How To Discipline A Toddler: What The New Research Says

It’s still not okay to hit your kid, and new research gives parents healthy alternatives.

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A dad hugging his child who is standing in a crib.

Understanding how to discipline a toddler can be a confusing prospect for parents. Advice on dealing with tantrums and meltdowns is both prodigious and sometimes contradictory. Do you put a 3-year old in timeouts or try to reason with them? Can you ever yell? Should you just ignore the bad behaviors? Is spanking ever justified?

Nearly 20 years of scientific literature has clarified some of these questions. Many studies have already provided evidence that harsh parenting and discipline aren’t healthy for toddlers, but more recent studies are helping parents understand why while offering healthier alternatives.

Discipline Research So Far

Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan, has been researching children and families, including the effects of corporal punishment, for over 15 years. He’s now seeing public perception in the United States shift toward what the data has been saying for a long time: It’s never okay to hit kids. Unfortunately, the conversion is slow.

“The scientific evidence is amazingly consistent,” he says. “Sixty-two countries have enacted a ban on physical punishment. There’s a conversation about refraining from physically punishing children, and we are very much out of step with where that conversation is going.”

More importantly, with every contemporary study on child discipline, the understanding of what’s damaging and what works continues to outpace parental behavior. To help parents catch up, here’s a rundown of what the most recent studies are saying about disciplining children.

Parents Should Still Not Hit Kids

Studies continue to show behavioral consequences to corporal punishment as well. Grogan-Keylor contributed to a 2019 study conducted by a team of researchers at the University of Michigan which showed that spanking resulted in violent behaviors in young children, regardless of how healthy child/parent attachment was.

The study followed over 2,200 families and examined the associations between maternal spanking and child externalizing behavior when children were ages 1, 3, and 5. The authors concluded that “Findings support the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 policy statement, which encourages parents to avoid spanking when disciplining children. Results suggest that children, regardless of attachment style, may benefit from policies and services that promote non-violent forms of discipline.”

“One of the theories is that when raising kids, we teach them how to deal with conflict and how to respond if people are not doing the thing you want them to do,” explained Grogan-Keylor. “So you’re teaching kids ‘we hit people’ which is a bad lesson to carry forward to dealing with conflict or people who disagree with you.”

Harsh Tactics Might Change Kid’s Brains

While previous studies have shown that harsh discipline tactics could cause changes in a child’s brain function, a study published in March 2021 by Sabrina Suffren, Ph.D., at the University of Montreal, found evidence that harsh parenting can affect the physical structure of the brain. The study was unique because it used data from children who had been monitored since birth at CHU Saint-Justine by Université de Montréal’s Research Unit on Children’s Psychosocial Maladjustment (GRIP) and the Quebec Statistical Institute.

The study outlines how parenting practices and child anxiety levels were evaluated annually while the children were between the ages of 2 and 9. Researchers observed that the same brain regions were smaller in adolescents who had repeatedly been subjected to harsh parenting practices in childhood, even though the children did not experience more serious acts of abuse.

Sufferen explained in a statement, “It’s the first time that harsh parenting practices that fall short of serious abuse have been linked to decreased brain structure size, similar to what we see in victims of serious acts of abuse.”

Positive Toddler Discipline is Yielding Results

More research is starting to emerge on what healthy toddler discipline entails. Still, it has been slower to materialize as researchers in the US have had to continue to convince parents that harsh discipline is, in fact, unhealthy. Grogan-Keylor expresses optimism, however. Multiple professional organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association now treat harsh discipline as a public health issue instead of a private one.

“Long-term investment in structure, warmth, support, love, communication, compassion are under-researched,” Grogan-Keylor says. “There’s significant work to do, but there’s a solid and growing evidence base around those as long term ways to plant the seeds of good behavior.”

For instance, the 2020 academic text Promoting Positive Behavioral Outcomes for Infants and Toddlers: An Evidence-Based Guide to Early Intervention emphasizes teaching compliance through consistently repeated instructions, follow-through, and enthusiastically praising good behavior. Non-violent consequences are followed by an opportunity for the toddler to make correct choices and receive affirmation for those decisions.

The authors suggest when toddlers disobey, parents wait five seconds before clearly repeating the request. If another five seconds go by without compliance parents can ask if they need help. If another five seconds pass, parents should then calmly and gently guide the compliance. If at any point along the way the child does listen and obey, parents should enthusiastically thank them for listening.

Healthy Toddler Discipline is Hard for All Parents

Don’t be discouraged if these discipline strategies sound great, but seem hard to employ in the heat of the moment.

The Journal of Child and Family Studies published research in 2020 from a team headed by Robert E. Larzelere, Ph.D., from the Department of Human Development & Family Science at Oklahoma State University, that showed even parents with child-centered and long-term goals for discipline were more likely to change course in intense situations.

The study interviewed 105 mothers of toddlers at the university laboratory and then by phone as soon as possible after that. The mothers recalled details of four turn-by-turn discipline episodes with their toddlers and then described their momentary parenting goals, attributions, and negative affect for each episode.

The authors concluded, “Changes in goals were more likely during long episodes, in response to whining or tantrums, when mothers were upset emotionally, and when they reported a combination of both dispositional and situational attributions during the episode.”

How to Discipline Your Toddler

For parents seeking helpful resources, the American Academy of Pediatrics has published a practical guide outlining “10 Tips for Preventing Aggressive Toddler Behavior” that includes child-focused and parent-focused strategies. It also clarifies the difference between discipline and punishment while reminding parents that “Until age three and sometimes later, children simply don’t understand the concept of punishment. Setting limits is a much better approach than punishment; most children will respond to clear, calm, and decisive limit-setting.”

The reality remains that calm and simplicity are essential for parents when toddlers are having a tough time. Understanding the science and knowing what is healthy and unhealthy is a good first step, but over-thinking things will get you to a place where your inner-critic goes into overdrive. Keeping yourself composed and under control will put you in a position to do your best and utilize one or two of the specific tips you have picked up along the way.

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