Toddler Discipline: How to Survive

We’ve all heard of the terrible twos, but there is something much worse traumatic. The ages 3 to 5 are by far the most frustrating for parents. It’s a real thing – just ask any mom who has lived through it. When my girls were two, they were adorable and cute and compliant. (If they weren’t, my oldest would have been an only child.)

crazy girl 200x300 Toddler Discipline: How to Survive Photo

They say the terrible twos. But most parents agree that its toddlers that drive us batty.

So what’s going on? Most children at those young ages are testing boundaries and learning socially acceptable behavior. Preschoolers crave their own independence, but they also want the close attention and love of their parents. This paradox can make it feel like living with a tiny, manic bipolar.

But how do we survive all the whining, tattle-telling, biting, hitting, sibling rivalry, lying, cheating, arguing, back-sassing, temper tantrum-ing, questioning and no-ing that happens in the meanwhile? From my experience, toddler discipline takes a lot of patience, understanding, consistency, love and a few simple rules:


Pick your battles.

Independence is the goal of every child at this developmental stage. Do not try to reason with a child in the middle of a tantrum. You can’t always win and you can’t always be right, because that’s not how it works. If you try you will find yourself more aggravated and frustrated than you need to be. Parenting does not have to be this hard. For example, when my daughter was 3 she overheard me use a choice word when I stubbed my toe. She latched onto that word like it was the last word in the world and my husband laughed. I told him that we had to ignore it because she only said it because it was getting a reaction. You can’t really punish a 3-year-old for repeating a word they don’t understand, right? As soon as we chose to ignore the word, she stopped using it. Had I overreacted, she would probably still be using that word. 

Beware of the overs.

Over tired, over hungry, overwhelmed and over scheduled. I learned this one the hard way. I thought once my girls were past the infant stage, I was free and clear. Boy, was I wrong. They were still too young to effectively communicate these deficits and reacted in unpleasant ways. You need to anticipate these needs.

Be consistent and follow through.

If refusing to comply with instructions is a discipline-worthy infraction, then consistently provide a consequence for that behavior. When you’re not being consistent, preschoolers get confused and act out even more because they lose sight of their boundaries.

Speak slowly and clearly with eye contact. 

Short and sweet is the key. I was never particularly good at this, but I had a friend who used this technique perfectly. If her children misbehaved, she knelt down to their level, spoke softly but firmly in short clear sentences. And it worked. Her patience and behavior under pressure was impressive.

Use time outs.

I used to believe that time outs were supposed to be 1 minute for every year of life and it never seemed to phase my girls after about the age of 2 ½. My pediatrician told me that time outs should be 5 minutes for every year of life after 3 and that works. Put your child in a quiet corner away from the rest of the family, and, when you release them from their time-out, ask them to apologize and explain why they think they were in time-out. It’s a great tool for discussing behavior and letting the child learn there are consequences.

Ignore the whining.

The best thing you can do for whining is ignore it. If you engage in the vicious whining circle you will find yourself having a tantrum and crying. Simply say, “Mommy can’t understand you when you whine. I can only understand you if you use your words. “ Believe it or not, they will use their words.

Allow free time and free choice.

At this age, kids are really searching for independence, so give them a little. Give them free time to play and let them make some of their own choices. It may sound like just another opportunity to fight, but if you pick three pre-approved choices and let them choose; everyone wins. They feel a sense of independence and you are showing them that you trust them to make decisions, even if they are completely inconsequential.

Pay attention to your child.

They want independence, but they also want your attention. This is a good time to turn off the cell phones and television. Designate time and attention solely to your child. This will make a huge difference in your child’s behavior. They’ll feel like you are available, as well as safe and loved. It doesn’t have to be every hour of every day, but at least a straight half-hour of uninterrupted together time. This is also a great time for positive praise.

Handle lying calmly.

Believe it or not, this is normal behavior for this age. Don’t shame your child. Simply let your child know that you don’t approve of lying and that it’s a safe place to be honest with you and move on.


What is your best tip for handling out of control preschooler behavior?