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Let’s face it, as cute as they can be, toddlers also have a way of channelling the worst of human behavior: selfishness, destructiveness, and a complete lack of self-control.
So what’s a parent to do when, say, your toddler hears you say “no,” but keeps pulling the cat’s tail anyway, or hits a playmate over the head with a toy, or bites, or has a full-on screaming meltdown? Here’s some discipline strategies for ages 1-3.
Time out. Let’s start with this technique because it works for all ages and in most situations, and it’s like grownup life: after all, if adults commit assault or vandalism, they get “time out” in jail. First, at a time when your child is not in trouble, pick your time-out spot. For younger toddlers a playpen or a crib will work, for older toddlers try a step or a special chair. Then when your child misbehaves, first issue a warning. If that doesn’t work, put them in the playpen, chair or spot for one minute per each year of age. To adults that sounds like no time at all, but to a one-year-old, 60 minutes of being away from you, left out of the fun and ignored is long enough to get the message. Set an actual timer that beeps, and if your child gets out of the seat, remain calm, place them back on the “naughty spot” and make a show of starting the timer over. Testing limits is what toddlers do, but remember that as an adult, your greatest advantage is your longer attention span and greater patience– you might have to put them back on the seat a dozen times, but eventually you will outlast them. If you’re out, at the mall or at someone else’s house, try stepping outside and/or use a curb or your car. It’s embarrassing, but other parents will understand.
While some bad behavior is worthy of a warning, when it comes to hitting, biting or doing things that you’re quite sure your child well knows are wrong, react swiftly and decisively to put them in time-out. Explain to your child why they’re being punished. “You’re going in to time out because you kept digging up the plant dirt even after mommy told you to stop,” put them in time out and then proceed to ignore them as best you can for the whole time out. When time out is over, explain to them why they were in time out, or have them explain it to you if they’re old enough to do that.
Offer choices. A lot of tantrums can be prevented or defused by letting a child pick between two things. “Do you want me to wash your face, or do you want to do it yourself?” “I know you want to stay, but it’s time for us to go. Do you want to walk, or do you want me to carry you?”
Allow expression. Make sure your child knows it’s okay to be sad, angry or frustrated, or to cry, it’s just not okay to take bad feelings out on other people by hitting, calling names or being destructive. In other words, don’t punish your child for having strong emotions, just for their actions. Remember that toddler moods are intense, but they pass quickly and are soon forgotten (by the child, anyway). Often tiredness, hunger or feeling overwhelmed/ or powerless is at the root of a toddler tantrum or bad behavior (though not always).
Never make empty threats. Only issue threats like “stop banging your knife on the table or we’re leaving the restaurant,” or “stop fighting over that toy or we’re leaving the park,” if you’re genuinely prepared to pack up and go. Threats you don’t follow up on will only make your child not trust you, and may even make the behavior worse as they test your limits.
Don’t hit your kids. Not only is the line between physical punishment and abuse really fuzzy, but if you don’t want your kids to hit other people to get their way, you shouldn’t do it either.
Use “no” sparingly. If your child is about to harm himself or others, of course you need to say no, loudly and firmly. But if it’s not an urgent situation, try instead telling your child what you do want them to do– be gentle with the animals, play with toys (not plants), use the potty (instead of your pants). The less you say “no,” the more effective your “no” will be. When you do say no, if you get ignored, make sure that there’s a consequence immediately and every time. For more on saying “no” less, check out this article.
Want to learn more about toddlers? Check out Great Expectations, the Toddler Years.