Inside: Tips for how to discipline your toddler without punishment.
When I first became a mom I thought discipline would be easy across the board. I mean I didn’t always think it would be easy to discipline my kids, but I figured as long as I was consistent, that would make it easier.
I didn’t understand when people said they disciplined their children differently. I thought consistency was everything.
I came from a background of working with children with behavioral and emotional disorders. All I had (when working with them) was the program we ran and the structure it provided.
If a kid behaved a certain way that was out of line, they received a specific consequence. Every time. That was the key to getting them to understand that behavior was unacceptable and they needed to change it.
I had to give out the same consequence every time no matter which child it was.
The problem is, working at a residential treatment facility is not the same as parenting.
Don’t get me wrong consistency is key in helping your kids understand limits and boundaries, but your kids will have different personalities and they will learn differently because of that.
It’s just like with you and your sibling or best friend. You each will have different thresholds for what motivates you or causes you to change the way you do something. It’s the same for your kids.
I know for myself, that was hard to swallow when I had my first baby.
I had read a lot of parenting books so I thought if I did what the books said, my kid would turn out to be this angelic little person and I would never have to yell or get frustrated.
Well now I’ll completely own up to being totally wrong about that. I quickly learned that I had to make tweaks in how I parented my daughter.
I took some advice from one book, more advice from another, and so on to match as much as I could the parent I wanted to be, with her personality style.
Toddlers and little kids have a way of getting under your skin in a way no one else can! Their behavior can seriously test your limits as a parent.
What’s possibly even more frustrating is this behavior is normal for kids. So it’s not like if you parent a certain way you’ll never see any frustrating behaviors.
They don’t have impulse control yet so their temper tantrums and meltdowns are on 10. They’re just figuring out their independence from you, so there’s a lot of limit testing.
Related: How to Handle Tantrums
Logically I know my kids aren’t trying to make me crazy but it can be hard to remember that when they’re on my last nerve whining about not wanting to brush their teeth every single night…
While this is a normal stage for your kids to go through, you still need a discipline plan to help teach them what’s acceptable and what’s not.
Notice I’m not saying punish your kids, but discipline or teach them.
Now of course this sounds good in writing but how do you actually implement that?
Here are some tips to discipline your toddler
Set Limits (And Stick To Them!)
So your young children have one job. That one job is to figure out their independence and in doing that, they have to test limits.
“What will mom say if I ask for a snack right before lunch?”
“What will happen if I stick a penny in the wall socket?”
“What happens if I say no I don’t want dinner?”
Of course depending on the age of your child they may not know what the dangers are, but they know to test the limits to see what they’re actually able to do.
Up until toddlerhood, your child was pretty much an extension of you and now as they enter their toddler years they’re understanding they’re a person independent of you.
It’s your job to help them learn the limits by answering the same questions or keeping the same boundaries consistently.
Of course most kids won’t just accept this, they may cry, whine, or tantrum but the more you remain consistent the faster you’re helping them to learn what they are and are not able to do.
Now you may be thinking, girl are you out of your mind?! If I don’t punish my kid, they’ll walk all over me!
But hear me out!
Punishment by definition is to make someone suffer for their bad behavior.
The last thing I want to do is make my kids suffer and I’m sure you don’t want that either!
By punishing your child you’re controlling them. You’re forcing them to do something by inflicting a negative consequence on them.
An example of what punishment may look like is: a kid took a toy away from their friend during a play date a couple times and the next time they do it, the parent makes them leave the play date.
The problem is they aren’t learning how to socialize properly by being forced to leave.
Allowing the child to experience the discomfort of that friend not wanting to play with them because they keep taking toys away would be a better learning experience for them.
Another example could be: a child refuses to eat dinner because they don’t like what their parent made.
The punishment is they have to go to their room for the rest of the night.
This wouldn’t be effective because the consequence doesn’t match the crime. The parent is trying to force them to eat what they made by taking away anything else fun the child might do that night.
A better solution would be not allowing them to have dessert or other snacks for the night. If they get hungry that night, they can eat their dinner or vegetables.
