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How and When to Discipline a Toddler

At what age can you start disciplining your kid? Depends on how well you want it to work.

Trying to discover the secret of how to discipline a toddler can end only in heartbreak and frustration. Because the maddening truth at the heart of trying to discipline toddler age kids is that, in this developmental phase, discipline is the parents’ issue, not the kids’. Toddlers are agents of chaos. That’s essentially how they explore their world. Discovering gravity and the limits of their new physical abilities can be frustrating to watch, but disciplining a 2-year-old who’s in the middle of learning important things isn’t constructive — and is bound to fail. It’s far better for parents to adjust their expectations. The problem is that many parents think that once their kids can toddle about and respond to commands, that means they’re ready to understand consequences. But they’re usually not, making discipline ineffective.

When defiant toddlers throw their bottles, frustrated parents often ask parenting expert Catherine Pearlman, author of the book Ignore It! how to discipline their toddlers. The tough but fair answer is that it isn’t possible. Generally speaking, you can’t effectively discipline a child until they’re at least 2 years old — about the same time your toddler-age kid is ready for potty training. “If they’re ready for potty training, they’re ready for consequences,” Pearlman says.

Meanwhile, ineffective discipline can exacerbate parental frustration — which can result in yelling. A 2013 study published in Child Development highlighted just how dangerous regularly yelling at your kids can be. They found that harsh verbal discipline, such as yelling, swearing, and using insults, was as harmful as hitting or spanking toddlers. Likewise, 50 years worth of research suggests spanking and harsh punishment can lead to mental health problems, cognitive difficulties, aggression, and antisocial tendencies later in life. And yet one in six parents are still doing it. Perhaps, Pearlman suggests, parents flip out at their kids because their misguided attempts at discipline don’t stick.

How to Discipline a Toddler

If your kid isn’t developmentally ready for discipline, it’s not his or her fault. The point of discipline, Pearlman says, is behavioral training — creating consequences to prevent actions from happening repeatedly. If the child is as yet unable to mentally link the consequence to the action, you’re just screaming into the void and your child isn’t sure why. “A toddler running into the street and nearly getting hit, then being pulled back in and scolded, isn’t going to teach an 18-month old not to run in the street,” Pearlman explains. “They don’t have the capacity for this.”

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Instead, for children under 2, Pearlman recommends redirection. Because long before a baby develops logic, he or she develops distractibility. If your kid won’t stop throwing a toy, take the toy away. If that infuriates your little darling (it will trust us) regale him or her with silly voices. “They don’t need to be punished at that age, they just need to stop doing what they’re doing,” Pearlman says. So redirection is key.

Around age 2, it’s time to introduce consequences. But Pearlman says it’s crucial that parents not let punishments become sneaky ways for kids to grab more attention. “When a kid misbehaves they get all kinds of attention from us,” she says. “That in itself is reinforcing and more likely to make the behavior continue.” One alternative to timeout, the ultimate attention grabber, is simply ignoring your child for a short period of time. This makes timeouts less of the game that they’ve become — where kids attempt to win more attention by not facing the wall — and turns timeout into more of the hard reset it was always meant to be. Besides, ignoring is far more relaxing than yelling or policing.

The Four-Pronged Approach to Starting Discipline

  • Wait to discipline a toddler until they’re also ready for potty-training.
  • Distract rather than discipline children under 2-years-old, whose attention can be easily redirected.
  • Avoid harsh verbal discipline, such as yelling, swearing, and using insults, which can be harmful to a child’s development.
  • Create consequences to prevent actions from happening repeatedly, not to simply punish. Allow them to learn from mistakes.

The bottom line is that if a kid isn’t learning from what a parent’s doing, it’s not technically discipline. And if your child is not developmentally ready for behavioral training, you’re just wasting your breath (and potentially causing long-term damage by yelling and punishing too harshly). In any case, no one learns and everyone has a bad time. So don’t think of it as abdicating your parental duties to curb misbehavior. Think of it as saving your strength for bigger battles.

And, seriously, let 1-year-olds be 1-year-olds.