Toddler Discipline: Strategies and Challenges

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

If you find yourself crying out, "Don't touch that!" multiple times per day, you're likely the parent to a toddler. It may seem like every time you sit down, these curious little beings are picking up something they shouldn't. And if your redirections are met by resistance and lots of tears, your toddler sounds pretty typical!

Toddlers often misbehave in their quest to find out what the rules are. After all, they are still pretty new to the world and there's a lot they don't know. "Developmentally, there is more going on in your toddler's brain now than at any other time in their lives, and exploring the world around them with so many newfound skills can easily become overwhelming," says Paul McLaren, a Norland-trained nanny and the former head nurse of Norland College.

The good news is, 1 and 2-year-olds are primed for learning how to behave. It's up to the parents to start teaching them how to behave and what to do, which is what we are here to help you with.

Discipline strategies for toddlers
Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Typical Toddler Behaviors

You may be exhausted from chasing your toddler around all day, and they usually don’t stop running, jumping, and playing until they’re about to drop. Toddlers seem to be full of unlimited energy. They are endlessly curious and seek to explore their world with all their senses—especially the sense of touch. They also love asserting their independence and their favorite word may be "No!"

Additionally, toddlers tend to display the following behaviors:

  • They like to be on the move.
  • They are curious about the world around them and want to touch everything.
  • They want to imitate adult behaviors they see, like sweeping the floor or driving a car.
  • They thrive on consistent routines.

Common Toddler Challenges

You may have denied your toddler their favorite cereal in the grocery store and thereafter been introduced to exactly what an epic meltdown looks like. Tantrums are common during the toddler years. "Where once was a biddable baby there is now a mighty toddler that says ‘No’ a lot, who wants to do everything for themselves whether they are able to or not, and suddenly, does not want to eat the food they used to love or go to bed peacefully," says McLaren.

What is known as the "terrible twos" is often the result of these little people's limited ability to express themselves. When they don't have the words, they tend to use their bodies to show us how they feel. Over-stimulation or overpowering emotions can also lead to toddler tantrums.

The ways toddlers express themselves can also include the following:

  • Toddlers may kick, bite, spit, or scream when they don't get their way.
  • They may run away from you, even when you tell them to stop.
  • They may touch things that are off-limits.
  • They may climb out of their cribs or leave their bedroom after their bedtime.

Discipline Strategies That Work

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

Calming Time

When your toddler gets wound up, it may be hard for them to regain their composure. Emotional regulation is a skill that many little ones need guidance to develop. When your toddler does not seem to have control over their behavior, you may need to help them get it.

Some kids do best with a time-in, where you go with them into a quiet, calm room and hold them in your lap. Other children calm more successfully when left alone in a safe, child-proofed room to work it out themselves. Whether you use a positive time out or a time-in may also depend upon the exact situation.

Explicit Modeling

If you have ever tried correcting your toddler's behavior from across the room, you already know how unhelpful this is. Toddlers need you to show them what to do, rather than just tell them. "When communicating with your toddler, ensure you have their attention by getting down to their level and making eye contact whilst giving clear and concise instructions," explains McLaren. So, instead of just saying "Pet the dog gently," come up close and demonstrate what that looks like.

Some kids in this age group will really benefit from hand-over-hand guidance when they are learning new skills and behaviors. In the example of petting a dog gently, you could place your hand over your child’s hand and gently pet the dog, saying, “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.

Find the Root Cause

Even if it really, really doesn't seem like it, there's usually a reason behind why your toddler is acting out.

Hunger or tiredness can easily spiral into misbehavior, especially since these little people are not always adept at communicating their needs effectively. Not getting enough physical exercise can also set the stage for behavior challenges. It is always a good idea to get curious and try to first address the root cause of tantrums or other problematic behavior.

Even though they may not eat a lot at each sitting, toddlers need three meals and two snacks per day at around the same time each day. They also need 10 to 12 hours of sleep overnight as well as a nap in the afternoon, and about two hours of free time for physical movement each day.

"Try to establish a regular bedtime routine and aim to have your toddler in bed at the same time every night," advises McLaren. "If they don’t want to nap every day, then at least ensure they have some quiet time to re-charge their batteries."

