How To Discipline A Toddler: 24 Ideas Worth Trying

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Last Updated on October 9, 2020 by Creative Parenting

If you’re looking for ideas for how to discipline a toddler, this post’s for you.

The transformation of your baby into a little person with ideas of his or her own can leave you feeling mystified…

So, let’s dive into some ideas that’ll help demystify how to discipline your toddler.

So, the first signs our son showed of starting to challenge authority began around the 1.5-year mark.

Our conversation went like this:

Us: “Sweetie, step down from there.”

Him: Smiles back. Doesn’t move.

Us: “Ok buddy, can you step over in the living room and away from the fireplace mantel?”

Him: Keeps smiling. Doesn’t move.

Us: “Ok Mr., time to step away”…

And so on. This continues until we finally convince him to move. Or get up and hold his hand and physically guide him to where we want him to be.

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar?

After you get through the first year of parenting and your little one starts getting closer to two years old, you might find yourself asking:

How To Discipline A Toddler?

When you think about it…

It’s remarkable how quickly we go from caring for a small baby 24/7 to having a little person running around, laughing, playing… and testing boundaries.

If you’ve ever caught yourself feeling surprised that it’s happened already…

…and at the same time wondering about the best way to manage this, know that:

You’re not alone.

We say that as the parents of two.

Because we’ve asked ourselves that same question.

And it’s got us wondering, researching, and dreaming up new ideas regularly. All so we can constantly uphold safe boundaries while letting him explore to his heart’s content.

Because we all want our kids to be happy.

Picture a small child's hand touching an adult's to show connection.

So we’ve gathered a few ideas, techniques, and tricks. Some we’ve used, some successfully, and some we’re continuing to refine.

Now, it’s worth repeating that these ideas are opinions. We’re not professionals, of any kind. Just other parents like you figuring out things as we go along figuring out how to discipline a toddler.

And there’s so much info out there it can be overwhelming. Sometimes I agree. But sometimes I don’t.

I was inspired by this article in USA Today on the topic, so I’ve distilled down some of my best ideas below.

So:

Without further ado, here’s my 15 ideas on:

Tips On How To Discipline A Toddler

1. Remember How Much They Understand

Now, I don’t know about you…

…but I find it’s easy to forget how much our little guy has learned. And how much he can understand. I’ve heard people say toddlers understand so much more than they can say. And I think that’s true.

In my recent experience, he seems to know what’s going on more often than not. Even if he doesn’t always comply when we’re trying to enforce rules, I can tell can understand.

I think this is important not to forget, for a few reasons.

One is that besides just keeping them safe and making sure they follow our rules, our job as parents is to help them understand the world around them.

For me, part of that is NOT forgetting how much they DO understand.

Because if I forget this, then I might not feel like taking time to explain things to them so they know the WHY for the rule, rather than just hearing me say NO all the time.

In other words, context is important. I don’t want to be an arbitrary enforcer of rules. So I try to explain the why along with the rule itself.

Because I figure if he does understand the context, he’ll be able to let me know what he’s thinking.

And that brings me to the next idea:

Two children playing and showing communication.

2. Encourage Them To Communicate

When our son first started talking, I’d often forget to nudge him to connect new words together.

But I quickly got over that.

In time, I remembered some basics from the years I spent studying foreign languages in college.

I’m no language acquisition expert, but I did learn a few things from the hours I’d spent with flashcards trying to remember and use German.

And one of those lessons was consistently building and repeating language and words I’d learned, and adding to it. For example, if I learned a new word, using it in different sentences with other words I know.

So I started doing this with our son. And I think it’s helped put things in context, faster than he might have otherwise.

What does this have to do with discipline?

Well, my thinking is:

the faster he can learn to communicate, the less frustrated he’ll be in asking for things he needs (like a snack), and so it’ll reduce the chance that he acts out.

Plus, I think it’ll help cut down on whining in the future.

