4 Things to Do Before You Discipline Your Toddler

Toddler behavior can be frustrating, but is discipline appropriate?

Toddlers can be a difficult, hardheaded bunch. Exploring the world around them is their top priority, which means getting into potentially dangerous situations is a constant concern for parents. Toddlers also tend not be too keen on listening to mom and dad, which makes this stage of development particularly frustrating. But that frustration can often lead to disciplining a toddler when it's unnecessary or even inappropriate. Here's a few strategies to help parents determine if discipline is appropriate as well as how to avoid it all together.

Create an environment that promotes good behavior.

toddler girl crying and throwing a tantrum
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The easiest way to avoid bad behavior from a toddler is to create safe spaces where a toddler has free reign to explore and play without getting in trouble. Childproofing your play area and putting away items that are dangerous or delicate are simple ways to lessen the likelihood that a toddler will need to be disciplined.

In addition, structuring your toddler’s day with routines, sufficient time to sleep and play, and healthy snacks and meals go a long way toward helping a toddler behavior appropriately. If you’re struggling with tantrums and other behavior issues, sleep deprivation and causes related to routine are the first place you should look.  

Pick your battles.

Not every toddler misstep deserves disciplinary action. While it’s your job to teach your toddler right from wrong, it doesn’t mean you should demand 100 percent.

If an issue involves safety (like running away from mom while in a parking lot), it is absolutely appropriate to discipline your toddler, but if something is less pressing – like a toddler insisting on wearing her Halloween costume year round – consider whether it’s worth your time and energy. Letting it go will not only be easier, it will also likely mean that your toddler’s interest in the offending behavior will wane if she’s not getting a rise out of you.

Focus on good behavior.

Toddler’s love getting their parents attention and will often do anything it takes to get it. That means that even if a behavior is receiving negative attention, a toddler will likely keep doing it.

While sometimes it's impossible not to address bad behavior, try to ignore some less concerning behaviors, and instead praise and recognize the toddler for good behavior (i.e., sharing a toy with a friend or helping to clean up a mess). If he knows he gets your attention for positive actions, you'll likely see more of those. 

Take a parenting time out.

While time-outs are a popular method for disciplining toddlers (though not without controversy), sometimes the person who really needs a time-out is mom or dad. Parenting a young child can be an intense experience, and toddlers are masters at pushing parents' buttons. Sometimes, the more your blood pressure rises and the less in control of the situation you feel, the more your toddler can feed off of that energy. When that happens, often one minor incident can be the breaking point. 

If it's possible, give yourself a time out before disciplining a toddler over something that would typically be minor. Allow another adult in the household take over childcare duties for a few hours, or if that is not possible, put the toddler in a safe space (like his crib with plenty of toys), and give yourself a 10-minute break. A few deep breaths and some time to clear your head will do wonders for your ability to determine if discipline is necessary. 

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