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Four Strategies for Disciplining Toddlers That Actually Work

Some of these get a bad rap, but they can be surprisingly effective when used correctly.

Your toddler has some pretty big ups and downs—one minute she’s counting to 20 like a genius and the next she’s got her brother in a headlock because he stole a goldfish from her. Sure, she’s figuring out boundaries and “asserting her independence,” but how can you change those lessons from destructive to constructive? Let’s talk about a range of discipline techniques to help you out.

1. Try Timeouts

Because they are a negative form of discipline, timeouts can get a bad rap nowadays. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend them for anything related to the potty, food or tantrums. But timeouts are still a go-to strategy if she’s touching an outlet after repeated warnings, hitting a sibling or not coming to brush her teeth after you’ve asked her ten times. Here are a few keys to success:

  • Nail down the logistics. Pick a boring place near the center of the action (a step works great) and aim for a minute for every year old.
  • Get everyone on the same page. Kids are master manipulators—if they can get away with something under dad’s watch but not mom’s, they’ll work him every time. It’s confusing for kids when consequences aren’t consistent.
  • Debrief after the timeout. Ask her why she got the timeout and what she can do different next time. Keep it short, give her a quick hug and move on. Rather than forcing an apology, try modeling concern for any human or animal victims instead.
  • Avoid the pitfall of too many warnings. Toddlers will tiptoe that line like a ballerina, so just give one warning. Once your toddler knows you’re for real, a countdown becomes quite effective: “If you don’t put that phone down by the count of three, then you’re going to get a timeout. One ... two ... thank you for listening.”

2. Practice Positive Reinforcement

It can be especially frustrating for us working parents when the interactions we do have with our toddlers feel negative. You don’t want your kid to be in trouble all the time! Enter positive reinforcement, where you set up an incentive before the problem occurs. Let’s look at a few key points:

  • Be very specific. It does not work to say, “If you’re good today, you can watch Curious George.” Focus on one frustrating behavior you want to eliminate. So if your child has been fighting the car seat lately, try this: “We’re going to go get in the car now. I’m bringing Spiderman with me. If you get into car seat right away, then you can have Spiderman! Does that sound like a good idea?”
  • Reward him the right way. When you start, set a low bar for success. He’s smart—once he realizes he has the power to earn things through good behavior, he’ll be more inclined to do it again next time. Keep rewards small. Experiences, such as looking at pictures or listening to a favorite song, are ideal. Sticker charts are a great way to work towards a bigger prize. Take a piece of construction paper and write the grand prize at the bottom. Then draw five blank squares above it and you’re set.

3. Employ “The Circle of Trust”

Dinnertime can be ground zero for your toddler’s bad behavior. Bedtime is in 30 minutes, but she’s feeding mashed potatoes to the dog and shaking milk onto her head. I already told you that timeouts aren’t great for food problems, so what can you do? Let me explain the circle of trust. (Yes, I know I stole it from Robert DeNiro in Meet the Fockers.) When your kiddo repeats the bad behavior you want to discourage, you quickly push her high chair or booster back a couple of feet from the table and go about your eating as if nothing happened. After 30 seconds you ask her if she’s ready to come back to the table and warn her that if she throws food again she’ll be pushed away. Toddlers are quite sensitive to being “out of the circle,” and this is a great low-stress way of changing behavior for the better at mealtime.

4. Make Floor Time

I love floor time. It’s a simple but powerful “backdoor” discipline technique, particularly useful when your toddler is caught in a cycle of seeking negative attention from you. Weekday evenings are a setup for these bad behavior cycles—you have 90 minutes to make dinner, feed your kid, play with him and get him ready for bed. But that fast-paced agenda doesn’t feel so much like attention to him, so he gets it by acting out. Dr. Stanley Greenspan was a child psychiatrist who developed floor time over 40 years ago for kids with autism. But in its simple form it can be a secret weapon for all parents. Try to set aside fifteen minutes several times per week where you are literally down on the floor with your child following his lead. He’s the boss—even if it’s super silly, resist the urge to redirect him. This gives him the attention he craves in a healthier way, and you’re going to have more happy time with your kid. Whichever technique you’re using with your toddler, remember to think firm but loving—be confident in your bond and in the person you’re trying to raise!


Dr. Luke Voytas is the author of Beyond the Checkup from Birth to Age Four: A Pediatrician's Guide to Calm, Confident Parenting. He is a full-time pediatrician at Evergreen Pediatrics in Vancouver, WA. He has also served as the chair of pediatrics at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, the largest hospital in southwest Washington. He is known for his ability to help even the most anxious parents learn to feel confident about what they're doing for their kids. He lives in Portland, OR, with his wife (who is also a pediatrician) and their kids.

Written by Luke Voytas M.D. for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.


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