Toddlers and Discipline – Being Firm but Fair

I first wrote this for Woman’s Way in March 2012 – hope helps with some tips in dealing with the Terrible Twos and Beyond!!

All parents want the best for their children and also to enjoy them. Children go through so many wonderful phases and stages; it’s only natural that parents want it all to be a happy time. That’s why it’s so important that we set boundaries and have some discipline tools in place. Children can lose the run of themselves on occasion – often through no-one’s fault. It’s up to us adults, to rein them in occasionally!

When choosing a particular technique it must be one that works for you and YOUR family. There is no one-size-fits-all method of discipline for toddlers/young children. However, the more discipline tools you have at your disposal the better. You may also need to adapt whatever technique you choose at a given time. Sometimes, using one method alone will over time, become ineffective. Keep a close eye on your child’s reaction over time. As with most things child-related, BE CONSISTENT!!

Selective Ignoring

It is not always possible to ignore a child when they are misbehaving, but sometimes this technique works really well. If no-one is in danger of being hurt, then not drawing any attention to what’s going on can be really effective. The child learns that they are not going to get a reaction from their behaviour and will most likely stop just as quickly as they started.

It is not being in any way mean to suggest you ignore your child and I don’t intend to come across that way! You are being asked to ignore the “behaviour” – which is probably only being shown to you in order to get some form of attention. To a child, all attention (both positive and negative) is attention nonetheless! Try not to get emotionally involved with the behaviour your child is displaying. They might say that “Mummy/Daddy is stupid”, but don’t take it personally!


If you start to see your toddler about to misbehave and you see that “mischievous glint in their eye”, intercept them! Find something else to distract them. For example: one child is happily playing with a puzzle. You spot a second toddler eyeing him up and you just know he’s on the way over to bother his friend. Step in and distract the little person before he makes contact! Offer him his own puzzle and breathe a sigh of relief that you may perhaps have just averted World War Three!

For the times when you don’t have the time or energy to deal with potential meltdowns, distraction just might be the answer!

Dealing with Temper Tantrums

I have often found that dealing with temper tantrums can often be a challenging area and I propose a few ways of managing it. Firstly, you could try selective ignoring, as mentioned before. These meltdowns might end rapidly once your toddler sees that you are no longer paying attention or trying to negotiate with them. If your toddler is in a safe place where their tantrum won’t be bothering innocent bystanders, just let them go for it. It allows them to express their emotions and however difficult it may seem, don’t get involved. Anyway, chances are, you may never see those bystanders again!

If the tantrums persist, offer your child a few words of support and encouragement, whilst making sure that you are not adding fuel to the fire! Toddlers understand verbal directions (and the tone in which they are given) a lot more than they are given credit for and for the most part, are well aware of what they are doing!!

Learn how to discern between behaviours that are serious and dangerous and those that are less likely to become big issues. Getting caught up in the small stuff sends out a confused message to your toddler. They will not understand the things that are important to you and the expectations you have about things that really matter. Ignore behaviours that are of low level importance to you and save your energy for the more important issues. In short, ignore petty sibling arguments and react to the times when your children are being physical or hurting each other. One behaviour is obviously more dangerous than the other.

For older toddlers and young children, offer ultimatums – “If you do not eat your dinner, then you may not watch TV later”. Be specific and don’t make empty threats. Follow through on your words. Children have a great knack of remembering all of the times that you don’t stick to your threats!!

Time Out

Time Out can also be very useful if you are trying to diffuse a situation. It allows the toddler (and you) to step away from what was causing the behaviour in the first place. It gives them an opportunity to think about why they are being “punished” and lessens the likelihood of a repeat performance. Take for example a time when your child might be hitting you or another child. Sometimes, even after you tell them to stop a number of times, they may continue to hit whilst looking you in the eye and even smiling. This can be really infuriating. Give your child a warning, “If you hit again, you will go on time out”. Should they continue, then it is up to you to follow through. Give them their time out (one minute per year of age”, ask for an apology and get on with your day. Don’t hold grudges, they are pointless and just use up your precious energy!

My final words of advice – “Pick your battles”!!

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