Toddler Discipline

Practical advice for parents of toddlers, from a parent education specialist.

By Kimberly Meehan, Parent Educator

Discipline for toddlers is very difficult. There is certainly no magic formula but it is imperative that you establish the guidelines for behavior in your house as quickly as possible. One of the developmental tasks that toddlers undergo is looking and testing for boundaries. It is important that they clearly know where these boundaries lie. They must also learn that there is consistency in the way that these behaviors are handled when they cross the boundaries. When you first implement structure you can expect ALOT of testing, crying and often an increase in behaviors as they will be testing your resolve.

In my practice I advise parents to discipline only the behaviors that affect the child's safety and drive you absolutely insane. Everything else may be annoying but is probably not necessary to discipline. It is a battle and if you choose to fight it then you must be prepared to win it.

Most people recommend the time out procedure which is one minute in the corner for every year of child life. Toddlers don't usually stay in the corner so it means stopping what you are doing and standing over them with your side or back to them so that they can't engage your facial/body language. Once time out is done in the corner you can remind them what they did wrong in very simple language and then if they do it again (as most toddlers will immediately do upon being released from time out until they have the concept) they go back into the corner. I like giving toddlers 1-2 clear warnings before putting into the corner because they often don't hear or pay attention to what you are saying. However you do it discipline must occur at the time of the action and not an hour or longer after. So if in the store or church be prepared to leave. Remind toddlers of the rules frequently when out on an outing or in the house if necessary.

The best form of discipline with toddlers is redirection - give them something else to do. They usually love helping with household chores and generally will readily go and play with another toy.

I also like using a 1, 2, 3 count system. Many times toddlers take a while to process the direction and the parent is disciplining them too quickly. So I recommend that you give the command and if it is ignored then you can repeat it (example: please put your coat on, if not mommy will help) and then you count VERY slowly. If the toddler starts to come to you then stop the count, You might have to wait a little bit while they check out all the objects between the coat and them but they will get there.

Remember that toddlers tune out a lot so if you are always saying "No", "Don't touch this", "Don't go there", then all they hear is NO. You want to try and give them lots of positive feedback. Examples of positive feedback are to let them know they did a 'nice job following directions' or 'good job playing', with lots of hugs and kisses. Try using other "No" words like stop. You don't need to yell but you do need to put firmness 'don't mess with me' tone in your voice. Always be consistent.

Eating with toddlers is a control issue. They are done most of the major growth and their need for calories is decreasing. When they throw it or don't eat it then take it away. Offer them a healthy snack 1-2 hours later. Most kids will not starve themselves and eat when they are hungry. If you are an adoptive parent worried about their smallness from the orphanage then increase calories without having to increase volumes of food like adding Carnation Instant Breakfast drink to milk, butter, gravies, sugar, honey and the like to rice, potatoes and so on. It may not sound appealing to us but to kids they will eat pretty much everything.

Kimberly Meehan works with the Healthy Steps program out of John Hopkins where the focus is on increasing parent education on the growth and development of children 0-3 in the pediatrician's office.