The 3 golden rules of (gently) disciplining a toddler

Kinderling News & Features

Our gorgeous 21-month-old has a habit of upturning a bowl of porridge onto his head and then throwing it across the floor. It’s cute the first time. The tenth and eleventh times? Not so much.

Something had to be done. But what?

When my husband suggested putting him in the cot for a few minutes, my tummy got that funny feeling when you’re not so sure.

Was that a bit harsh? He’s not even two, I thought to myself.

But then again, there was no way I wanted to be doing THIS every morning.

Kinderling Helpline’s Mothercraft nurse Chris Minogue says discipline is absolutely fine for toddlers, and important for their development.

But getting the process right takes a bit of thought.

NB: For the purposes of this article, we’re defining toddlers as 14 months to two-and-a-half to three years-old.

“As toddlers develop they’re looking for us to give them guidance, boundaries and support around their behaviour – be it in a social setting or in a family.

“If your toddler has been overstimulated or overtired their behaviour will always be worse. They are looking to us to help regulate their behaviours, because they can’t work it out themselves."

1. Pick your battles

"When you look at out-of-control behaviour, focus on the main thing you want to change, because you can’t pick all the battles, all at once," says Chris.

“You need to look at the day from the perspective of your child. If you pick up your child from daycare at 5pm and have a quick shop at Woolies, they will have a meltdown. You need to remember that is your responsibility to manage the activity of the day, based on where they are at."

"Next, decide what behaviours really hinder the normal activity of a day. For example, when they refuse to get dressed, the toddler can hold up the rest of the family from getting to work and school. Or maybe it's screaming that you want to change. Whatever the biggest problem behaviour is for you, that's the one to tackle first."

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2. Give them clear boundaries

Chris recommends dividing 'problem' behaviour into 4 areas: 

  1. Behaviours you will ignore
    Maybe little things like throwing their shoes on the ground, or (my personal favourite) kicking their legs while you’re trying to change their nappy.

  2. Behaviour you remove/distract them from
    Like banging on the TV screen, or reaching a drawer with knives in it.

  3. Behaviour you will give a time-out for
    For example, when they are being hurtful to another person, running away, or having a completely out-of-control tantrum. 

  4. Behaviour you withdraw them from
    For example, if they physically attack or push another child in the park, Chris says, "You just put them in the car and take them straight home. This is because it’s very hard to help them understand exactly what they have done wrong, but they will understand if you remove them from the park. They get that really quickly."

Deciding what behaviour you want to discipline, and which category that falls into is entirely up to you. For example, at our place, Lachie's food-throwing antics are wearing thin, so we want to address it with discipline. 

This is what Chris advises: 

“Firstly, look at this behaviour in the context of his day. When he throws the food, is it at dinner time? And if so, does that mean he’s been eating a lot during the day at daycare, so it’s reasonable that he might not be hungry? If that’s not the case and it’s reasonable that he should be hungry, give him one chance to display the behaviour you DO want. Show him what you want him to do, and if he throws food again, then you end the meal. Take him out of the high chair and don’t offer any more food.” 

3. Remember: We have to navigate for toddlers, because they can’t navigate yet

Your toddler needs a lot of help navigating, because he doesn't yet know how to move through all the experiences. 

"That's why smacking doesn’t work," says Chris. "Because smacking reinforces smacking. Whereas if you take the meal away from a toddler, or drive directly home from the park, he can see the impact of his behaviour and so, he can make the choice.

“Also, don’t yell. You don’t have to yell for this to be effective. You just demonstrate the behaviour you want them to do, calmly.”

A note on discipline for older siblings

Chris does point out that you wouldn't take the same approach for your older children. You can still give time-outs, etc, but the difference here is getting them to own their behaviour.

For example, say your older child hits your younger child. You send them to time-out and then you ask them: “What did you do to make Mummy give you a time out?" And when they respond, you say, “And how did it make your brother feel when you hit him?" And when he says, “It hurts him,” then you say, “That’s right it hurts to hit. And I have spoken about it before and you don’t seem to understand, so I am going to not read you a story tonight."

This kind of conversation addresses the behaviour, but also teaches your child empathy and responsibility for their actions, which is appropriate for an older child. 

Got your own trick when it comes to toddler discipline?