Remember the goal of disciplining toddlers is to stop disruptive or offensive behaviors, while also teaching a lesson. Effective consequences are never about shaming, blaming or hurting a child. If you’re angry, it’s never the right time to discipline your child. It’s best to wait until you’re calm, and can make good choices for both you and your child.
Young children often don’t understand the consequences of their choices, so it’s up to the adults and caretakers in their lives to teach them. Consider why a child would touch a hot oven if he or she were fully aware of what would happen? Unfortunately, they often learn the hard way. Touching a hot oven has logical consequences—the child gets burned—so incidents like this typically don’t require additional action on the part of the parents. Pointing out the dangers and possible consequences make additional consequences unnecessary.
Children often like to try and push parents’ buttons by testing limits. They will do things to get a reaction out of you, and any reaction you give, whether positive or negative, is giving them attention. Many children thrive off attention, no matter the kind of attention, and it fuels them. When your child is engaging in a negative behavior that is intended to get a reaction out of you, the best thing you can do is ignore it. Reacting will only reinforce the behavior; ignoring negative behaviors can be very effective in stopping it.
Another important thing is to be consistent with your little ones. If you say no to something once, stick to it. If you’re not consistent, children will quickly learn how to ‘break you down’. Being consistent will thwart those attempts. If you give in once, though, be prepared for a meltdown the next time you try to say “No.” It’s OK to empathize with your child, saying something like, “I know it makes you angry when daddy says it’s bedtime, but you need your rest”. Kids like knowing you understand how they feel.
Giving effective commands
Try not to yell. Eventually, kids become immune to yelling and learn how to turn their ears off. Speaking in a firm and calm manner, along with giving effective commands, will increase compliance and help your child respond positively to you.
Here’s how to give an effective instruction:
- Clean up
- Stop jumping
- I can’t stand your screaming
- Stop running
- Please pick up the crayons, then put them in the box.
- Please keep your feet on the floor.
- Speak softer, and tell me what you want.
- Please only run outdoors, not inside the house.
Giving effective commands tells your child exactly what you want them to do. If you’re not specific, it decreases the chances of them following your instructions. Make sure that the instructions you are giving are developmentally appropriate. For example, asking a three-year-old to neatly make up a bed wouldn’t be appropriate.
Praise changes behavior
Praise changes behavior and decreases the need for consequences or discipline. Most children like to please the adults in their lives, and respond well to positive feedback. Focusing on praising appropriate behavior will increase that behavior. Sometimes as parents, we focus more on disruptive or negative behaviors and less on the positives. Here are some ways to effectively praise your child:
- I liked the way you listened the first time I asked you to clean up.
- I love it when you share with your brother.
- You did a great job of trying to clean your room without me asking.
- Thanks for putting your jacket on.
- Thank you for using your indoor voice.
- You were so patient in the grocery store.
- I see that you are working so hard on your school work.
The idea is to praise behaviors you’d like to see more often. Ignoring negative behaviors and praising positive ones will both help your child and improve your relationship with him or her. Remember, giving effective commands makes it clear what you want to see and will improve getting your child to respond positively.
Managing melt downs
Temper tantrums, aka meltdowns, can test anyone’s patience. Toddlers are sometimes prone to tantrums, but, for some children, they can become more problematic. There are children who struggle with emotional regulation, and tantrums are often the result. Going back to the technique of ignoring, sometimes this can be the most powerful way of handling a meltdown. Turn your back, make sure your child is safe and don’t engage the behavior. Do not talk, chastise, or even look at them. Again, make sure your child is safe. After the first few times of you ignoring the tantrum, they will likely decrease.
If your child becomes physically aggressive or dangerous during a tantrum, you should not ignore the behavior. It can be dangerous for your child, others and may increase over time.
We recommend using time out for children who are prone to aggressive tantrums. In the beginning, managing the time out can be challenging, but it does work, if you are consistent and follow this sequence, as follows:
*Important Note: Explain all of this to your child before you have to use it; use of timeout should not come as a surprise.*
- Give your child an effective instruction: “Please get off the floor and stand on your feet.” Give the child five seconds to comply. If after five seconds they don’t, chances are, they are not going to.
- Tell your child that since they didn’t obey, they will have to go to the time out chair. Use these words: “You didn’t do what I asked you to do, so now you’ll have to go to timeout.” That’s all you need to say.
- Gently take your child by the hand and lead them to the timeout chair (make sure it is a sturdy, adult-sized chair)
- Tell your child they must remain in the chair until you say it’s time to get up. Time out should be 3 minutes AND five seconds of silence. So long as 50% of their body is on the chair, it’s okay. If they get off the child completely, stay calm and place them back in the chair.
- While in the timeout chair, do not talk to your child. Do not answer questions. Do not respond to their attempts to get your attention. Stay close by to assure they are safe, but ignore any attempts at attention. You will tell the child when to get up; the child does not determine when time out is completed.
- After your child have been in time out for 3 minutes AND five seconds of silence, go to them and ask if they are ready to listen, clean, behave, or whatever it is that got them in the timeout chair. If they don’t say anything, that means no and you start timeout over again. If they grunt or get up and start doing what you asked, that is compliance and good. Don’t make a big deal out of their compliance—simply say, “Thank you.”
- If getting your child to the timeout chair is difficult, give them a clear choice—You go to the timeout chair or lose (insert privilege). Then attempt to take the child to the timeout chair. If they don’t comply then take away another privilege. Make sure the privileges have meaning to the child and that you are able to follow through with removing the privilege. It’s recommended you remove the privilege for a young child for no more than a day.
If these techniques are challenging or do not help to improve your child’s behavior, you might require the guidance of a mental health professional. Please contact us at The Center for Child Development for additional information on how to help improve your toddler’s behavior.