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Tips for Disciplining Young Children

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Teaching young children how to control their own behavior is a daily challenge for parents. There is a lot you can learn from experts and books, but until you're in the trenches, it's hard to know what will work for you and your child. So what's a mom or dad who's faced with toddler tantrums, defiance, or general mischievousness to do? I suggest you keep a few key discipline rules in mind.

Rule 1: Know which discipline techniques are appropriate for this age.
Sometimes I wonder if discipline will be easier when I am just able to take away the kids' car keys and smart phones. For now, I need to be a bit more savvy with my toddler. There are some very effective discipline techniques for this age such as redirecting your child's focus and using time-out. You may need to test these options out to see which ones are most effective for your family since no method works for every child (and no method will work for every situation).

Two things to remember when using these techniques:

  1. They require consistency and practice. When you find a method that feels comfortable for you try to do it the same way all the time: for instance, have a regular spot for time outs.
  2. Don't feel like a failure if you don't do it right. It can take time and several tries to get the hang of things like redirecting a toddler's attention.

Rule 2: Think of "Guiding" Your Child's Behavior vs. "Disciplining"
Discipline, to me, insinuates that you're correcting someone for breaking a rule they knew and understood. But chances are your toddler doesn't really get or remember most rules. Or perhaps he wasn't sure it was a permanent rule; maybe "Don’t climb the bookcase!" is one of those temporary rules we create all the time (like when we say, "Don’t go in the kitchen," but we really mean, "Don’t go in there right now because the floor is wet.")

On the other hand, "guiding," reminds me that I am first and foremost a teacher. I'm here to steer him in the right path. That means, when I tell him he's making a mistake, I can take a more positive disciplining approach.

Rule 3: React to Behavior Immediately
Before age 3, your child's memory is very limited. Waiting to address bad behavior until you're out of the store or home from grandma's house is not going to be effective. Kids won't remember what happened and so they won't connect the discipline with the act, which means they'll probably do it again.

It's understandable if you feel embarrassed or self conscious about disciplining your child in public, but it's something that all parents must learn to do. People around you might have an opinion when they see your child misbehaving or you reacting to that behavior, but it won't be the last time someone judges your parenting, unfortunately. Try not to let it interfere with what you need to say or do to help your child, even if that means you put her in time out in the frozen food aisle of the grocery store.

Rule 4: Don’t Scream
I admit this is a tough one for me. I aspire to be a calmer, non-yelling mom. Often I fall short. We all loose our cool from time to time, but learning not to blow up in response to a child's behavior is a skill that will pay off big time if you can master it.

The reason is simple: when we scream we look just like a tantruming toddler (minus the body thrashing I hope). Our kids learn from us; if we explode at a situation they think that's an appropriate reaction. And the last thing I want to do is encourage more tantrums.

Rule 5: Pretend He's Someone Else's Kid
No, I am not suggesting that you give your toddler to the neighbors next time he acts up. But you might try treating him like the neighbor's kid. For whatever reason, I am a thousand times more patient and less likely to explode when I am telling my nephew or my child's playmate to stop pouring chocolate milk into the fish tank. I'm sure it's partially because I don't want to annoy the other child's parents and partially because I care less what the other kid is doing. But if I can find that calm voice and more clear-headed response for someone else, I am sure it is in me to use it when correcting my own offspring.

Bottom line: Our job as parents is to help little children learn where the limits are and what's "good." Believe it or not, your toddler wants to know these things. Being clear and fair in how you react to bad behavior will be more effective than rash, reactive responses to misbehavior.

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