Young toddlers like to get into places they shouldn’t. They throw tantrums. They throw their food. Maybe they hit or bite. Many still don’t talk, and of course can’t articulate what they want or why they’re so upset. (Many adults can’t do that!) When you tell them “no,” they don’t back down and just keep repeating the behavior.
This, naturally, becomes very frustrating. It’s as though your child is doing all these things intentionally—which only escalates your anger. But “Young toddlers are new here and still have a lot to learn about which behaviors are considered socially appropriate and which aren’t,” said Kaylene Henderson, a child psychiatrist, parenting expert and mom to three kids.
This is why discipline is so critical. Discipline is not the same as punishment, though we tend to confuse these terms. According to Henderson, “discipline” actually originates from a Latin word that means “education” or “training.” Because our kids aren’t born knowing how to behave, it’s our job as parents to teach them—just like we teach them about nursery rhymes, animals and the ABCs.
Punishment often aims to teach, but its methods include making kids feel bad, Henderson said. “Children, like all of us, are more likely to do good when they feel good.” They’re more likely to learn better with a teacher “who inspires, motivates, guides and encourages them.”
Discipline is an act of love, said Catherine O’Brien, a marriage and family therapist in Sacramento, Calif., guiding new parents on the road of parenthood, and a mom to two kids. It provides your kids with vital lessons and a secure structure that’ll serve them throughout their lives, she said.
What does effective discipline look like? Henderson and O’Brien shared their tips below.
Be consistent and calm. This is important because, as parents, our job is to teach our kids to regulate their emotions, O’Brien said. If you laugh at something your child shouldn’t be doing, they’ll think it’s funny and keep doing it, she said. If you get mad, they might be fascinated by your reaction, and also repeat their behavior—or your anger “could be very upsetting to them.”
Validate their feelings. O’Brien shared this example: You’re at the park, and it’s time to leave, so give your kids a warning: “One more time down the slide” or “Five more pushes in the swing and then it is time to go.” They get upset, so you validate their feelings by saying: “I know you were having fun. We have to go but we can come back another day or we can play with your toys at home.” If their behavior isn’t safe, you can say: “I know you like that, but it isn’t safe. I’m sorry you’re mad (or sad or disappointed) …”
Show them what you want. “Our kids learn more from how we behave than from what we say,” said Henderson, founder of A Dose of Awesomeness, which features advice packs on a range of parenting topics, including anxiety and meltdowns.
In other words, if you don’t want your children to yell, show them how to communicate without screaming, she said. If you don’t want your kids to hit, “show them how to resolve conflict without hitting.”
For instance, instead of hitting, say “gentle hands,” and show them what that looks like, O’Brien said. Similarly, Henderson suggested catching your child’s hand as it comes toward you and saying, “I know you’re feeling angry. I’m going to help you calm down. Then we can practice what you can do instead of hitting when you’re feeling angry.”
Give choices. “Young children, like all of us, want to have a say in what happens to them,” Henderson said. When you give your kids many opportunities throughout the day to make their own decisions, they’re less likely to assert themselves at inappropriate or unsafe times, she said.
Henderson shared these examples: Ask your child which sink they’d like to wash their hands. Ask what color cup they’d like to use. Ask which fruits—banana or grapes—they’d like you to pack for lunch. If your child doesn’t talk yet, they can point to their preference.
Importantly, “Never ask a young child to make a choice if you’re not going to be happy with the response,” Henderson said. “Instead, decide on what you think needs to happen; then provide a couple of choices wherever possible that don’t affect this outcome.”
Go beyond no. When your young toddler is doing something they’re not supposed to be, Henderson suggested explaining what you’d like them to do instead and why. Instead of saying, “Don’t throw your food from the highchair” tell them, “If you’re finished eating and want to throw something, how about I lift you up and you can throw your plate in the sink for me?”
When you’re grocery shopping, instead of saying, “Stop touching everything!” say, “Can you be my helper, and when I pass you something, can you be in charge of popping it in the [cart] for me?”
When you make a specific suggestion, your child is more likely to actually do it, and they’re more likely to do it again in the future in the same situation, Henderson said.
Help your child to calm down. We are not born with an innate ability to soothe ourselves. According to Henderson, “It takes years for the essential brain wiring to develop and for our little ones to gain sufficient life experience such that they’re able to calm themselves down from big feeling states.”
As such, she encouraged parents to remember that your child isn’t misbehaving, acting out or trying to infuriate you. “They’re simply overwhelmed and in need of your help.” Comfort them when they’re crying. Hug them when they’re hurt.
Explore the before. Another tactic to deal with hitting and biting at this age is to think about what preceded the behavior, O’Brien said. Maybe your child was tired. Maybe they were trying to communicate. Identifying this helps you brainstorm how to proceed.
Disciplining our kids requires energy and calm. Which might be hard to come by. In fact, you might find yourself frequently losing your temper. Many of O’Brien’s clients feel ashamed for getting angry with their kids. Usually, this frustration stems from their self-care, or lack thereof. They’re exhausted from not sleeping enough. They don’t carve out time for themselves.
“Parenting is a hard job and in order to give our children what they need to develop, it is also important that we are giving ourselves what we need to be able to do this job.”