What are the best methods for disciplining a toddler?

Karen Jackson, NP
Pediatric Nursing
I think you have to be pretty firm with a toddler, and I think this is a good time to start using logical consequences. So for instance, if you have a toddler that's riding a trike, and the rule is that you need to wear a helmet when you ride your trike, then you've set that rule up. The toddler knows, "Yes, that's what I need to do," but then say he chooses not to wear his helmet. A logical consequence to that would be, guess what, we get to take your bike away for 5 minutes until you can decide to put your helmet back on. And then always give them a chance to try again. So if you set a timer for 5 minutes, they know that in 5 minutes, they're going to have a chance to try putting their helmet on and riding their trike again.

I think that giving that logical consequence sets them up for dealing with future problems, because that's how life is. When we speed on the freeway, we get a ticket. So teaching your kid about logical consequences I think is really important. If there isn't really a logical consequence to the behavior, then I recommend a time-out. A time-out is not putting them in their bed, because that's where they sleep, and that needs to be comfortable. It's not having them face the corner in shame. It's having them sit on a chair in a very boring corner, and you set the timer for 1 minute per year of age. So if you have a 3-year-old, that would be 3 minutes. And it's not you putting the child in time-out, it's really the timer.

When a child comes out of time-out, it's a good time to talk about what happened. You want to relate the incident to the emotion so they can start talking about how they felt about it. So it looks like you got pretty angry that Susie wouldn't share her doll with you. That helps them later on say, "Yeah, it really made me angry that Susie wouldn't share my doll." Instead of having a temper tantrum or hitting Susie, it gives them a chance to use their words and begin to manage their own anger.

I don't usually start time-out till age 2. And that's about the earliest that I would start time-out or start having those conversations. That's the earliest time they can understand that.
Reshma Shah, MD

I have a few simple rules that are helpful in disciplining toddlers. The first step is to remember that the Latin root word of discipline means student. The purpose of disciplining your toddler (or for that matter your teenager!) should be to teach and not to punish. Keeping that in mind, here are my rules:

  • Choose your battles. The toddler years are all about control. They want it and you have it. If your 2 year old is perfectly happy with miss-matched socks, applaud her eye for fashion and get on with your day.
  • Offer choices. No more than 2 or 3. Always good ones. "Would you like an apple or a pear?" Your toddler will be focused on which healthy snack to choose and you have given him 2 healthy options, both of which are acceptable.
  • Limit the use of "NO". I often tell parents to limit the word to no more than 5 times a day. If you are constantly saying "no", it loses its significance and just becomes background noise to them. Rather than saying "no" all the time, try to redirect their attention. For instance, instead of saying "No, don't touch mommy's phone," you can gently take away your phone and offer a book or toy in exchange.
  • Be consistent! You are better off saying "yes" to a cookie from the beginning than repeatedly saying no and caving in at the last minute. The lesson they learn is that if they pester you for long enough, you will give in the end. They are smart little cookies!!
  • Finally, reinforce all of their positive behavior. Children want the love and approval of their parents. If you acknowledge a job well done in picking up their toys or sharing, they are more likely to want to repeat that behavior.
In this video from the Discovery Health show "Baby Madness," discover Dr. Christina Johns' guidelines for disciplining your toddler.


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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.