Q&A: Discipline for Toddlers

I'm down to just 4 questions to answer! Think I can finish them up this month?

From Crystal:
How do you discpline or teach boundaries to a child who is too young to understand or do time outs? Ex a 1 year old boy who laughs when you say no.
I think there are two great discipline tools for young babies and toddlers. The first, and most important, foundation for teaching a child boundaries is to be consistent and follow-through with what you say. For a child that young, most discipline methods like traditional time-outs just don't work. But you can still follow through. I try to remember that my child is young and I don't take defiance personally. But if I say "no" to something, I don't change my mind or give in and I try to make it clear to the child in a way that they understand. For example, if my little one is trying to get into the snacks I left on the counter, I'll say no, and then I'll put the snacks away or up high. If the child is trying to color on their older sister's homework, I'll say, "no, we don't color on that," move the homework and then hand them something more appropriate to color on.

I think it's important to use a no-nonsense tone of voice when you say "no." If your child hits you, for example, and you laughingly say, "no, no, sweetheart, we don't hit mommy," then the child is likely to think this is a fun game and hit again. It's important to let your child know that things like hitting are unacceptable. Harmony's at a stage right now where she grabs and pulls on hair and our faces. She's not doing it to be mean, she's just trying to get someone's attention and be playful. But it's not gentle. Depending on where I'm at when it's happening, I'll often say, "No, that hurts," with a sad frown on my face so she understands that mommy isn't happy. If it continues, I'll put her down on the floor. Usually, that makes her really upset, but it also teaches her that when she hits, she doesn't get positive attention. Other times, I've taken her hands and said, "Let's try to be gentle," and I'll move her hands softly over my face or hair and smile brightly at her, emphasizing the word gentle, over and over. We've also taught our kids to say, "No, that hurts!" when someone hurts them, while still reminding them that Harmony doesn't understand yet that it hurts and that's why we're teaching her. Eventually, the message will get through.

Another important thing to remember during the toddler years is immediacy. A child that age just doesn't have the maturity to think through their decisions from beginning to end. That's why teaching has to happen right in the moment. You can't wait an hour and then try to enforce some consequence for what the child has done because by the time an hour has gone by, the child has no real memory of the naughty thing they did just a little bit before.

There are lots of other situations where it's important to follow-through on what you say. If your child is pulling all the books off the shelf, you tell them to stop, and they don't, then it's time to get up, move your child's hands away from the books and say "no" firmly. If they head right back to the books, then it might work best to move them into another room or get them interested in another toy or even pull one book off the shelf and start reading it to them (see tool #2 below!). You might also want to pick your battles. At my house, pulling books off shelves is usually something I don't really bother about. They're not hurting anything and even if they are making a mess, it's a much easier one to clean up than, say, dumping toys into the toilet!

Another common discipline problem with toddlers is their tendency to run off with no thought for where mommy wants them to be. With this situation, it's good to remember that you are much bigger than your child for a reason! When my children take off, I remind them that they need to hold onto my hand or the stroller. For a toddler, if I say, "Come back," and they don't come back, then it's time to move as fast as I can and bring them back. If it continues to happen, you may need to have a short time out for them where they sit on your lap, happily or not. Remind them several times, "we don't run away from mommy." Several of my children (Joey and both my twins), were really naughty about staying with me. I almost always had the stroller with me on outings with them and if they didn't stay nearby or respond to my directions, then they got buckled in. Usually, they hated that and screamed and cried.

You can expect a lot of tears and tantrums as your child learns boundaries. The most important thing is to not take it personally. Sure, it's embarrassing if you're in a store and your child is screaming his head off because you made him sit in the cart rather than run up and down the aisles, but don't let it bother you. Just shrug your shoulders, try to see the humor in it, pretend to ignore the crying, and finish up your shopping as quick as you can. Depending on your child's temperament, you may be in for a long, frustrating few years, but remember that you are not in charge of how your child reacts to boundaries, he is. Your job isn't to make sure your child is happy and gets exactly what he wants all the time, it's to make sure he is safe, loved, and that he grows up learning how to control his impulses.