And THAT will help cut down on the number of times I need to do the next thing:

3. Why You Should Be Consistently Firm

Picture a child reacting by holding hat when Mom is being firm to their demands.

You may have heard it before: Consistency, consistency, consistency.

And in my experience, that’s sooo key. Especially when it comes to setting boundaries and enforcing rules.

Because you don’t want to be changing up what the rules are every day. He’s learning so much so fast, it’s good for him to have some familiarity.

Even if it’s just simple little things like staying away from the fireplace mantel like in our house.

Now there’s a good chance you are already trying to do this. But it doesn’t always work or, if you are re-iterating something you’ve told him a million times, then it’s time to try this next technique:

4. A The Secret To Hearing “No” Less: Give Them 2 Options

One thing I realized once our son was older and talking more was that I had been in the habit of asking him yes or no questions.

This was fine when he was a baby. But once he started talking, I realized that more often than not he would say no.

So, when it came to figuring out how to discipline my toddler, I had to take a different approach.

I think part of the reason for this was that it was just easier for him to say no than to say yes. So very quickly I started hearing and know a lot.

And it at first it caught me off guard. And I quickly realized my mistake. So I started using this technique because it was easier to do this than to break my habit of asking yes or no questions.

So I started it just giving him two options: Do you want to do A or B.

In other words: I stopped giving him the option of saying no. And sure enough, it started to work. I started hearing fewer “No”s.

So give it a try. The next time you accidentally ask a yes or no question, think about what you want them to do, and then give that as one of two options.

Make it a choice. That shifts the dynamic.

5. Give Them The Context And The WHY

A picture of a grey question mark against black background indicating you need to explain "why" to kids.

We talked about explaining things before. Now we’re going to elaborate on that. Specifically, talking about them giving them why.

And what do I mean by this?

Giving them a reason for why you’re telling them no, or asking them not to do something.

So back to the story that I talk about in the beginning, abut telling our son to not get close to the fireplace:

I’d also give a brief explanation to explain to him why I didn’t want him to do this. It would go something like this:

“I want you to step away from there because it can be hot and you could get hurt.”

Contrast this with:

“Please step down from there”

In the first, you get some context and explanation. In the second you using more words to say no.

In my book, the second is more productive than the first.

And it shifts the conversation in a more positive direction. And that leads us and to our next tip.

6. How To Discipline A Toddler? Learn To Say YES!

Now, even if you use the above steps you still going to have to say no a lot. So this tip is for when you’ve exhausted and everything else and don’t know what to do.

Flip it around and just start saying yes.

Now to be sure I’m not advocating doing anything dangerous.

All I’m suggesting here is that you consider saying yes to the things that you normally would say no to.

And in a way, this is a mental exercise.

You can ask yourself:

Is there a real reason I’m saying no to this? Or is it just my personal preference?

Because I don’t know about you, but I certainly have many personal preferences for why I want my son to do or not do.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that if he does do them it’s the end of the world,

So try it out sometime, and see what sorts of fun might happen as a result.

You might find that they have some fun ideas. And if you listen more to their ideas, maybe they’ll start to listen to your feedback and take it more seriously.

Saying yes a few more times than no might mean a more interesting, exciting, and fun weekend.

On a side note, I think teaching your kid to say Yes! is a good skill to cultivate too. Life’s all about getting and thriving with new experiences!

7. How To Discipline A Toddler: Tell Them What You Want Them TO Do

Similar to shifting your perspective around and saying yes to your little one, is remembering to tell them what you want them TO do.

Now your first thought may well be, “this is obvious.”

But here’s the thing…

In my experience, oftentimes when I think I’m telling him why I want him to do, I’m really just telling him what I DON’T want him to do.

So for example if I don’t want him to be standing on something, I’ll say:

“Please stand on the floor and not on the bag of paper towels.”

Instead, try this:

“Let’s play with your blocks and not stand on the paper towels!”

