Feature Archive

7 Secrets of Toddler Discipline

Experts share discipline tactics that can help make life easier for you and your toddler.

By Stephanie Watson
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

How many parents have found themselves in deep negotiation with their 2-year-old over whether she can wear her princess costume to preschool for the fifth day in a row? What parent has not, at one time or another, taken a "walk of shame" out of the local supermarket after their toddler threw a temper tantrum on the floor?

Toddlerhood is a particularly vexing time for parents because this is the age at which children start to become more independent and discover themselves as individuals. Yet they still have a limited ability to communicate and reason.

"They understand that their actions matter -- they can make things happen," says Claire Lerner, LCSW-C, child development specialist and director of parenting resources for the organization Zero to Three. "This leads them to want to make their imprint on the world and assert themselves in a way they didn't when they were a baby. The problem is they have very little self-control and they're not rational thinkers. It's a very challenging combination."

So how do you deal with a child who screams every time you try to give him or her a bath, and whose vocabulary seems to consist of just one word -- "no"?

Here are a few simple toddler discipline strategies to help make life easier for both you and your child.

Toddler Discipline Secret No. 1: Be Consistent

Order and routine give young children a safe haven from what they view as an overwhelming and unpredictable world, says Lerner. "When there's some predictability and routine, it makes children feel much more safe and secure, and they tend to be much more behaved and calm because they know what to expect."

Try to keep to the same schedule every day. That means having consistent nap times, mealtimes, and bedtimes, as well as times when your toddler is free to just run around and have fun.

When you do have to make a change, it helps to warn your child in advance. Telling your child, "Aunt Jean is going to watch you tonight while Mommy and Daddy go out for a little bit" will prepare her for a slightly different routine, and will hopefully prevent a scene at bedtime.

Consistency is also important when it comes to discipline. When you say "no hitting" the first time your child smacks another child on the playground, you also need to say "no hitting" the second, third, and fourth times your child does it.

Toddler Discipline Secret No. 2: Avoid Stressful Situations

By the time children reach the toddler stage, you've spent enough time with them to know their triggers. The most common ones are hunger, sleepiness, and quick changes of venue. With a little advance planning, you can avoid these potential meltdown scenarios and keep things relatively calm.

"You have to anticipate, which means you don't go to the grocery store when your child needs a nap," says Lisa Asta, MD, a pediatrician in Walnut Creek, Calif., and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco.

Try to make sure your child is home at naptimes, bedtimes, and mealtimes. If you are out, always keep food on hand in case of a sudden hunger attack. Keep excursions short (that means finding another restaurant if the one you've chosen has an hour-long wait, or doing your grocery shopping at times when the lines are shortest). Finally, plan ahead so you don't have to rush (particularly when you need to get your child to preschool and yourself to work in the mornings).

You can ease transitions by involving your child in the process. That can be as simple as setting an egg timer for five minutes, and saying that when it rings it's time to take a bath or get dressed, or giving your child a choice of whether to wear the red shirt or the blue shirt to school.

Toddler Discipline Secret No. 3: Think Like a Toddler

Toddlers aren't mini-adults. They have trouble understanding many of the things we take for granted, like how to follow directions and behave appropriately. Seeing the scenario from a toddler's perspective can help prevent a tantrum.

"You might say, 'I know, Derek, you don't like getting into the car seat...but it's what we have to do,'" Lerner explains. "So you're not coddling, but you're validating their feelings. You have to set the limit, but you do it in a way that respects the child and you use it as an opportunity to help them learn to cope with life's frustrations and rules and regulations."