You're about to learn the best way to discipline a toddler that you'll use at every meltdown, confrontation, and disobedient episode you'll ever encounter for the rest of your toddler's life.
Here's how to raise a calm and considerate toddler starting from right now...
At what age do you start to discipline a toddler?
When it comes to toddlers they need to be 2 years old before they can fully understand the consequences of discipline.
This does not mean that we can let our 1-year-old or 18-month-old toddlers do whatever they want until then!
‘Discipline’ for toddlers is based more on leading your toddler in the right direction rather than disciplining them.
I know it sounds like a strange concept, but hear me out…
I prefer to call child discipline, GUIDANCE.
As ‘discipline’ is all about teaching our toddlers right from wrong and not about punishing them.
By GUIDING them through tough scenarios daily, we will lay the foundations of discipline, self-regulation, appropriate behaviour and love from the day they are born.
Establishing guidelines before your child becomes a toddler will make disciplining much easier. A child that is already used to subtle boundaries will respond far better to discipline than one that has little or no structure in their daily routine.
If unwanted behaviour is escalating, when do you step in to discipline a toddler?
In an ideal world, there are no showdowns, tantrums, meltdowns and screaming matches.
But that simply isn’t the case when raising another human!
It is inevitable that there will be days when things get out of hand and emotions run high but the truth is… You can limit these explosions of emotion by implementing strategic disciplining techniques and safe boundaries.
But what happens if unwanted behaviour is escalating and a meltdown is imminent?
As strange as it seems, being firm and drawing a clear line for your child that a certain type of behaviour is unacceptable actually makes them feel safer and more secure!
With this in mind, it will make it easier for you to stand your ground on occasions when things have got to a point of no return and your toddler's unwanted behaviour is escalating.
In these situations, removal and redirection are the best options.
Change location by taking your toddler to another room or outside. Let them calm down and then offer an alternative activity.
Stay calm and keep your voice firm but kind and most importantly, don’t give in!
Your toddler’s bad behaviour mustn’t succeed in getting them what they want as this will reinforce in their head that screaming + bad behaviour = the result they want!
Depending on the age of your toddler you can also explain what happened and why emotions ran high once things have calmed down. I would suggest doing this if your little one is aged 2 and up.
So that’s how we handle disciplining in a moment of imminent emotional destruction… But what are the strategies to properly discipline (guide) a toddler?
11 Expert Strategies to properly discipline a toddler
The best way to discipline a toddler is both to identify their motivation and comprehension at any given age.
Toddlers are driven by intense curiosity and their desire to explore and understand the world is all-consuming!
They do not think ahead and often try to do things beyond their ability which easily leads to frustration.
And a frustrated toddler is not as open-minded to suggestions or redirection from you so staying one step ahead and guiding your toddler towards good behaviour is always your best option!
So these first few tips are strategies that will hopefully help you avoid confrontations and the need to use full-on discipline tactics the last few strategies are the best way to discipline a toddler in the moment of a meltdown!
1. Keep An Eye On Them
Observe your toddler and keep an eye out for any potential situations that may result in you having to pull them away from or stop them from doing something.
2. Stay one step ahead
By keeping a close eye on your toddler you can stay one step ahead of them.
You can then redirect, distract or give a helping hand, which will hopefully avoid any potential showdowns.
3. Distract and redirect
Distraction and redirection works exceptionally well for toddlers aged between 12-18 months old where their desire to explore the world can get them into all sorts of trouble.
4. Learn your toddler’s triggers
Along with redirecting, distracting and staying one step ahead, you need to know what your toddler’s triggers are.
You are more likely to prevent a showdown if you can see a potential trigger heading your way.
Ensuring your toddler has enough sleep and has regular meals will go a long way to stabilizing behaviour. A tired and hungry toddler is more likely to misbehave.
5. Offer simple choices
For older toddlers, offering simple choices can help defuse potentially volatile situations.
It is important to offer choices that you're happy with only two options to keep your little one from becoming overwhelmed in a moment of already heightened emotions.
6. Avoid saying no
Now… I know this is tough but try to avoid saying “no” and ONLY use it for extreme situations (like when your toddler is in imminent danger).
Overuse of the word “no” will mean it loses its impact and can be very demoralising for your toddler if they are always being told they cannot to do something.
7. Change location
This is a strategy that is one of my favourites when all else fails.
When things are getting out of hand, change location.
As simple as it sounds, toddlers are usually quite easy to distract and taking them to another room or outside will often do the trick to calm them down.
8. Praise good behaviour
Disciplining your children towards good behaviour is more about praise than anything else.
When your child listens, responds or is kind and caring be sure to praise them for it.
9. Give clear instructions
You must always give clear instructions if you want your toddler to do something specific.
Get down to their level, make contact and (if they are old enough) get them to repeat back to you what you have said.
Shouting instructions over your toddler’s head very rarely works.
Learning how to get a toddler to listen will be a valuable skill in your toddler disciplining journey.
10. Pick your battles
You don’t want to be constantly having standoffs with your toddler so before you decide to push through with a point ask yourself “is it worth it?”, because once you commit to disciplining them you MUST follow it through.
10. Stay firm but kind
Finally, be firm but kind.
This is a mantra that I have always lived by when communicating with children.
There is no need to yell at them. Simply use a firm and steady voice which makes it clear to your toddler that you’re not going to waver and are being serious about the situation.
Our job as parents and carers is to nurture and guide the children in our care to be decent human beings NOT to force them into complying with our wishes no matter what.
To learn more about the delicate balance that is discipline for children in general, check out my post A Beginners Guide To Child Discipline to learn more.
How NOT to discipline a toddler
Following on from above, here are my top tips for what NOT to do when disciplining a toddler!
