Toddler Discipline: Strategies and Challenges

Behavioral problems and effective solutions for your 1 and 2-year-olds

Disciplining a toddler can feel sometimes like an uphill battle. After all, it's not called the "terrible twos" for nothing. Despite their small size, they can be impressively stubborn and strong-willed.

While they're not yet ready for serious consequences, it's important to start using discipline strategies that will teach them to manage their behavior. It's a good time to start teaching your child how to make good choices.

Discipline strategies for toddlers
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Typical Toddler Behavior

Most 2-year-olds are little bundles of energy. They don’t stop running, jumping, and playing until they’re about to drop. So it’s important to find healthy ways to help your child get out those wiggles.

Toddlers can become easily overstimulated and sometimes have difficulty regaining their composure. Sometimes, a quick break from a stimulating environment can help them calm down. At other times, you may just have to try again another day.

Toddlers explore with all their senses—especially the sense of touch. But their developing motor skills, combined with their impulsive nature, can cause them to be clumsy. So it’s important to teach them how to touch things in a safe manner.

They also love asserting their independence. Don't be surprised if your little one starts using their new speech abilities to say, “No!” and their motor skills to run away from you. Although toddlers can be a lot of work, watching them grow and develop can be fascinating and fun.

Because of all of these developments, toddlers have very specific discipline needs. They require discipline that helps foster their independence, but still teaches socially appropriate behavior.

Common Challenges

Toddlers sometimes lie, but in their defense, they may not understand that they’re lying. It’s common for a toddler to say, “no,” when asked a direct question like, “Did you eat the cookie?” This may be in response to the tone of your voice or your body language that could be communicating they did something wrong.

Remember, toddlers have limited speech so it’s hard to for them to express themselves with their words. Instead, they tend to use their bodies to show you how they feel. That’s why it’s common for toddlers to exhibit temper tantrums when they’re upset or angry.

Aggression is also common. Toddlers lack the skills to resolve conflict peacefully and they don’t yet understand how their choices may affect others. Don't be surprised if they frequently hit, bite, or throw things.

Establish a few simple household rules and enforce them consistently. Toddlers need frequent reminders and have to practice things over and over again. Use the same language each time to help reinforce to your toddler how to follow the rules.

Discipline Strategies That Work

While your discipline strategies should be tailored to your child's needs, these tactics are generally effective for toddlers.

Provide Physical Guidance

Saying “Pet the dog gently," from across the room isn’t likely to be helpful. Instead, show your child what that means through demonstration.

Place your hand over your child’s hand and gently pet the dog. Say, “Gentle touches,” as you do it. Then, whenever you catch your child being rough, repeat the lesson. Eventually, they’ll learn to use more gentle touches.

Showing is much more effective than telling your child what to do, so use hand-over-hand guidance to teach your child new skills.

Remove Your Child From the Situation

Sometimes, little ones just aren't up for the task at hand and trying to force it to happen isn't likely to turn out well. If your toddler isn’t able to maintain appropriate behavior in the grocery store, you may have to end your shopping trip early. Or, if your child isn't listening to your directions at the park, head home and try again another day.

Praise Good Behavior

Toddlers are very receptive to praise. Praise good behavior and you’ll encourage your child to repeat those behaviors.

It's important to catch your child being good. Praise them for playing quietly, trying to dress themselves, or picking up their toys. They will be motivated to keep up the good work when they know you're paying attention.

Ignore Mild Misbehavior

Toddlers often exhibit attention-seeking behavior. Temper tantrumswhining, and screaming can often get worse if you pay too much attention to them because it only provides positive reinforcement that encourages these behaviors to continue.

Sometimes the best response is to purposely ignore attention-seeking behavior. Look the other way, pretend you don't hear your child whining or yelling, or act distracted by something else, like a book.

Then, as soon as the misbehavior stops, provide attention. Say, "Oh you're quiet now. That means you are ready to go outside and play."

Use Timeout

Most toddlers can’t handle sitting in a chair for timeout successfully. They lack the patience and attention span to sit still.

However, you might be able to use a timeout room. Just make sure the room is completely childproof, place your child inside the room, and shut the door.

Keep your child in timeout for one minute for every year of age. So that means a 2-year-old might serve a 2-minute time-out.

Preventing Future Problems

Toddlers can be curious little creatures who want to touch, throw, and bang on everything. It isn’t reasonable to expect them to keep their hands to themselves. Modify the environment so your child can safely play and explore.

Use outlet covers, provide padding on sharp corners, and remove breakable objects. You’ll spend a lot less time disciplining your toddler when they can safely explore the world around them.

Establish a schedule to help provide structure to your toddler’s day. Try to keep nap time, snack time, playtime, and bedtime consistent. Your child’s body will grow used to the schedule when they know when to expect daily activities. 

Help your toddler transition from one activity to the next by giving warnings. Telling your toddler, “In a few minutes it will be time to get ready for your bath,” can help reduce behavior problems when you move from one activity to the next.

Plan your outings in the community carefully. Your trips to the store will be much more successful if your child is well-fed and well-rested. Whenever possible, try to take your toddler into the community when they're likely to be at their best.

Toddlers learn how to behave by watching the people around them. Model the behavior you want to see from your toddler and it can be the fastest way to teach new skills.

For example, rather than repeating over and over again to your child that they should say, “please,” and “thank you,” show your child how to use these manners by modeling it. Be aware that your child can also pick up bad habits when they see you doing them.

Communication Tips

Give your toddler brief explanations only. Toddlers don’t have a long enough attention span to listen to lengthy explanations about why they shouldn’t do something.

Provide short sentences, such as, “No hitting. That hurts me.” As your child’s language develops, you can begin to use more detailed explanations.

As frustrating as it can be to tell your child not to throw things over and over again or to deal with 10 meltdowns before lunch, do your best to stay calm. When you role model how to deal with your feelings in a healthy way, your child will learn to manage their emotions faster.

Take a deep breath, give yourself a timeout, or count to 10 when you need to. And make sure to carve out time to take care of yourself. Managing your stress in a healthy way will help you be the best parent you can be so you can discipline your toddler most effectively.

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