We’ve all heard about the “terrible twos,” so it’s little wonder that you’re asking about how to discipline a toddler. The days can be long—but trust me when I say that the year will be short. Although there are challenges at this stage, there are many incredibly exciting things happening as well, which you’ve no doubt noticed!
The Short Cut
- Toddlers don’t really need “discipline”—their brains aren’t quite ready for it yet—but you can help them learn how to behave
- There’s usually nothing wrong when a toddler behaves in a way we don’t like, like hitting; they’re experimenting with new behaviors
- Redirection is your friend—stay calm and be gentle but firm when correcting behavior, and try shifting your toddler’s attention to something appropriate
While it’s common to view some of the more challenging aspects of toddlerhood as misbehaving, I like to reframe that whenever possible. At this stage, toddlers are truly exploring their growing independence, and a big part of that means testing the boundaries.
Toddlers really aren’t ready for “discipline” as we tend to think of it for older children (and sometimes remember from our own childhoods). For example, they’re too young to link the isolation of a “time out” to the behavior that caused it. Toddler brains are still developing the ability to link actions and consequences, which is one reason correcting their behavior can be so challenging!
But toddlers are learning, a lot. So you might want to approach their behavior from the perspective of how to teach your toddler to behave properly, rather than how to discipline them.
Why Toddlers “Misbehave”
Toddlers are growing quickly and trying a LOT of different behaviors to figure out how they fit into the world and how the world reacts to them.
Many two-year olds experience a “language explosion,” meaning they go from using a few words to having a wide range of words that they can start to use in two- or three-word sentences. Their gross and fine motor skills are also developing, which means they can do things for themselves and by themselves that they couldn’t do previously. In short, there’s a lot going on.
As toddlers grow, they test boundaries they used to accept without argument, and sometimes they re-test old boundaries again. This can be hard for parents (that feeling of “I thought we already figured out the hitting thing!” is a doozy), but it’s perfectly normal.
You and your child are on a unique learning journey together, and it’s OK to not have all the answers or know exactly what to do right away.
How to Correct Toddlers for Hitting
It’s common for toddlers to hit their parents or siblings. This can be a tough moment. It’s shocking when a kid who’s usually sweet and amiable suddenly hits you (sometimes hard!) when they’re angry.
But this doesn’t mean that they’re being mean or are “bad” in some way. Rather, they’re exploring what happens when they take that action, and often they hit out of frustration and limited ability to express their feelings.
Rather than responding out of anger, shock, or fear that you need to nip this in the bud right away, I recommend that you take a breath, remind yourself that your child’s behavior is very common, and that you use the moment to express calmly to your child that hitting is not acceptable in your home. The book Hands Are Not for Hitting by Martine Agassi is a great read for kids at this age.
How to Redirect a Toddler
Because toddlers have a limited ability to change their behavior in the heat of the moment, you may have more success simply redirecting them when their actions are not in line with your expectations.
Continuing to use hitting as an example, let’s say you are holding your toddler and they hit you when you tell them it’s time to transition from play time to nap time. They’re not really “misbehaving,” and your reaction doesn’t need to be about “discipline.” There’s a good chance that your toddler is sad that they need to stop playing. They feel so comfortable with you that they can express their sadness and they’re testing out a hit as a way to express that.
You can gently move their hand away, tell them you don’t like being hit, and redirect their attention to something that’s in line with settling down for a nap, such as reading a book together. They may refuse at first, but if you’re patient, keep trying, and give them time to process their feelings, toddlers will usually move on.
In this scenario, they felt safe and tested an approach you didn’t like. You told them you didn’t like it and then gently moved to something that you both enjoy. The encounter was resolved in a positive way. Being consistent in your response and following through if the situation arises again will help your child begin to anticipate, predict, and learn from these interactions.
Show Them What You Want Them to Do
In addition to learning to appropriately react and to reframe toddler behaviors you don’t love, there’s also an opportunity to communicate (over and over again) the types of behaviors you DO want.
Modeling calm reactions yourself is one great way to do that! Another is to talk about what is expected in your family, such as “In our family, we use our words when we’re mad,” or “In our home, we only touch with love.”
These simple phrases ensure your child feels part of the family, and reinforce the way you want family members to treat each other.
What to Do When a Toddler Seems Defiant
Certainly there are some instances in which a toddler really struggles behaviorally. If you feel your child struggles more than what feels right to you, I encourage you to speak with your child’s doctor. Your health care provider can help determine whether there are underlying issues that need to be addressed.
Building Character with Begin
At Begin, we know that Character is one of the 5 C’s that help kids (including toddlers!) thrive in school and life. And we make it simple for kids to build social skills, one day at a time. To see how, check out our Early Learning Bundle or our toddler-safe, ad-free app that focuses on social-emotional learning: Learn with Sesame Street.