- Don’t give in
- Don’t ask your toddler to say sorry (save this for older children who can understand the concept)
- Don’t ask them why they are behaving badly or did what they did (toddlers never do anything out of malice or a desire to hurt)
- Don’t shout and yell
- Don’t ridicule or blame
- Don’t negotiate or bribe
- Never use physical punishment
Remember that discipline is far more than just saying ‘no’ to your child. Saying ‘no’ should be saved for swift action that is needed if your toddler is about to do something dangerous.
The best way to discipline a toddler is to use a firm voice, remove triggers, move location and don’t waiver. Guidance towards good behaviour is the aim NOT anger towards unwanted behaviour.
After all, they’re only tiny humans learning how the world works!
FAQs about the best way to discipline a toddler
Here are 4 super common questions that I have been asked about appropriate ways to discipline troublesome toddlers and I hope they will help you if your little one is being a bit tricky!
1. What’s the best way to discipline a toddler who doesn’t listen?
Keep your eyes peeled over the coming weeks as I will be writing an in-depth article about EXACTLY how to discipline a toddler that doesn’t listen soon!
2. Toddler hits himself when disciplined
If your toddler hits himself when being disciplined, stay calm.
Although this behaviour is alarming, it is a physical expression of your toddler’s inability to deal with their developing emotions in an attempt to self-soothe their way out of the anger and frustration they are feeling.
If this happens, you must stay calm and hold your toddler in a firm but comforting way until they calm down.
It will help to watch for triggers and to try and avoid your toddler finding themselves in situations where they feel overwhelmed and angry.
This is usually a passing phase that stops once they can process their extreme emotions. But if you’re struggling to handle this behaviour, contact your local GP or childcare expert.
3. What’s the best way to discipline a toddler who throws food?
There are usually three reasons why your toddler will throw food...
1. To get a reaction from you.
2. They don’t like the food they have been given.
3. They don't like feeding themselves. If this is the case, read my post My Toddler Won't Feed Himself to learn more about how to handle this tricky situation!
So here are some quick tips on how to deal with a toddler who throws food.
1. Don’t overreact
Toddlers love a reaction to their behaviour so if you act like it is no big deal in many cases they will stop throwing food relatively quickly.
2. Offer small amounts of food at a time.
If your toddler feels overwhelmed by the amount of food in front of them, this may prompt them to throw it away. So try giving them smaller portions and don’t rush their meals.
3. Sit with your toddler during meal times.
If your toddler is feeling ignored during mealtimes they may throw food on the floor to get your attention. If you sit with them and are chatting with them, they are less likely to throw the food.
4. Be firm
You can also try making it clear that throwing food is not acceptable by placing your hand firmly but gently on theirs and saying “food is for eating, not for throwing”.
The key here is balance not giving them a big reaction whilst being firm.
5. End the meal
This may be a tough one for some families... BUT if your toddler persists in throwing food, simply end the meal.
Once your little one realises that throwing food = no more food and you’re not going to give in, they may stop doing it.
6. Remember it is just a phase
As frustrating as this habit is, it is just a phase and will pass. So stay calm and ride it out.
Most toddlers will at some point throw their food, usually between 1 year and 18 months and it is important that you stay calm and don’t overreact.
4. What is the best way to discipline a sensitive toddler?
Sensitive toddlers are more likely to become overwhelmed and react in extreme ways to being frustrated, angry or scared.
However, if you have a sensitive toddler who is learning how to deal with their extreme emotions, you mustn’t back off on discipline.
Discipline and boundaries will ensure your child feels safe and secure within these moments of intense emotion.
Similar to the best way to discipline a toddler, when disciplining a sensitive soul remember this:
- Sensitive toddlers respond well to boundaries as it makes them feel safer.
- Avoid over-stimulating situations that are likely to lead to meltdowns.
- Learn what triggers bad behaviour and try to avoid or pre-empt them.
- Sensitive toddlers can feel bad if they get into trouble so avoid blaming them.
- Make eye contact and give clear instructions.
- Stay calm and caring.
- Acknowledge and give words to their feelings.
- Offer a solution.
5. What do I do if my toddler tells me to go away?
If your toddler is telling you to go away when they're being disciplined, or whenever for that matter, read my article Why Does My Toddler Keep Telling Me To Go Away? to learn more.
Best Way To Discipline A Toddler RECAP
Always remember that discipline is not about punishment but rather about guidance and teaching your child how to behave.
Regardless of age, the best way to discipline a toddler effectively is to:
- Stay calm,
- Pick your fights,
- Set boundaries,
- Communicate clearly,
- Stay one step ahead,
- Mean what you say,
- And acknowledge their feelings.
You also need to consider the following age-appropriate points.
How to discipline a 1-year-old toddler:
For this age group distraction and redirection works best.
To discipline a 1-year-old you need to remember that they live in the moment and are easily distracted and interested in an alternative toy, activity or location.
How to discipline an 18-month-old toddler:
This age group has comprehension and a desire to do things way beyond their ability to communicate verbally.
This easily leads to frustration and sometimes biting and or hitting.
You will need to react swiftly to deal with these behaviours and be aware that they may not necessarily remember from one day to the next what behaviour is unacceptable.
Being consistent and calm is key.
How to discipline a two-year-old toddler
To discipline a 2-year-old you can now use more words and encourage them to use words to express how they feel too.
They will be able to understand far better consequences and reasons why they need to behave in a certain way.
Offering simple choices and explaining clearly what you want them to do will go a long way to helping you guide your two-year-old towards good behaviour.
And there you have it! I hope you have enjoyed this post about the best way to discipline a toddler and have found it a useful read.
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And if you have any further questions about the best way to discipline a toddler, feel free to drop me a line at the same email and I'll be happy to help.
And as always, until next time, with love and support, Happy Parenting!