Disciplining toddlers means guiding and training them so that they learn self-control and appropriate behaviour. It can take time to find the best discipline approach for young children.
Discipline means more than just correcting bad behaviour, though that is certainly necessary. It means encouraging good behaviour and building a strong, secure relationship with your toddler or young child. Then they learn to make good choices because they want to do the right thing, rather than simply to avoid punishment.
Toddlers learn best when they feel encouraged and secure. A positive parenting approach is both loving and firm. Toddlers also learn good behaviour during the times you are relaxed and having fun.
For example, when you encourage your children to take turns during a game, they are learning patience, self-control and care for others.
Everything you do teaches your child something. You need to be a good role model. For example, if you want your kid to have good manners, you need to set an example by being polite yourself. Your toddler also learns important lessons from watching how you cope when things go wrong.
Being a toddler
Toddlers are gaining many new skills but they may also feel frustrated when they experience strong emotions but can’t yet explain themselves. This can lead to difficult behaviour like temper tantrums, saying ‘no’ to everything you ask, or even hitting or biting other kids. Anxiety can make them clingy.
How to discipline toddlers
Here are some approaches you can try when your young children misbehave.
- Do your best to stay calm.
- Withhold your attention when they are not behaving as you wish, and give your attention when they are behaving well. Your child craves your attention more than anything else, and this will reinforce the better behaviour.
- Help your toddlers to name their feelings. ‘You seem angry that your turn ended. It’ll be your turn again soon.’
- Remind your children how you expect them to behave and why. ‘We always hold hands when we cross the road because it keeps you safe from cars.’
- If your children do something seriously wrong, get down on their level, look them in the eye and say a short, firm phrase like, ‘No hitting'.
- Avoid humiliating toddlers. If they’ve misbehaved in a group setting, draw them off to one side to talk to them privately.
- Use appropriate and immediate consequences for the worst behaviours. ‘You are not allowed to throw toys. I’m taking that toy away for 10 minutes.'
- You may consider using time out, where you send your child to a different room for a few minutes to calm down alone. If you are not feeling too stressed, it may be better to use time-in, where you stay with your child to help him or her calm down.
- Sometimes a toddler’s misbehaviour can also be funny. If you decide to step in, use a firm voice coupled with a firm expression. Laugh about it later when your toddler isn’t watching.
- Try to work out if there’s an underlying cause for the behaviour. Are they too tired or is something making them anxious?
- Once you’ve addressed your toddler’s behaviour, make sure they know you still love them. Time for a hug!
Smacking: what to do instead
Teaching toddlers the right behaviour should not involve physical punishment, such as slapping, kicking, pinching or forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions.
Smacking is no longer considered a useful discipline tool. Studies show that your toddler might immediately stop doing whatever caused the smack, but might not learn how to change their behaviour for the better. They are also being taught that violence is a solution to a problem. Smacking has been shown to increase unwanted behaviours such as defiance and aggression, and leads to an increased risk of mental health problems in children and also later in their life.
Alternatives to smacking include:
- rewarding good behaviour
- setting clear boundaries
- using logical consequences
- withdrawing privileges
- explaining what your child should do differently when things have calmed down
Dealing with a toddler’s misbehaviour can make you frustrated and angry. If you feel you might harm your child, then put your toddler somewhere safe like their cot, step out of the room, and spend a few minutes calming yourself down before going back to your child.
You can call the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby helpline on 1800 882 436 for parenting advice and strategies. The Raising Children website has a number of articles on toddler behaviour. There may be a positive parenting course running in your area.
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Last reviewed: May 2020