5 Effective Ways to Discipline a Toddler

While most of the time our little bundles of joy can fill our hearts with tremendous happiness, there are definitely some instances when their behaviour can drive us parents crazy. As a toddler or preschooler, your kid may throw a tantrum, act aggressive if their needs are not met or even get violent if they don’t get their way- all of which is quite hard to manage and can surely be distressing.

Why do Toddlers Lash Out?

As toddlers are just beginning to use words to communicate their feelings, they find it easier to use actions instead of words. Kids may feel frustrated when the parent is not responding to what they are trying to communicate – could be a desire to be held longer, needing the favourite teddy bear to accompany them everywhere, or feeling hunger pangs.

Research indicates that lashing out is a critical stage in the growth of children as these episodes can help them understand how to deal with negative emotions; it is equally important for us parents and carers too to use these incidents to become a wiser version of ourselves and handle the situation differently (aka with more maturity and patience) instead of anger. Our natural instinct sometimes could also be to punish the child so that they never repeat the said behaviour.  But is punishment the right approach to take?

Should toddlers be punished for wrong behaviours?

While many parents think that discipline and punishment are the same thing, there is indeed a difference. 

A parent is said to use “discipline” when he/she uses praise, encouragement along with a set of instructions in an assertive tone with the intent of changing the child’s behaviour and moulding it into what’s right. Discipline leads to enhanced and positive parent-child relationships. Punishment on the other hand is detrimental to their growth, as you are using criticism, negative reinforcement, or delivering an unpleasant consequence as a retaliation to your child’s actions.

It's also been noted that until age three and sometimes later, children simply don't understand the concept of punishment. Setting limits is a much better approach than punishment; most children will respond to clear, calm, and decisive limit-setting. 

What are some of the ways to discipline a toddler?

1. Get to the right root cause to identify the right solution- If you see a pattern emerging regarding ‘instances’ when your toddler seems to lose their temper, try to identify the root of the problem:

  • Physical location – Where is the child throwing a tantrum – is at daycare? Home? Playground? A friend’s house – or is it happening in all the locations?
  • Time of the day – Is the behaviour more prevalent at certain times of the day? Close to lunch time or right after reaching day-care centre or close to nap time (as that’s when the child is getting exhausted)?
  • People – Who all are usually around the child when the tantrum begins? Is it a teacher, grandparents, specific friends? Is any of their behaviour or things in their surroundings becoming a trigger?
  • Recent changes – Are there any recent changes to the routine of the child that is making them act out – changes to daycare, separation in the family, change of primary caregivers, moved houses, moved countries? Even little things like change of room, new paint, new furniture, new baby in the house can be stress-inducing triggers for toddlers.
  • No understanding of how to do something – Does your child pull the pet’s ears and feeds it the wrong food. Then it could simply be a matter of showing your child how to pat the pet and show them what drawer or container is the right food been stored in.
  • Once you know the root of the problem, it is much easier to identify ways to solve it for them. So, if the tantrum is happening around lunch time, you know you need to keep a snack ready well in advance and offer it at the first sign of trouble. Or if the family has welcomed a new baby, you need to pay extra attention to your toddler to ensure his/her need for attention is met too.

2. Encourage the child to calm down before you begin the preaching – Imagine a scenario where two adults are fighting and there is a lot of yelling, name-calling and neither of the party is able to understand the other’s point of view because of the chaos. The same thing happens when we are trying to use the ‘meltdown moment’ as a ‘teaching moment’. Unless and until the child has calmed down, no teaching can really take place. It will make you and your toddler feel even more frustrated when you try to do that.  A few minutes after the meltdown has ended, take time out to explain the rights and wrongs to your child and use a previous positive behavior instance to reinforce the right behavior.

An additional approach that works is to catch your child being good - praise your child when he/she is exhibiting good behaviour; this could be in the form of looking after a friend or using the words “please” or “thank you” or even waiting for their turn. The encouragement acts as a reinforcement for the child to continue undertaking the same behaviour and soon this will replace all the pushing/biting/hitting the child would have been attempting earlier.

3. Teach them a safe venting out action - For young kids, parents or carers can teach them certain venting out actions like “jumping up and down 20 times when we are feeling hurt or angry”, or “it’s okay to hit the cushions/pillows” or “we can tear papers kept in this bag until we feel better”.

4. Offer alternatives, not outright dismissals- Toddlers are learning to experiment with new found independence, so it’s important to offer them safe reasonable space to exert the same. Instead of a blanket “NO” to the fizzy drink they are crying for, you can distract them by offering a choice and saying, “do you want your water from the sippy cup or the tumbler”. Or if they want to eat plain rice for the 100th time for lunch, you can ask, “do you want to start today with congee or fish?”

5. Act promptly - Make the child aware of their behaviours and consequences there and then. As soon as the child has calmed down, it is critical to respond immediately to discipline the toddler instead of waiting until the next day or week. The kid won’t remember the wrongdoing after 5 mins of committing it and the consequence talk won’t have the desired effect on him/her.

There are of course several other ways to discipline the kids. But one of the easiest and most effective ways to instil discipline in kids is through role modelling. Children inadvertently learn a lot from their parents’ behaviours. If they see us stay calm and composed under stressful situations, they will follow suit. However, if we yell, curse, blame others or get all panicked at the smallest change of routine or under difficult circumstances, the kids are bound to mimic the same. It is imperative we be good role models for our kids.

However, if despite all the positive reinforcements and discipline tactics, your child seems to be unusually aggressive or uneasy for longer than a few days, and it seems you require professional help, do consult your paediatrician. It will be helpful to jot down the frequency of outburst so that the paediatrician can diagnose more efficiently.