Did you see what I did there?

Yes, the latter part of the sentence was still a soft no, But the first part took a different approach entirely.

It presented a positive option as a way of redirecting his attention.

I found that when he does those little things that he knows he shouldn’t do, he often just wants attention or needs a new activity to engage with.

So a simple redirect and refocus of his attention will often do wonders to get him to do something I want to do.

8. Revisit Your Mental Checklist

Do you remember the days of having a newborn baby?

Once you have a toddler it can be easy to look back on those early months with nostalgia.

Even though you might not have been sleeping, in a way, taking care of a newborn baby seemed easier.

Once they’re a toddler and running around, it seems like everything is more complicated.

But sometimes it’s useful to remember not to over complicate things too much.

Here’s what I mean:

If you’re like me when they were young babies, you had a checklist he went through when they were upset: Is he hungry? Give him something to eat. Is he tired? Then it’s time for a nap. I think you get the idea.

The main point here is that even though they seem a lot older and bigger to you, they are just barely past being a baby, and they can’t always communicate their needs.

So it pays to return to the trusty old mental checklist you used for meeting their needs you used often when they were babies.

You might save yourself more than a few meltdowns by not forgetting it.

Ok, next tip!

9. Adjust Your Patience Timeline

Just as your patience with your child will need to shift as they get older, so too will your own patience with yourself.

This relates to something I touched on the tip about the checklist.

Even though they’re older and starting to understand more, perhaps even talking some, they’re still just little kids.

Now, this might seem the most obvious comment to you, But it’s something that I find myself for. I think part of the reason for this is because our little guy is talking more than I thought he wouldn’t this age.

And it’s almost like this plays a trick on my brain.

So I often have to remind myself that he’s not even two yet. And adjust my patience and expectations accordingly.

Because when I start to think he’s older than he is, my expectations for him change as a result.

And then I end up being less patient with him than I should be. Once I realize that then it’s time to reset my time horizon.

10. Give ‘Em Something Shiny!

Is your little one acting up? Just Distract them with a new or shiny object.

It could be a game, activity, or song.

It could be an outing you take as a family. The main idea here is that kids have short attention spans.

So before you necessarily involved some type of harsh punishment you might just need to engage their brains.

You’d be surprised how quickly and that can shift their behavior.

11. Be More Stoic Than A Rock

Cultivating a sense of patience is important. But it also pays dividends to learn how to be stoic.

In other words:

Staying calm, and not overreacting when your little one has a complete meltdown.

Whether it’s in a store, grocery store, or some other public setting, It will happen eventually…

Your little one will have a complete meltdown. And there won’t be anything that you can do about it.

Other than just stay calm and not freak out yourself.

That’s why I like to imagine a rock. A literal, lifeless stone.

And then in those moments when things get really crazy…

I transform myself into that stoic rock.

12. When Figuring Out How To Discipline A Toddler: Remember They Don’t Know ANYTHING

When my son was about seven months old he started standing up in his crib. And that was exciting at first until I realized there was a problem:

He didn’t know how to sit down.

It sounds so simple. Comically so.

But he literally did not know what to do after he stood up.

And his little muscle system seems so excited to stand up that he went through a phase where he just would stand up no matter what.

And after a couple of nights of losing sleep because of this, I realized I needed to teach him:

How to sit down.

With this experience I learned an important lesson: Our babies and toddlers don’t know anything. It’s up to us to teach them.

And that’s important when you’re figuring out how to discipline a toddler…

So try and remember that the next time your little one is acting out.

Maybe there’s something they don’t know about what’s going on, and that lack of knowledge leads to anxiety and acting out.

13. DON’T Forget To Tell Them You LOVE Them Every Day

Remember:

Life is short.

Even if the challenges of disciplining a toddler feel overwhelming today…

… there’s a good chance they aren’t going to last forever.

So…

Do yourself a favor and make it a habit to tell your little ones you love them EVERY day.

