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Positive Discipline for toddlers

Want to learn more about child development and have fun with your baby? Cecilia’s Galoop classes for babies ages 5-11 months are held every Friday at Magic Beans Brookline! There will be a free demo class on October 24, and a new session will start from October 31-December 12. Learn more about classes and services at Magic Beans here, and learn more about Cecilia and Galoop at and
toddlerhugAs your baby becomes a toddler many questions around appropriate discipline arise: should I try “time-outs”? What do I do when I say “no” and she laughs at me? How should I act when he throws a tantrum? Will she ever understand the concept of sharing and taking turns? How do I redirect her behavior?

Before getting into discipline strategies, we need to understand who we are trying to discipline: young toddlers are impulsive individuals, with very limited self-control. They are curious about their environment and they want to explore. They have immature judgment on what is safe and what is dangerous. They want to become independent from us but they also struggle with attachment behaviors.

Understanding our toddler’s emotional development at this stage will help us choose an appropriate discipline approach. I believe toddlers (and all children) want to do well if they can: they want to please their parents and caregivers. I see discipline as a teaching process, very different from punishment. I suggest avoiding “time outs” as a form of discipline if you can. Of course there are going to be moments when you need to step away for a little while to take a few deep breaths (we all need that), but here are other strategies for positive discipline:

Pick your battles: When you are about to set a limit or say “no” to something really ask yourself, is it truly important for this behavior to stop? If it is not, then let him do it. Typically, important behaviors to redirect involve safety (e.g. holding hands or staying in the stroller when we cross the street), hurting behaviors (biting, pushing, hair pulling) or strong personal/cultural beliefs (e.g. throwing food on the floor is really not ok with me). Once you have these priorities clear, then it is easier to choose the behaviors you want to work on with your child.

Notice and verbalize when your child is behaving appropriately: As we all know, our lives are very busy and we (understandably) pay more attention to our child when his is misbehaving than when he is happily playing by himself. But if we are aware of this situation, we can break this pattern. Give attention to your child when they are behaving appropriately by telling her (“Look at you reading that book all by yourself!”) and/or by giving her a quick hug and a kiss. It does not take long, just a few seconds, and it makes a big difference.

Let them know when they are in control of their environment: Since so many times we have to tell them what to do, let’s also make a point of verbalizing when they wanted to do something and they actually do it. “You really wanted to walk up the stairs all by yourself and you are doing it, good for you!” Later on, if they cannot be in control or have what they want, they will “remember” the times in which they were in charge and they will hopefully accept not being in control this time a bit more easily.

Acknowledge their feelings: When things are too hard and meltdowns happen connect with them by putting into words how they feel: “you are mad, so mad, you really wanted to play with my phone.” And then, state the rule: “but Mommy’s phone is not a toy, I am sorry, honey.” Make sure he knows you know how he feels, that alone helps. After the storm passes, you can also say “you were very upset, mommy loves you so much,” and give hugs and kisses.

Redirection and distraction: This strategy will become less effective as kids get older (after 18 months or so), but it’s worth trying. Offer fun, appropriate alternatives for them to play with or to climb on when they are trying to play with something that is not appropriate or do something dangerous. It is always better from the child’s perspective to have an option of what to do instead.

Teach patience: When your child asks for something she really wants (or points to it) act as if you are going to give it to her: “my wooden spoon, you really want this wooden spoon,” and then say “but wait!” and you can turn around and get busy with something for a moment and then “here it is, good waiting!” Try and do this a few times per day. This skill will come at handy when you cannot meet your child’s demands in a timely matter.

Provide warnings: Give consistent warnings every time your child is about to end something she really likes (“3 minutes until bath time is over, 2 minutes until bath time is over, 1 minute until bath time is over, now it is time to drain the water and get dry”) or is about to do something she generally does not enjoy (“in 3 minutes we need to stop playing with the blocks and change your diaper, in 2 minutes … in 1 minute … now it is time to change your diaper”). The more you do this, the more he will be able to predict what is about to happen and the more he will be willing to do what is needed.

Sharing and taking turns: This can be tough to teach! It will take time and lots of teaching and patience on your part. It is generally easier to share toys when they are not theirs (e.g. they are playing at a friend’s house) and harder when a playmate is using their toys. As they get older, it helps to save a couple of very important toys in a special place and out of reach when friends are over, and “everything else is for sharing.” This technique works well with siblings as well.

Laughing at “no”: It can drive you crazy, but every child will do this at one point or another; you’ll say “feet stay on the floor” and your toddler will start climbing on a table while looking at you and smiling. Remain calm, and try to keep a neutral face (very hard to do when they look so cute!) and be consistent with the limit you are trying to set or the behavior you are hoping to teach. Because consistency is key, picking your most important battles is also crucial; it is hard to keep consistency if we are working on too many things at the same time.

Handling tantrums: First, we do everything we can to avoid tantrums! We give our active child time to run around before going in the car or into the store; we give consistent warnings; we offer alternatives; and we try to provide them with enough rest. When all of this fails (and it will!) we just let them have their tantrum, work out their emotions, acknowledge their feelings, and give them big hugs after the storm passes.

And most important of all, remain calm. Tantrums are a normal and expected part of the life of a toddler. I know you know this, but it is really true. No negative behavior will last forever!

Suggested reading:
The Happiest Toddler on the Block by Harvey Karp 
Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn 
The Emotional Life of the Toddler by Alicia Lieberman 

Cecilia Matson, M.A.
Child Development and Parenting Specialist
Galoop: Child Development Classes for Babies and Toddlers and Expert Advice for Caregivers
Coolidge Corner, Brookline MA and


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