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Disciplining Your Toddler

Are there any parents who haven't felt complete and utter love for their toddler and, at the same time, frustration and anger?

Our beloved little ones test our nerves because they're testing boundaries all around them. Every day, little by little, they're mastering new skills, and are anxious and excited to use them.

Sometimes it's tough to reel in a toddler, but it can be done. And setting rules and limits now — when your child is learning what behaviors are acceptable — will help prevent bigger problems down the road.

Here are some ways to help you keep your youngster on the right track.

Be Consistent

When it comes to discipline, it's important to be consistent. Parents who don't stick to the rules and consequences they set up don't have kids who do either. For example, if you tell your toddler that a timeout is the repercussion for bad behavior, be sure to enforce it. Only issue warnings for things that you can follow through on. Empty threats undermine your authority.

And don't forget that kids learn by watching adults, particularly their parents. So make sure your own behavior is role-model material. When asking your child to pick up toys, you'll make a much stronger impression if you've put away your own belongings rather than leaving your stuff all around the room.

Eliminate Temptation

By now, you've figured out that your toddler wants to explore and investigate the world. Toddlers are naturally curious, so it's wise to eliminate temptations whenever possible. That means keeping things like TVs, phones, and electronics out of reach. Also beware of choking hazards like jewelry, buttons, and small items that kids can put in their mouths.

And always keep cleaning supplies and medicines stored safely away where kids can't get to them.

Use Distraction

If your roving toddler does head toward an unacceptable or dangerous play object, calmly say "No" and either remove your child from the area or distract him or her with another activity.

It's important to not spank, hit, or slap your child. At this age, kids are unlikely to be able to make a connection between the behavior and physical punishment. The message you send when you spank is that it's OK to hit someone when you're angry. Experts say that spanking is no more effective than other forms of discipline, such as timeouts.

Practice Timeout

If you need to take a harder line with your child, timeouts can be an effective form of discipline. A 2- or 3-year-old who has been hitting, biting, or throwing food, for example, should be told why the behavior is unacceptable and taken to a designated timeout area — a kitchen chair or bottom stair — for a minute or two to calm down.

As a general rule, about 1 minute per year of age is a good guide for timeouts. Longer timeouts have no added benefit. And they could undermine your efforts if your child gets up (and refuses to return) before you signal that the timeout has ended.

Be sure that the timeout area is away from distractions such as toys or TV, and that you do not provide your child with any attention (talking, eye contact) while they're sitting in timeout.

How to Avoid Temper Tantrums

Even the most well-behaved toddler can have a tantrum from time to time. Tantrums are common during toddlerhood because kids can understand more than they can express and this often leads to frustration.

Toddlers get frustrated in other ways too, like when they can't dress a doll or keep up with an older sibling. Power struggles can come when your toddler wants more independence and autonomy too soon.

The best way to deal with tantrums is to avoid them, whenever possible. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Make sure your child isn't acting up to get attention. Establish a habit of catching your child being good ("time-in"), which means rewarding your little one with attention for positive behavior.
  • Give your toddler control over little things. This may fulfill the need for independence and ward off tantrums. Offer minor choices that you can live with, such as "Would you like an apple or banana with lunch?"
  • When kids are playing or trying to master a new task, offer age-appropriate toys and games. Also, start with something easy before moving on to more challenging tasks. This will build their confidence and motivation to try things that might be frustrating.
  • Consider the request carefully when your child wants something. Is it outrageous? If not, try to be flexible.
  • Know your child's limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it's not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand.

When Tempers Flare

If your child does throw a tantrum, keep your cool. Don't complicate the problem with your own frustration. Kids can sense when parents are becoming frazzled and this can just make their frustration worse. Try to understand where your child is coming from. For example, if your youngster has just had a great disappointment, you may need to provide comfort.

Children seek attention from their parents, and an easy way to get a big reaction is to misbehave. One of the best ways to reduce attention-seeking behavior is to ignore it. Continue your activities, paying no attention to your child but remaining within sight.

Keep in mind that when you do this, your child's behavior may get worse before it gets better. This can be frustrating, but it means that ignoring the tantrum is working. Your child will try harder to get your attention with misbehavior because it has worked in the past. When your child learns that misbehaving won't get your attention, the behavior will start to improve.

Note: Kids who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet, safe place to calm down. Ignoring is not an appropriate way of handling aggressive or dangerous behavior.

Some kids will have a hard time stopping a tantrum. In these cases, try saying, "I'll help you settle down now." But whatever you do, don't reward your toddler by giving in. This will only prove that tantrums are an effective way to get what he or she wants. Instead, verbally praise your child for regaining self-control. Remember, you want to teach your child that the best way to get what he or she wants is through good behavior.

As their language skills improve and they mature, kids become better at handling frustration, and tantrums are less likely. If you're having trouble handling temper tantrums or have any questions about discipline, ask your child's doctor for advice.

Date reviewed: August 2018