The child is learning they can say no they don’t want the dinner, but should they get hungry later they can have that dinner or vegetables. And if they don’t want either of those, then they’ll be hungry for a while until breakfast.
I personally don’t want to use punishment because I don’t want to force my kids to behave. I know in the long run, it teaches them to lie to avoid those negative consequences or they may end up resenting me because all I’m doing is trying to use force to get them to behave.
I certainly don’t like being forced to do something so why would I want to do that to my kids?
Don’t get me wrong, you want your kids to behave and be good people, but a better way for them to learn is through the natural consequences of their own decisions (within reason).
Use Natural Consequences
In case you’re thinking discipline has to be positive all the time it doesn’t.
Your child can still feel the effects of their choice without any punishment from their parents.
Using the examples from earlier, by choosing to not eat dinner, they may miss out on the after dinner dessert that everyone else is enjoying.
Or if your child is constantly taking toys away from their friend, their friend may not want to play with them anymore.
These are natural consequences of their choices.
Let them experience the discomfort of natural consequences whenever possible because they’ll learn what happens when they make certain choices.
The next time, they may decide to eat dinner because they know they didn’t get dessert last time.
Your kids want to make choices. They want independence. They want control.
You can use those desires to give your kids the power they seek and put the decisions in their hands.
Avoid Power Struggles
Giving your children the power to make their own decisions means you don’t have to power struggle with them.
This is great news because there’s no arguing! You let them know what will happen if they make a certain decision and then it’s in their hands.
Of course this is all within reason.
I would never give my kids the choice to run in the street, hit someone, steal something, or anything that puts their safety or others safety in jeopardy.
I’m saying give them choices whenever you can.
When you enforce those consequences your kids will likely push back, but you can take your own feelings out of it because you’ve already laid out what will happen.
They’re allowed to have their feelings about it but the consequence doesn’t change.
The next time, they’ll probably think harder about the decision.
Of course consistency is key for them to get the same message every time.
If they ask for a toy at the store and you say no three times but the fourth time you say yes, that tells them it’s ok to ask you a bunch of times because even though you said no at first, you eventually said yes.
So give one answer and let that be your answer every time.
I know you’re probably thinking right now, but she just said to be consistent!
Yes I did, but by being flexible I mean if you have more than one kid you may not be able to discipline them the same.
Remember how I talked about my experience working with kids in a residential facility? Using the same discipline methods across the board worked well with those kids, but not as a parent.
My daughter is very headstrong and stubborn yet also sensitive. If I yell, (I wish I didn’t do this, and I’m trying all the time to not do it, but the reality is that yes, I yell sometimes) she gets defensive and yells back.
She doesn’t process the message I’m trying to send to her. She’s much more receptive to me when I’m calm.
She’s very emotional when she’s upset, so it works best when I remain calm and take her away from the agitating situation and have her sit quietly. Then we talk about it afterwards and give hugs.
Related: 11 Tips To Stop Yelling At Your Kids
It’s a different story with my son. If I use a stern voice around him, he immediately stops what he’s doing.
However, he’s very physical so when he has a tantrum, I have to hold his arms so he doesn’t hit or hold his legs so he doesn’t kick.
When he’s done I ask him if he wants a hug, he says yes, and he’s good to go.
That flexibility between how you discipline your kids will come in handy because as they get older you’ll probably have to change your discipline tactics, (just remember to stay consistent once you’ve found something that works!).
Teach Your Children
All in all, discipline is effective because you’re teaching your toddler how to behave instead of forcing them to.
In order for discipline to work you have to set limits and stick to them. Toddlers learn much more quickly what’s expected of them when they experience the same outcome every time.
Avoid punishing your toddler because forcing them to behave with consequences that don’t match the behavior can cause resentment and they also may take longer to learn the right behavior.
Using natural consequences will help put the power in your children’s hands and take away the power struggles.
And be flexible! This is especially handy if you have more than one child because you’re working with the best way to teach that specific child. That flexibility will also be beneficial as they get older because over time your methods of teaching that child may change.
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