “time out spot,” whether to count or not, or what reward will work best. The truth is: any mom-blogger that gives universal, actionable directives for handling all behavior problems is probably inadvertently misleading you a bit. Every child is different, every situation is different, and discipline is rarely easy. My approach is to help you know more about the universal truths of child development and human relationship so that you have something to build upon. Understanding the fundamental truths about your child’s needs, will help you innovate smart, effective solutions in your unique situation.
If you are at the end of your rope and need more help, you can either contact me for some paid consultation (I love working with families), take one of my parenting courses, or you can read “No Drama Discipline” by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. Dan and Tina are two of the brightest minds in parenting research and support.
>> PARENTING QUIZ COMING SOON <<
Wondering where you fall on the spectrum of rigid to permissive to “just right” parenting? I hope so! Luckily, I have a Parenting Personality Quiz just for you! Knowing your parenting style might help you adjust to the realities of your family’s needs. If your instincts are permissive to hands off, someone else in the family might be carrying the weight of your resignation. Or maybe you could be less rigid and have a little more tenderness? Who knows! Take my parenting personality quiz and determine if you can make some intentional adjustments and easily become more effective!
If you have a toddler, I recommend taking my Fundamental Needs of Children course. Now that you know your parenting style (you took the quiz right?), it is time to let me show you how you can use your unique strengths to meet the most basic needs of your children well. Do that, and discipline will become easier, connection will be more fulfilling, and you’ll be the responsive, smart parent that you want to be!