How do you effectively discipline a toddler? Most parents will know that this is much easier said than done.  How do you deal with a being that is the epitome of cuteness in one moment and then the devil himself the next?  When is it okay to ignore disruptive behaviour? Until what age are tantrums still acceptable? And how does one go about instilling discipline without instilling fear?

I generally recommend that parents mold their discipline practices around the following guidelines:

1.Understand what is age-appropriate. 

It is natural for 2 – 3 year olds to start pushing the boundaries (and your buttons!). This all forms part of their quest for independence. And knowing that it’s part of the process makes it easier to ignore their kicking-screaming-and-writhing-on-the-floor antics in busy supermarkets. But when your 8-year old throws a similar tantrum, it might be an indication that you need to adjust your discipline style.

2. Lay the ground rules.

It is super important that all parties involved in raising your child are in on these rules. This includes dad, nannies and grannies.  Call a meeting and decide together on 5 – 10 basic rules and the consequences for disobeying these rules. Keep the rules simple. Discuss them with your child regularly so that he knows what to expect and also what is expected of him. I find it helps to display these rules somewhere in the house for all to see. Get in touch with your creative side and draw pictures to represent each rule. Children often become confused when there are too many rules to obey, so try not to exceed 10 basic rules.

3. The rule of three.

I see this scenario all too often: parents come to me complaining that they tell their child to do something a hundred times but he simply does not listen.  But the honest answer is that your child does not listen BECAUSE you’ve asked him to do it 100 times.  Children will simply switch off to what they see as “nagging” and “idle threats”. Give the instruction once in a clear, authoritative voice. If your child does not respond within the appropriate time frame walk up to him, look him in the eye and say: “This is the second time I’m asking you to … pick up your toy / throw your paper in the bin / switch off the TV , etc. If I have to ask you one more time, you will … get time out / not be allowed to play on the i-pad / etc”. If your child still does not respond in the appropriate way walk up to him and say: “This is the third time I’ve had to ask you to do something. Now you have time out / will not play on the i-pad tonight / etc.” It is also vital to ensure that your request is carried out. If your request was for your child to switch off the TV, switch it off. If you requested he pick up his toy, take him by the hand and make him pick up the toy.

4. Consequences need to be implemented immediately.

Remember that when you discipline a toddler the consequences need to be immediate.  Postponing discipline is completely ineffective.  Even if you stick to your threat and discipline the child later, he will have forgotten about his unacceptable behaviour earlier.  Your discipline will feel cruel and unfair to him, because he won’t be able to remember what it is for. He is also likely to continue with this unacceptable behaviour in the future as he has not fully made the connection between his actions and the consequences for these.

4. Key to disciplining a toddler – Ignore all tantrums.

Easier said than done, I know. But every time you react to your child’s tantrum, be it by giving in or by becoming upset yourself, you are reinforcing this behaviour. Try to use the “robot voice”.   It’s like every mother’s secret weapon for when your child has a tantrum. Stay calm, look at your child and simply say in a sweet, low voice “Honey, I can’t understand you when you scream like that. Once you have calmed down I will listen to you again”.  Then simply walk away or carry on with what you were doing before. Your child will probably scream even louder the first few times you try this, but eventually he will begin to realise that he is simply not getting any reaction from you. And before you know it he will abandon this method of attention seeking. Sometimes disciplining a toddler is about NOT reacting.

5. To smack or not to smack?

If you want to discipline a toddler, or any child for that matter, steer clear from physical punishment. I’m often asked my opinion on corporal punishment and, on the whole, I am dead set against it. I believe that children should be reasoned with and that they should understand what they did wrong and why they should not do it again. The most important tip on how to discipline a toddler is to first get their attention. Clap your hands or in a loud stern voice, say  “NO!”. Then explanation to you toddler why he should not behave in this way.  He will most likely not understand your explanation at first, but with time he will come to understand the logic behind the reasoning.

When it comes to toddlers, discipline should be enforced effectively and immediately with love and guidance. Firstly it will lead to a happier calmer home environment. And secondly it will teach children about appropriate social interaction while they grow in independence and confidence.


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