6 Discipline Techniques to Consider Trying With Your Toddler

Just like with most other parenting challenges, from potty training to sleep training, there is no one-size-fits-all discipline method that's guaranteed to magically work for all toddlers. The more discipline tools you have at your disposal, the better. Plus, some parents of toddlers find that the more they rely on one single method, the less effective that method becomes—so it's vital to have more than one trick up your sleeve.

What is universal is that kids do best with parenting techniques that honor their unique needs, learning styles, and personalities—and when it comes to discipline, this means tuning into your child and adjusting your approach with those techniques that will work best for your toddler. Below we outline some of the most effective discipline techniques for you to consider.

Redirection

a toddler holding a soccer ball
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The redirection method is just what it sounds like—you use all the passion and energy your toddler is putting into misbehavior and channel it into a better activity.

For example, if your toddler is throwing sand at a playmate, you can remove them from the sandbox and offer a ball instead. That way, your toddler is still doing something they want to do (throwing) but you've redirected them to a more positive activity instead.

This method also works to help connect your toddler's impulse to an acceptable choice. When redirected consistently for the same action, your child will start to learn to choose the more appropriate behavior instead—as in the next time they feel the urge to throw, they will become habituated to grab a ball instead of a fistful of sand.

Distraction

Distraction is similar to redirection but instead of focusing on finding similar but more appropriate activities, the distraction approach funnels the child toward activities that are unrelated to or opposite of the unwanted behavior. For example, if your toddler is picking at a loose strand on a rug and beginning to unravel it or they're wanting to "help" their older sibling build a new Lego set but instead keep mixing up or swiping the required pieces, you can set up a finger painting activity in their high chair.

This distraction gives your toddler something fun to do and gives you time to fix or remove the rug or give their sibling space to complete their project. This method works best with behaviors that are not necessarily inappropriate or harmful, but that you or others might find frustrating.

It's not the best technique for more serious behaviors or repeated issues that need more work because it primarily just shifts a child's attention rather than preventing the behavior from reoccurring or teaching a replacement behavior to do instead (as redirection can do).

Ignoring

Ignoring can be hard to pull off but it can be extremely effective, particularly when you suspect your toddler is seeking the spotlight. Often a toddler will do something you don't like (for instance, make a loud, annoying noise or repeatedly drop a fork and ask you to pick it up) just to get your attention.

For example, if you don't normally swear but happen to do so one day and your toddler repeats it, letting it go can be an effective strategy. There's a decent chance won't happen again unless you make a big deal about it, in which case you're attention might actually inspire your child to keep saying the word. Or, if siblings are arguing but no one is getting hurt, you might try not to get involved to give them a chance to work on their problem-solving skills together.

Targeted ignoring can help encourage your children to stop unwanted behavior while giving excess attention can inadvertently embolden the child to continue it. If their goal is your attention and they get it from breaking rules, then they may see their behavior as a success. Shift this around by focusing the bulk of your attention on something positive they are doing that you want to reinforce instead.

You'll also put an end to many temper tantrums once your toddler realizes you're not going to give back the same volatile reaction. (Note to always make sure your toddler is safe before ignoring the behavior in question.)

Ignoring works best as a strategy when paired with lots of positive reinforcement. You can encourage the behavior you want in your toddler by simply giving extra attention to all the things they are doing right.

Natural Consequences

A bit of inconvenience and discomfort can be a very effective teacher and is in no way unkind if you use common sense. In fact, this discipline method works by using natural consequences to your advantage, taking you out of the equation as the disciplinarian and letting the situation teach your child.

For example, if your child refuses to put on a coat, they may feel chilly at the park or their preschool teacher might not let them go outside for recess. Or, if they throw their food at dinner, they might end up hungry later. Screaming during car trips might result in not going on a weekly outing. These experiences might help your child see the benefits of bringing a coat or eating their meal properly next time—or they'll decide they don't mind the consequences. Either way, this can become a profound learning opportunity, provided without a power struggle and you are free to provide care and support.

Just resist the urge to "fix" everything. Instead, let your child experience the consequences of their actions whenever you can. Feelings of discomfort or disappointment can be a powerful motivator for next time and are a potent real-life lesson in cause and effect and taking responsibility. Don't spare your child every disappointment or try to make things too easy. Watch carefully for these teachable moments—most of the time you won't even have to lift a finger for it to work. Just reinforce verbally: "I asked you to get your toy several times but you didn't pick it up, so now it's at Grandma's until next time."

Not-So-Natural Consequences

Consequences don't have to be natural to be effective, but be careful. Make sure the consequence fits the offense. For example, if a child has a tantrum at the store, you might say they can no longer watch a show when you get home but if you declare they can't have any treats or special activities for a month, you may have gone overboard—and your child is likely to lose sight of the connection between the loss of privilege and the misbehavior.

For the not-so-natural consequences approach to work, your toddler needs to be able to put together cause and effect on their own. Some parents don't like this method because it feels like punishment. Others reframe it from punitive to a learning opportunity and look at it more like getting a speeding ticket. There's a rule and if you don't follow it, so you have to pay a fine and may even lose your privilege to drive. It doesn't take long for kids to learn this cause and effect. Just be fair and consistent. Again, let the consequences teach while you provide calm, compassionate support.

Use "if-then" statements. For example, "If you take your brother's toy away from him, then you will have to leave the playground," or "If you keep throwing rocks at the window, then we're going inside."

Remove privileges or toys if this motivates your child. For instance: "You cannot play with playdough today until you get dressed." The trick is you need to follow through for this technique to work.

Time Out

Time outs can be effective as a way for your toddler to regroup when having a tantrum, which pretty much signals that your child is not able to process their thoughts, emotions, or actions effectively. When offered as a break or coping strategy rather than simply as a punishment, time outs can help stop the behaviors you don't like while encouraging the behavior you want. This approach can also teach your child the valuable skill of stepping away to regroup when life gets overwhelming.

The main goal of a time out is to help your child stop the negative action or out of control moment and reset. Think of this technique as similar to hitting the refresh button on a web browser to reload a stuck page. When implemented in a calm, caring way, time outs can help kids defuse negative impulses and process big emotions. These quiet moments can allow toddlers some space and time to regain control, as well as to reconsider discouraged behaviors.

Try time outs when your child is outwardly exhibiting anger or other big emotions, having unsafe behavior, or is breaking rules. Say, "I can see that you have some big feelings. Take a break until you feel better," or "I understand you're angry, but you need to calm down and stop this behavior." Then physically lead your child to a designated time out area, allowing them to rejoin you when they've regained control.

With consistent use, brief periods of time out (they should be just a few minutes at this age) after giving your child a warning about an unwanted behavior will help them learn that your rules are important and encourage them to make better choices.

A Word From Verywell

Try out the discipline methods that click best with your parenting values and that you suspect will be most effective with your child. When testing out a new method, pay close attention to your child's reaction to gauge what's working (or not) but also give each one enough time (usually at least two weeks) to make an impact. When it comes to discipline, be as consistent as possible but remain flexible enough to shift gears if your method of choice isn't resonating with your toddler.

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