Ahhh that age-old question, how does one discipline toddlers?

Most parents and caregivers would agree that the toddler stage can be a challenging period for them in regards to taking care of a child, let alone disciplining them. 

From having limited mobility and verbal communication just months before, a toddler now has the urge to climb everything, run around almost every waking hour, generally cause chaos, and then on top of that, tantrums. 

What if I tell you that toddlers can be self-disciplined? 


What does toddler discipline really mean?

A lot of us grew up hearing many versions of how discipline should go. We may think it means being quiet and keeping still, sitting in a chair. But that kind of discipline can restrict a child’s curiosity and make them afraid to move around, which is developmentally damaging for a toddler.

Self-discipline means one is able to behave appropriately without an external influence, and disciplining toddlers are somewhat same.

When a toddler learns to act with consideration for the child’s environment, they will learn what it means to be a part of society. This is one of Montessori’s goals for nurturing a young child– for a child to help bring peace into the world and that peace starts within the child.

Discipline in toddlers means lots of modeling

If you notice, toddlers are good imitators. I’m sure I’m not the only mom out there who has had their toddler repeat words that they shouldn’t!

They are in this stage where they absorb everything that they see and hear. With that said, the best way to instruct toddlers is to show them how to do it. This applies even to the littlest of things. 

For example, if you want to teach a toddler to drink from an open cup using two hands, you might want to make a habit of drinking using two hands until they can learn to do so. If we want them to stop yelling, then yes… we need to stop yelling and consider at our own volume and tone if we are being too loud when we speak.

A guide to discipline toddlers

The Sensitivity to Order can help with Self-Discipline

Consistency is also a key element in instilling self-discipline in toddlers. As they are in a Sensitivity Period for Order, they would better understand a rule if we adhere to it every time. 

Also, a daily routine or rhythm can be beneficial to both the child and the adult to establish order in their day. You don’t have to follow a strict schedule to the minute but following a general sequence of activities throughout the day gives a toddler the confidence of what to expect and this gives them a sense of order. If you want to learn about the daily routine of Montessori toddler, Check out this post.

When the toddler knows what to expect, there is less upset and less need for you to shout, bribe, and cajole but for that to happen you need to have mini routines in place that you stick to consistently. To discipline toddlers, you should be disciplined too.

For example, establishing a routine to make leaving the house with kids easier. (This post will give you some pointers if that is a sticking point for your family)

In the Wonder Mom Success Club, we go into more depth with this, what it looks like for your family and how to create micro routines that fit with your family’s needs.

Connection and trust lead to cooperation

Toddlers at this point in their life are developing their will. It can be a challenge to get them to cooperate as I’m sure you’re well aware! A good relationship with a toddler gives them the security that they are safe with you and they can trust you. 

This can often look like a child being “naughty” or “misbehaving” at home even though they are as good as gold when they are out of the house. It all comes back to you being their safety net.

Connecting with a child can look like simply spending the time to be with your toddler with your full attention like doing things together, talking to them directly, listening to them, and acknowledging what they say.

When a toddler feels that they are a valuable part of the family, they start to trust the adult. When this happens, you can see that they are more open to communicating with you and listen more to what you say.

Involving your child in the activity

Because this is a period where a young child is developing their will, we can support that development by giving them more control over the activities they are involved in. We can give them simple choices that are appropriate for their age. We can limit the choices we give to them so they don’t get overwhelmed. These activities can also help the child to raise an independent child. For example, we can let them choose what they wear for the day.

Even toddlers can be involved with family jobs around the home, there are tips on how to get the family doing chores here.

In addition, it helps if we give them a heads up on what you will be doing, where you are going, and who you are meeting. This can help them process the things that will not be part of your daily routine or rhythm. Usually, a toddler throws a tantrum because something is not familiar to them, disrupting their sense of order. 

What to do when a toddler has a meltdown?

Even though it might feel like the best way to disciple a toddler is to hit or smack them to show that they have done wrong or make them sit on a naughty step. There is plenty of studies and evidence that shows hitting a toddler is detrimental to their development. And if we go back to the point about modelling behaviour, what they are learning is that it is OK to hit another person.

In fact, that is how we as adults learned because many of us grew up in homes where you got a whooping if you were naughty. It’s time to break that cycle.

So your toddler is kicking off, what do you do?

  1. Make sure they are safe, that they are not going to hurt themselves or others
  2. Let them get it out of their system
  3. Whilst they are doing that, go through the list of basic needs and see if something has triggered the outburst. Are they…
    • Hungry?
    • Tired?
    • Needing a nappy change/bathroom break?
    • Thirsty?
    • Scared or confused because their usual sequence of events has been disrupted?
  4. More often than not it is one of the above. Once you know what it is, you can deal with it.
  5. Once the situation has blown over you can have a cuddle and a chat. Ask a few questions in a gentle voice and try and find out how the toddler was feeling. Remember that they may well not have the language skills to communicate the issue. Use it as an opportunity to teach new words.
  6. Take a few moments to think about why it all went down. And how you can preventing it from happening in the future.

Finally, it happens to all of us. My son had a massive tantrum in the ¥100 store one time. It was pretty much my fault because I’d try to squeeze in a bit more shopping rather than go home as it was nap time. Lesson learned!

Don’t beat yourself up about it. We all lose it sometimes, those days when we are tired and stressed and the toddler insists on pressing all of the buttons. And if it happens in public, all those parents looking at you are thinking ‘been there done that, wishing you all the strength mama’. And those non-parents passing judgment… their opinion doesn’t matter.

How To Discipline Toddlers; A Wrap Up

It really helps if we can manage our expectations when it comes to children. And how much we can discipline toddlers. Their inner development will be expressed outwardly with their actions and the things they say to us. It is helpful to keep in mind the developmental milestones a toddler will be going through for their age. Toddlers are curious and they WILL explore and test boundaries. So to summarize:

  1. Model for them what we would want to see from them. So that we are not just telling them what to do but we SHOW them.
  2. Create mini routines throughout the day. So that the responsibility of teaching your toddler is not solely dependent on you. The rhythm can take some of the load of that responsibility.
  3. Cultivate cooperation with connection and trust by spending time to play with them and taking patience in conversing with them.
  4. Think of basic steps in simple tasks that you can let your toddlers do themselves. Toddlers love to be involved and feel that they are a contributing part of the family.

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