Because the truth is, none of us know how long we have with our kids.

I know that sounds drastic.

But for me it serves as a reminder: To let them know I love them and tell them often.

And the way I see it: actively cultivating my relationship with my son and reminding him often that I love him, establishes a loving baseline relationship for when I do need to discipline.

14. Teach Them New Words & Context

I don’t know about you, but for me, lotta challenges with discipline come down to communication when you’re figuring out how to discipline a toddler.

The way I see it – when he gets upset or acts out, it’s because he wants to communicate something but can’t!

He just doesn’t have the words – yet.

So I make an effort to teach him new words on a regular basis. I pay attention to the new words he’s learning, and when I use new words try to make sure to use ones he knows.

And build on it from there. Then, I like to explain the context of what I’m saying.

So that he understands. It’s similar to what my foreign language teachers did in high school and college.

And I think it helps!

It’s laying the groundwork for long term learning.

And the faster and better he learns, the smoother this next topic will be:

15. The Real Way How To Discipline A Toddler? Hold On For The Roller Coast Ride!

Last but not least…

Hold on for the ride!

And try to live in the moment and be more present.

Because in my experience:

When I made a concerted effort to be a more mindful parent, it pays off in many ways.

16. Talk to Them Like A BIG Kid

If you’re the parent of a toddler, you know how fast their mood can change!

Sometimes the change happens in 5 minutes or LESS.

One minute they’re talking to you sweetly…

And the next?

They’re screaming at you.

Melting down.

Kicking their legs on the floor.

And for parents? It’s exhausting!

One strategy we’ve found that helps mitigate this is to talk to them like they’re adults.

That’s right:

Have regular conversations with the kids, even if you have a baby.

Try this and you’ll start to think of them as a whole person…

…as opposed to a walking emotional wreck.

You see, to keep your own emotions in check you can’t get too angry or too upset. You’ve gotta keep an even keel.

In other words?

Talk to them like a regular person!

Next up:

17. Do This Tip Spontaneously And You’ll Surprise Them

The other day our son did something that had me first laughing and then pulling the phone out to take a video:

It was an exchange with a piece of new technology in our kitchen that we’re still adapting to.

Maybe you have this type of device in your house too?

They’re pretty new (at least to us).

So it’s something families are figuring out how to integrate into their lives.

And while it could just be another screen and source of distraction…

It doesn’t have to be.

In fact, you can use it as a “discipline” tool. Anyway, that’s what I realized in this one exchange.

And I was surprised at how well it worked.

And if you already have this kind of device in your house, you could see a similar result if you use it a similar way…

You see, he figured out how to ask Alexa to play his favorite song….

It’s You’ve Got A Friend from toy story…

And even though his speaking skills are still developing and he doesn’t quite say it correctly…

He still managed to say “Alexa, play you’ve got a friend in me.”

And sure enough, she started playing the song.

I laughed while watching this play out. And I began to wonder if I could somehow use this as a “discipline tool.”

You see, “disciplining” our toddler often can be as simple as distracting them.

And sometimes, it can be tricky if you run out of ideas of things to try…

So it’s helpful to keep a “distraction toolkit,” a repertoire of things that you can rotate through. You can use a handful of ideas to either distract or redirect their attention.

One idea way to do that is by having them ask Alexa (or whatever smart home device you use) to play their favorite song.

Try it sometime.

If you don’t have a smart home device like Alexa, it might be worth the investment.

And if you try that, and it doesn’t work, then this next tip is for you.

18. Fall Back on A Regular Activity

Having a handful of regular activities as your go-to is a key part of your discipline toolkit.”

With these at hand, you don’t have to expend any extra energy to be creative in moments of frustration.

And in the moments that your toddler is melting down, you can buy some time by simply mentioning them aloud.

The possibility of doing their favorite activity can dissipate the negative energy of a meltdown…

You’ve only gotta plant the seed of this possibility in their heads.

