Discipline for Toddlers

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Harvard Medical School
Chrome 2001
Chrome 2001

Discipline for Toddlers

Guiding Your Child Through The Early Years
Behavior and Development
Discipline for Toddlers
Discipline for Toddlers
Learn techniques for teaching your child self-control and the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Discipline for Toddlers


Discipline is important for all children, including babies and toddlers. Young children are naturally curious and want to explore everything in the world around them. Therefore, they can get into lots of dangerous situations and need to be taught how to keep themselves safe.

Discipline does not mean punishment. Rather, discipline involves teaching and protecting your child. Your goal is to keep her safe by teaching her self-control and the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors.

There are various methods for disciplining a toddler or preschool-age child. You will most likely need to use all of them at some time or another.

  • Limit opportunities for temptation. Although discipline involves setting and enforcing limits of acceptable behavior, it also means preventing problems before they happen. One of the best ways to keep your child safe is to thoroughly childproof your house.
  • Ignore harmless behaviors. You can simply ignore unacceptable behaviors that are harmless, such as temper tantrums, whining or interrupting.
  • Shift the focus. Young children are easily distracted, so try shifting your child's attention away from trouble, toward a different, safer activity. It is often suggested that parents carry a few "interesting" toys and books in the diaper bag for just this purpose.
  • Express your disapproval. Go over to your child, look him straight in the eyes, and say "no" or "stop." Tell him what he should not do and why he should not do it. In many cases, this is all that is necessary to stop inappropriate behavior. You also should tell your child what the consequences will be if he does it again.
  • Move your child. Sometimes you may need to move your child away from a tempting situation or toward a desired activity. For example, you may have to physically carry your child into the bathroom for his bath.
  • Give time-out. Time-out can be used with children as young as 1 year old. It involves taking a "break" away from a difficult situation and spending time in a less appealing place. For preschool-age and older children, you also can try the following discipline techniques in addition to the ones listed above for younger children.
  • Use natural consequences. Your child can learn by seeing the natural consequences of her actions. For example, if she throws her food off her plate, she will not have any more to eat. If she tears the pages out of a book, she will no longer be able to read it.
  • Use logical consequences. Some unacceptable behaviors have no immediate or obvious natural consequences. In these cases, you should determine consequences that are logically related to the misbehavior. For example, you might tell your child that if she does not pick up her toys before bed, then you will put them away and she will not be allowed to play with them for one whole day.

Other things to keep in mind.

As mentioned briefly above, when you correct an unacceptable behavior, explain in brief, simple terms why what was done should not be repeated and what the consequences of repeating it will be. For example, "No biting your brother. Biting hurts. If you do it again, you cannot play with your favorite toy today." Remember that your child may need to hear the same instructions several times before he "gets it" and recognizes that the consequences of his actions are real.

When setting limits, it's important to be consistent. Rules should be equally enforced by every caregiver of your child (grandparents included), and these rules must stay the same from one day to the next. When enforcing rules, keep a straight face. Laughing when your toddler is doing something naughty doesn't send a message of disapproval; your toddler might not take you seriously, now or the next time.

Many parents feel like they are constantly saying "no" to their toddler. Consider re-evaluating which issues are worth a battle and which are not. Certain behaviors such as hitting and biting are unacceptable, but you may want to think about taking a more relaxed approach with other issues — maybe it isn't so important to pick up every toy in the play area at the end of the afternoon. Remember, your ability to remain calm and flexible will influence your child's actions as well.

What about spanking? While it may seem like spanking solves an immediate problem, studies have shown that spanking isn't as effective in changing long-term behaviors as positive reinforcement and other forms of discipline are. In fact, spanking may actually make kids more aggressive in the future. Try the other forms of discipline, as described above.

One final thought that can be key to making positive changes in your child's behavior: Catch 'em being good! Make sure that you regularly reward acceptable behaviors. When you see your child doing something that you like, hug him, smile at him or praise him. Children want their parent's attention and can be taught that positive behaviors are the best way to get that attention and make you proud.

Last updated August 06, 2014

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