If your toddler's basic needs are met, it may be that they feel misunderstood or they are unable to express themselves in words. "Remember that your child may lack the language to express their frustration," says Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD, a pediatrician and consultant for Mom Loves Best.

Try to identify what it is they are trying to communicate, and give them the words. You might say something along the lines of, "Oh you want to wear a different jacket? Try, 'Blue jacket please Mommy!'"

Remove Your Child From the Situation

If your toddler melts down in the park, it may be time to scoop them up and head to another location. If they keep chewing on the pages of their board books, put those books up on a shelf, for now, taking them down one by one to read them out loud.

"As simple as it sounds, toddlers are usually quite easy to distract, and taking them to another room or outside can often calm them down and help them forget whatever it was they were intent on doing," notes McLaren.

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 you have to leave a situation, you can try again another day.

Notice the Positives

When you see your toddler flushing the toilet, eating with their spoon, tell them! Saying something like, "I noticed that you waited for Mommy to sign you out from daycare before opening the door and going outside," or "I see how you put the puzzle pieces back in the box when you were done," helps to reinforce the behaviors you want.

Offer Choices

Toddlers want to feel empowered, and not feeling so is often a trigger for misbehavior. Providing ample opportunities throughout the day to make positive choices is a great way to increase compliance. And in the moment, if your toddler refuses to put on their shoes, it can help to offer two different pairs and ask them which pair they'd like to wear.

"Offering simple choices can help defuse a potentially volatile situation, but remember that it is important to offer choices that you’re happy with," notes McLaren. "Only offer two options to keep your little one from becoming overwhelmed."

Preventing Future Problems

Toddlers can be curious little creatures who want to touch, throw, chew, and bang on everything. It isn’t always 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. Securing all furniture to the wall (including televisions) is the most important child-proofing task for parents, as these objects are major sources of tip-over injuries.

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. 

You can help your toddler transition from one activity to the next by giving them a bit of warning and letting them feel involved in the process. "Toddlers need time to move from one part of their day or activity to the next so give warnings and be very present during transitions," explains McLaren. "Getting ready for mealtimes, going out, leaving the park, or starting the bedtime routine are all situations that have the potential to result in problematic behavior, so ensure you manage transitions calmly."

Start by clearly letting your toddler know that your current activity is coming to an end. Rather than telling them that you have "a few more minutes" to play, express time in terms a toddler can understand. You could start by saying, "We have time to play with one more toy before it's time for your bath." Then, give your toddler a choice of activity. You could ask, "Do you want to play with the train or read one story before you have your bath?"

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 them when you're at the grocery store or even when you interact with your child. Be aware that your child can also pick up bad habits when they see you doing them.

Ultimately, consistency is key. Remember that toddlers are primed to learn what limits govern their daily lives, and they can be confused when the rules aren't always the same. "[Toddlers] need to know what to expect," emphasizes Dr. Poinsett. They are learning what the limits are and may try to test those limits, so it is up to you to enforce them consistently."

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.

Remember how important it is to be physically close while communicating with toddlers. "Make eye contact with them by getting down on their level," says Dr. Poinsett.

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. "Avoid shouting or yelling and avoid saying ‘No’ unless absolutely necessary in dangerous situations," advises McLaren. When you role model how to deal with your feelings in a healthy way, your child will learn to manage their emotions faster.

Caregivers shouldn't use physical punishment or harsh words to discipline a child. Hitting, yelling, or shaming a child are not only ineffective responses to unwanted behaviors but can also have lasting effects on a child's physical and mental wellbeing.

A Word From Verywell

Toddlers can be a lot of fun, but it can be exhausting trying to corral them, keep them safe, and teach them everything they need to know. It's OK to feel frustrated sometimes. It can be helpful to take a deep breath, give yourself a timeout, or count to 10 before engaging with them again. And always make sure to carve out time to take care of yourself. Managing your stress in a healthy way ensures you can be the best parent you can be and will also help you discipline your toddler effectively.

16 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR and Scary Mommy, among others.

Originally written by Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin

Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, international bestselling author and host of the The Verywell Mind Podcast.

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