So stop what you’re doing.

Figure out if you can get them to a different location.

And then put the idea out there.

It won’t always work.

But it’s a good chance to get ‘em distracted, and then out to the park or wherever they love to go.

Our next tip is in case you can’t take them to the park, what you can do instead:

19. Think of Something That Excites Them…And Do THAT

This tip can help with all sorts of discipline situations with your toddler.

Consider this:

Do you get distracted when you get excited?

One minute you’re ruminating on something at work…

And then you get the news that has you jumping up and down. Or rushing to tell your spouse about the news.

You can use distraction for a similar effect with your toddler.

Redirect their attention. You’ll shift their emotional state from negative to POSITIVE.

They’ll be jumping for joy with excitement, and so will you…

Cause that’s what this tip is all about:

Think of something that excites them and then do that.

Whether it’s listening to their favorite song or going downstairs to run around and kick around an indoor soccer ball…

…the excitement of doing a favorite activity will FLOOD your kids’ brains with good vibes. That alone can overpower any negative energy.

So, instead of wallowing in a ball of negative energy…

… you’ll LEAP forward into a positive headspace.

Once you’re there, it’ll give you the perfect chance to do the next thing…

20. Put Your Screen DOWN

We’re going to talk about something that’s the opposite of what you’ll often hear with screens.

Have you ever had a moment of reflection when looking at your phone and realize your kid is talking to you?

We have too.

It’s common nowadays for parents.

Here’s why:

First, we’re all distracted. From social media to news to weather, there’s an endless stream of things we want to keep track of on our phones.

Second, we use our phones for EVERYTHING.

And this makes it exponentially harder to put them down.

If they were only for entertainment that’d be one thing.

But since we do everything from watch movies to pay the bills on them, it always seems like as soon as you put it down, you’re gonna need to pick it up again.

And yet, even then putting it down for a bit can be magical.

The key is to do it in small chunks of time.

Don’t imagine that you’re going to start off going a whole day without your smartphone or something.

Keep it to short breaks.

Like the few minutes, you need to deal with a toddler meltdown…

So the next time you feel a tantrum erupting…

Put. The. Phone Down.

Be present.

The future you will thank you.

Imagine 30 years from now how you want to look back and remember your days with your little ones:

Chances are it won’t be that you spent your time surfing your phone.

So…

if you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness there’ll be some resources at the end.

And once you’ve put the phone down and start paying attention, you might have to do the next thing…

21. Change Your Tactics Faster Than Jason Bourne

Ever see those Jason Bourne movies?

In the movie the Bourne Identity, Jason wakes up with amnesia in Europe and makes it to Germany and the U.S. Embassy.

Once there, he realizes that his attempt to seek help has alerted the authorities and they are suspicious of him.

Sensing danger, he quickly shifts gears and makes a daring escape from the Marines, climbing out a window and down the wall and fleeing by car.

You see, he went into the Embassy with one plan but switched when the circumstances change.

Sound familiar?

If you’re the parent of a toddler, that’s practical life every single day.

You go into a situation with one plan, things change, and you’ve gotta switch gears to a new plan.

And while it might seem like a fast-paced action movie doesn’t have anything to do with toddler advice…

When you think about it, that’s actually a pretty good lesson.

If something’s not working, it’s not working.

While you might feel obligated to keep doing something just because you read it in a book or learned it from an expert…

…at the end of the day, we’re dealing with humans here.

So the tl;dr is:

Nothing is set in stone.

If you try something and it ain’t working…

Switch gears!

22. Let ‘Em Discover Natural Consequences

There’s a trick you can use to manage your internal surge of fear…

…like when you’re out and about and your toddler and takes off running.

While it might cause you some heartburn in the short run…

In the long run…

…this approach is a VERY good thing.

Now, you have to be selective when you use it…

But a selective approach will help you in several ways.

