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How to discipline toddlers

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  August 20, 2012 06:58 AM

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I love toddlers. They are little forces of nature, full of energy and curiosity. But that energy and curiosity can have downsides, too, as any parent of a toddler can tell you.

There is a common misperception that toddlers are too young to discipline. It's true that they are  young and don't understand everything you'd like them to understand. Their short attention span doesn't help, either. But you absolutely can discipline them--and you should, because it is crucial to getting them on the right road to good (and safe) behavior as they get older.

When my eldest was a toddler, our pediatrician gave us three rules for disciplining toddlers that I really like:

1. Set limits.
Toddlers understand the word no (this is the age they start saying it to you!) and it's important to use it with them when they do things they shouldn't. It may be cute when they hit or bite, for example (especially since they are too little to do much damage), but it's a lot less cute when they get to be three or four--and it's a lot tougher to get them to stop if you start then. 

Make sure you have their attention when you deliver that firm, stern "No." Say it immediately after the action (or they'll forget what they did), and make it really clear what the transgression was--like by holding the hand and saying, "No hitting." You can use Time-Out, too: put the child in a boring place for a minute or so (rule of thumb for Time-Out: one minute for each year of age). If they get up and get out, bring them back--but don't interact more than that, as the point of Time-Out is to take away attention, not give more of it.

2. Be consistent.
This is really hard, especially when you are tired--and what parent of a toddler isn't tired? But if they can get away with things sometimes, they will keep doing them. No has to really mean no--all the time. It's also really important that all caregivers are on the same page--if you are consistent but Grandma isn't, it's going confuse your toddler (and present an opportunity). 

Being realistic, the only way to ensure consistency is to...

3. Pick your battles. 
With a toddler, you could spend your entire day saying no. Which is no fun for anyone. So pick your battles. If they do something that could hurt them or someone else, that's a definite no. But maybe you can live with some of the other stuff...like making messes, or being loud (in a place where loud is okay). You also need to work with what's possible for this age--you may really want to go to that restaurant or movie, but your toddler likely just can't stay still for that long. It's not fair to punish them for, well, being a toddler. 

After all, they are forces of nature.
This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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