The challenge of toddler discipline is at the heart of parenting, so how you rise to this challenge can make all the difference to how happy, capable and confident your child grows up to be.
These 10 steps to effective toddler discipline will help you get there.
1. Know what’s normal and age appropriate
Toddlers don’t set out to be naughty. They’re developmentally primed to assert themselves, explore and test boundaries – especially yours. “It’s important to remember that your toddler doesn’t have the mental capacity to foresee the consequences of his actions, or fully understand how his behaviour affects others,” explains Fouzia Ryklief, a social worker at The Parent Centre in Cape Town. “Knowing this is an important part of understanding your child’s behaviour. If you can see that he is simply exploring limits or acting out because he is feeling frightened, angry or hungry, then discipline isn’t about punishing misbehaviour,” she explains. Rather, discipline is a process of teaching, guiding and encouraging cooperation.
2. Examine your beliefs and attitudes
“Your attitudes and beliefs about parenting flavour how you discipline,” says Patricia Coombe of The Parent Centre. If you believe that children need to learn the hard way, or you simply expect obedience because you’re the parent, your child will pick this up through your tone of voice, body language or the words you use. The stage will be set for a power struggle.
“Discipline should keep the dignity of the child intact and flow from a belief that he deserves to be acknowledged,” urges parenting coach Robin Booth. “When children pick up that you have their best interests at heart, cooperation comes more willingly. Discipline then becomes about simply learning skills that reduce the power struggle and invite cooperation, rather than commanding it,” he says.
3. Offer empowering choices
A quick way to side-step a power struggle is to offer empowering choices. Choices give your child a sense of autonomy and the opportunity o practice making good decisions. Robin recommends that you put your own boundaries in place first, before offering your child choices.
Imagine your toddler is jumping on the couch. Instead of yelling, “Don’t jump on the couch”, clearly share your boundary by explaining that couches are for sitting on. Then, offer two choices that send the message that you understand your toddler’s point of view. Something like, “You can jump on the trampoline outside or on the bean bags in your room.”
Your toddler can’t fully appreciate the money spent on the couch or that bouncing might break it. If you simply tell him to stop, the only message he’ll get is that you’re ruining his fun.
“Be sure that the choices offered are empowering,” cautions Robin. Parents often confuse a threat with a choice. It’s not empowering to say: “Pack up your toys, or I’ll take them away.” Often, something like, ‘‘Pack-up time. Blocks or crayons first?’’ can be more effective.
4. Share what you need
Putting boundaries in place is also far more effective if you share what you need. Too often, toddlers are met with an endless barrage of ‘no’, ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’.
Even adult minds struggle to process negatives. Our brains take the message ‘don’t’ as ‘do’ and we unconsciously proceed to attempt what we’ve been asked not to do. This is especially true for a toddler. Importantly, none of these negatives actually tell your child what you want him to do. He has to try and figure that out for himself, which is a big ask for someone so new to the world.
Instead of saying: “Don’t kick the cat,” try “Stroke the cat gently”. The added advantage is that in sharing what you want, you also side-step the implicit blaming, judging and shaming that comes along with negatives.
5. Acknowledge his feelings
Toddlers don’t know how to regulate their emotions. “Tantrums, whining, sulking, or even aggressive behaviour, like hitting or biting, is your toddler’s way of advertising his negative feelings and is a plea for help,” explains Patricia.
“He also hasn’t developed the language needed to talk about his feelings, which is why acknowledging them is so important,” says Robin. When you say something like, “It seems as if you’re feeling really angry,” you’re teaching your toddler to label and process his feelings. When you show your toddler that you understand how he feels, it offers him the support he needs to move through and beyond his feelings. He can go from feeling angry to feeling understood. “When he has calmed down enough to be receptive, you can set your boundaries around what is appropriate behaviour,” continues Patricia.
6. Ditch the ‘time out’
Although frequently seen as a suitable replacement for spanking, time-outs can be equally damaging to your child’s sense of self-worth.
Your toddler’s brain doesn’t have the neural networks in place to regulate his emotions. Quite simply, he relies on you to make him feel safe so he can learn. The separation of a time-out makes that impossible. “Being sent away sends the message to your child that he is bad, not wanted, that he doesn’t belong and deserves to be excluded by the people he loves,” says Patricia.
“Remember that toddlers are, by nature, exploratory, active, noisy, messy, strong-willed and inquisitive. More often than not, ‘misbehaviour’ is an outcome of a situation that isn’t child friendly. What may be needed more than anything is a situational change such as a nappy change, a nap, a snack, or to leave the shop or restaurant,” suggests Patricia.
7. Be careful of labels
Patricia warns against labelling your children, even if the labels are positive. “The negative ones can be inadvertent put-downs and both negative and positive labels typecast your child by locking them into a role. In truth, their intrinsic value is much greater than simply being brainy, beautiful or focused.”
8. Praise descriptively
“A positive self-image comes from experiencing an encouraging learning environment,” explains
Chandra Valab, a senior social worker and facilitator at The Family Life Centre in Johannesburg. Create or find safe environments for him to explore.
“You can also encourage your toddler by offering praise. Do this descriptively rather than using simple value-based praise,” suggests Patricia. Value-based praise is a compliment like ‘well done’, ‘good job’, or ‘I’m so proud of you’. “Descriptive praise like: ‘Wow, you packed all your blocks in the box and put your crayons away. You’ve done a tidy and thorough job, well done,’ tells your toddler you’ve really taken notice, which entrenches deep core values,” affirms Robin.
9. Undivided attention
Many times ‘misbehaviour’ is a cry for attention. Take some time away from your smartphone, work or household chores to listen, play or read together. “Receiving undivided attention makes your child feel valued,” says Chandra. “When you have to return to another task, make a point of thanking him and letting him know when you can do it again,” adds Patricia.
10. Lots of cuddles
“Touch, touch, touch. It’s so important,” urges Patricia. As they get older, we tend to touch our toddlers less, despite the fact that they still need lots of physical affection. It soothes and reassures, so offer lots of cuddles and let him sit on your lap or hold your hand. A calm and contented toddler is easier to manage. Plus, all those hugs and cuddles are good for you too.
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