Let me explain.

The idea is to quit sweating the small stuff.

 If you see your kid about to make a choice that, with natural consequences, will result in a foreseeable outcome that could be negative, just let them go for it!

Here’s why:

There’s a 50/50 chance that with most things if you keep to everyday situations that are small and fairly inconsequential…

If something goes awry, it’s not gonna be a big deal.

For example:

The other day our three-year-old was climbing on the armrest of the sofa, balancing precariously…

As soon as he was there, I started to feel frustrated.

When I realized the emotion welling up, I caught myself.

Now normally in the past, we’d sternly ask him to get down.

But this was an opportunity for a different approach:

So I decided to be patient, let him be up there, and kept re-iterating that he needed to get down.

After a few rounds of this, I gave him a choice:

Either you can get down, or I will come pick you up and put you down.

And eventually?

He got down.

Problem solved, without a meltdown!

I combined two strategies here.

The idea of giving toddlers a choice in decision-making. And the idea of not fretting small consequences.

It gives them a choice.

23. Model Positive Social Behavior

Now, this insight isn’t what you’d traditionally call ‘discipline”…

But if you get this right, it’ll help in the discipline arena.

We realized the value of the strategy we’re about to talk about recently…

And so one day last week we were out for a walk at the park and ran into a neighbor our son has chatted up.

She’s a friendly retired lady. She goes for a walk around the same time each day that they do at the same park.

We’d heard all about her from our son…

…because as it turns out, he’s a social butterfly.

And we were reminded of this when we were out on a walk at the local park…

Our son said “hi” to everyone we passed.

It’s like he was running for mayor or something!

And talking with our au pair later at home, we learned that this sort of social outgoing was something she always does…

She says “Hello!” to people when out and about.

As introverted parents, it’s not our default style…

Our son picked it up from our au pair.

You see, there’s an important reminder here:

Model positive social behavior.

 Remember:

Your kids are watching how you behave. And they’re taking notes.

Once you hit the toddler phase with them, they’re basically a sponge…

Especially as their language skills develop.

So take it as an opportunity to model appropriate social behavior.

It’ll help them, in the long run, to learn how to regulate their emotions and respond appropriately.

Whether it’s saying hello out at the park or managing frustration when you don’t get what you want!

Model the behavior you want them to have.

Ok, let’s dive into the next tip.

24. What To Do When Your Toddler Doesn’t Listen

It’s so common you don’t even have to explain it…

Toddlers are notoriously bad listeners.

In our case, we sometimes say that it’s not that our words go in one ear and out the other…

… they go over our son’s head entirely.

And it’s true.

But what’s often hiding under this cliché is how frustrating it can be when you actually NEED them to LISTEN.

It’s tough to keep your frustrations in check!

You talk and talk and talk.

And it blows to the wind. Right over their heads. Meanwhile, they’re running around the dinner table playing whatever game they’re into…

…and ignoring you completely.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting frustrated when this happens.

After all, we are only human.

It’s going to happen.

What you gotta remember is:

There’s nothing wrong with getting frustrated. What’s important is how you handle that frustration.

And that means redirecting your feelings of frustrations away from a negative reaction to a positive. This is suggested as a strategy by recent research.

If you don’t make this a priority, you can lose yourself to the negative emotions.

So remember this:

A small change in how you react to your toddler’s meltdowns can actually have long-term benefits.

New research has indicated this as something that actually strengthens the ability of your child to regulate emotion.

So next time your toddler’s having a meltdown over something you don’t want them to do…

Take action to establish a physical connection.

And then talk to them about what you want them to do.

This can help their young brains develop and make connections that’ll help them regulate their emotions better.

Try it next time you’re dealing with a meltdown, and drop us a comment below to let us know how it worked.

Conclusion

That’s all for today!

As always, thanks for reading and stopping by.

For more ideas, insights, and tips from Creative Parenting check out our home page here.

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