The second tool for good discipline at this age is distraction! Never underestimate the power of a good distraction. Especially during a tantrum, it's great if you can say, "hey, look at the kitty over there!" or, "Did you see that funny baby over there?" If your child is all-out throwing a fit, it's probably best to ignore him for a bit, but once he starts to calm down, it's great to introduce a new activity to get the child's attention away from what they were crying about. If it's a treat they wanted and you said no, you could pull out a couple of acceptable snack choices and ask, "Which do you want, the banana or the string cheese?" Usually, a question is a great way to get the child's brain working in a new direction. Even little 1-year-olds know enough words to recognize some of their favorites and start thinking about something else.

Be creative. Usually, there's something you can do to get your child's mind off the "no." Turn on some music when your child gets restless in the car or start singing some of their favorite songs. Ask them if they know where mommy's nose is or where their ears are. Tickle their toes or start doing a fun rhyme like, "This little piggy."

My best friend in middle school taught me a great trick she used on young children whenever she babysits. When they were grumpy or angry, she'd say, "Oh, man, why aren't you smiling? I bet I can find your smile!" Then she'd poke their tummy gently and say, "I think I found it . . . it's right here, and oh no, here it comes up to your face!" Then she'd twirl her fingers up their tummy and by the time she got to their mouth, they'd be smiling. I used that trick a lot during my own babysitting years and it's come in handy as a parent, too, though that one usually works better for the 2-4 year old crowd rather than the 1-year-old.

So there's some of my ideas on disciplining during the very young toddler years. The only thing I'll add is just to be patient. These years don't last forever and even if your child is absolutely appalling on a regular basis, if you're consistent and loving, they WILL grow out of it.

I know that from personal experience. I still contend I had two of the hardest and most determined two-year-olds on the planet -- at the same time! They fought and hit and bit and screamed -- oh boy, did they scream a lot. It was hard not to feel like a failure on a regular basis. I remember one time trying to watch my other children at swimming lessons. They kept trying to run around and jump in the pool, so I buckled them in the stroller, triggering their major tantrums. One of them threw a book at me so hard it really hurt my forehead. The next day, I figured the watching-the-other-kids-swim thing wasn't going to work, so I took them to the park nearby, where they were the happiest and most delightful girls climbing up the stairs and trying out the slides. That is, until it was time to leave. They screamed all the way to the stroller, screamed and squirmed and contorted their bodies every which way to try and get out of their buckles, screamed all the way back to get the other kids, screamed while I wrapped towels around the older kids and walked to the car, screamed when I buckled them into their carseats (another thing they hated), screamed all the way home, and screamed for another ten or fifteen minutes after we got home, too. Boy, that was a tough year. But gee whiz, you'd be amazed at how sweet and wonderful and even mostly obedient these same girls are now that they are five!

I'm sure there's lots of other great ideas out there -- what are your favorite discipline tricks and tantrum-busters? Anyone want to share their child's worst tantrum or most embarrassing behavior?


Katie said…
Great post, Christina! I loved this part:
"Your job isn't to make sure your child is happy and gets exactly what he wants all the time, it's to make sure he is safe, loved, and that he grows up learning how to control his impulses."

I've always followed the adage that negative attention is better than no attention---tantrums are no fun if there's no audience. When my kids threw fits at home, I scooped them up, deposited them in their rooms, and invited them to scream and kick and cry on their beds as much as they wanted and then return to us when they were ready to be nice. It worked so well for us. My toddlers would stand at the top of the stairs and call, "I ready to be nice now!" and then I'd go love on them and bring them back to the play room.

I think that you're absolutely right when you say that the most important thing about discipline is consistency. Find something that works for your family and do it every time. Mean what you say, and say what you mean.

I've always said that parenting doesn't get easier, it gets hard in a different way. But I think it does get easier after about age four. When your child can tell you what she wants or why she's upset, it is so much easier to deal with!
famr_4evr said…
I'm glad you posted this. Sometimes what works for one child, doesn't with another. And toddlers are their own type of people. What works one minute, won't the next. We are currently tackling streakers. The girls will strip and then run laughing through the house. We have decided that they can only be naked in their room. So if they strip, they have to go to their room. This doesn't always work. But it will hopefully work after a while. They don't want to miss anything, so that is the plan.
Maryanne said…
My 3 year old threw a phone across the room and hit me in the head this evening. I was glad to read your post today and it gave me some hope that if I can do better (keeping my cool and being consistent) that he'll do better too.

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