How To Discipline Your Toddler

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One of the most difficult parts of parenthood is navigating discipline. You want to begin teaching boundaries and set your child up to make wise decisions in the future. Don’t wait until your child is older to start these important teaching moments. Here’s what you need to know about how to discipline a toddler.

Tips For Navigating Toddler Discipline

It won’t always be easy to discipline a toddler. There are a few things you can do to make it go more smoothly, though. Here are my top three tips for navigating those difficult discipline moments with your child.

Choose Your Battles

Your toddler is only a child. Children are constantly learning how to process new stimuli and how to deal with big emotions. They are likely to make mistakes and may even behave poorly. Your job as the disciplinarian is to determine what behaviors you’re prioritizing.

Harping on at a young child for every little thing can damage your relationship and their self-esteem. It will be exhausting and frustrating for you as well. Work on one or two issues at once. This will allow both of you to focus on improving, without compromising your relationship of your child’s unique sense of self.

Anticipate Your Child’s Reaction

Knowing what will trigger bad behavior in your child can help you focus on those battles you’ve selected. If you know you don’t want to yell at your child for throwing clean laundry on the floor, wait until nap time to fold clean clothes.

This helps avoid conflict (and extra work for you) while allowing you and your child to focus on your chosen areas of discipline.

You’ll also want to factor in your child’s current emotional state whenever moving forward with discipline. If your child is overtired, you can likely expect a more dramatic response for a correction.

This isn’t to say you should always avoid discipline just because your child is tired. You may want to consider broaching that discipline in a more gentle way or leaving a task for first thing in the morning instead, though.

Don’t Get Emotional

You have a toddler, so you’re likely tired. When it comes to discipline, you probably also feel like you’re repeating yourself for the hundredth time. It’s easy to become emotional and frustrated. As hard as it is, you’ll need to rein in your own emotions when it’s time to discipline your toddler.

Children are sensitive to emotion. Seeing (and feeling) your strong emotions can detract from your message. Rather than hearing the correction and processing the cause and effect of their behaviors, they’ll become fixated on your feelings. This usually leaves the disciplining session ineffective while also leaving you emotionally drained.

Disciplining Your Toddler

Once you’ve laid out the ground rules for yourself, you’ll need to know how to deal with the actual discipline process. Here are some tips I found incredibly helpful when it came to disciplining my own toddler.


Be Consistent

Parenting is tough work. Those times where you’re tired and feel like you can’t follow through on the discipline? You’ll need to take a deep breath and make it happen anyway. Your child is counting on you to get directly to the point because they need those boundaries for their emotional well-being.

Toddlers have a difficult time understanding how their behavior impacts others. This is a peak period of selfishness for them. Being consistent in your response to their behavior helps them identify consequences and form necessary connections.

Get Straight To The Point

Logic isn’t likely to be your child’s strongest suit yet. While explaining what is happening (and why) when it comes to discipline is important, make sure you get directly to the point. Keep it short and make it simple. This will help your child follow along and they’ll get the most out of the experience.

Overtalking and overexplaining can actually diminish what your child is able to process. You’re also more likely to experience heightened emotion when getting into the nitty-gritty.

Don’t fall into the trap of just using the word “no,” though. You do want your child to begin to make those crucial early connections about cause and effect—you need to make sure those explanations are easy to digest. As your child grows older, you can start expounding on your rationale, especially when they start asking you “why?”

Consider Using Time Out

Time out can be a great tool to discipline a toddler. It has the benefit of removing your child from stimuli and allowing their feelings to settle and regroup. You’ll also appreciate the brief time it allows you to step back and put yourself in order for the next step of this approach to discipline.

Keep in mind that time-outs do not need to be lengthy to be effective. Anticipate having your child in time out for one minute for every year of their age. Though it may seem like a short amount of time to you, it’s long enough to be meaningful to your child. Extending the length of time out won’t give you any greater results.

Once your child has returned from time out, you’ll want to have a brief recap discussion about their behavior and what sent them to time out. Give a simple statement of action they can follow to help avoid time out in the future, like, “don’t throw your toys,” or “you shouldn’t hit when you’re angry.”

Making The Most Of Your Discipline Routine

Having a particular approach will help you be consistent when you discipline a toddler. This will help your child’s processing of appropriate behaviors happen more quickly. To get the very most out of your discipline approach, here are a few additional things you’ll want to do.

Avoid Temper Tantrums

If you have a toddler, you’ve likely experienced a temper tantrum or two. This is because toddlers are beginning to form valuable connections and are becoming competent at processing information. Unfortunately, they understand much more than they can accurately communicate—this leads to frustration and explosive emotion.


You aren’t likely to be able to avoid temper tantrums entirely, but there are a few things you can do to help lessen their frequency and severity:

  • Praise the good: Time-outs are effective, but you want to avoid calling attention only to the negative. Catch your child when they’re following the rules and behaving and acknowledge that behavior. “Great job sharing,” and “I love the way you’re cleaning up,” can go a long way when it comes to avoiding tantrums.
  • Don’t micromanage: Your child may be feeling like they don’t have control over anything, which can set you up for ugly tantrums. Help alleviate this by letting them have control over small things. Let them choose from a selection of sides for lunch or pick out the red or blue sweater to wear.
  • Understand your child’s limitations and plan accordingly: Acknowledging your child’s current mood and needs can help you avoid unnecessary temper tantrums. If your child is overdue for a nap, that final errand may make a tantrum unavoidable. While not always convenient, working with your child’s needs can save frustration for both of you.


Don’t keep your child in the dark. If they don’t understand why you feel the way you do, they won’t be able to successfully change their behavior. Communicating your frustrations will also help you process them and get you out of that bad mood faster.

Prepare to make short statements that capture the way you’re feeling—as well as why. Try “It hurts my feelings when you’re rude to me,” or, “I’m angry you jumped on the sofa after I told you not to.” This will help your child begin to put pieces together.

Communicating is a critical piece of how you’ll discipline a toddler. It’s also an important component of parenting in general. You’ll use it throughout your child’s life, so go ahead and get comfortable with it early on.

Stay Positive

When you discipline a toddler, it’s a journey for both of you. Staying positive can help make it less painful and more successful.

Don’t focus on all the things you can perceive as shortcomings—in yourself or in your child. Instead, focus on the things that are going well. Let your child know they’re doing well and they’ll likely continue to do so. Give yourself a break when you feel like you could have done better, and make that your intention for next time.

Need help keeping things in perspective and maintaining a positive attitude? Have a support system in place to help bolster you when you’re feeling low. Parenting groups, partners, family members, and friends can be a great resource. Don’t be afraid to turn to them when you need to recharge your emotional batteries.

Successfully Disciplining Your Toddler

It doesn’t need to be an awful experience to discipline a toddler. Following these guidelines can help make toddler discipline a little less painful and a little more productive. Starting when your child is young can help you avoid major behavioral issues as they grow, so plan on getting off to a good—and early—start.

Cristin is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice, and the loving mother of two wonderful children. In her free time, she can often be found in a yoga studio or catching up on her favorite shows.