It is so so so important that when you are disciplining a toddler that you and your partner are on the same page. If you are not on the same page, toddlers totally know that and will start manipulating one of you. And then in return, this usually results in a fight between mom and dad. I really wish they had classes on behavior and disciplining toddlers because this is the shit that can break up marriages and make you go off the deep end. Everyone can have an opinion, but the first step really is to be on the same page as your partner. Toddlers are like dogs, they can sniff out the weaker link. The whole disciplining a toddler thing is difficult because it is sometimes on the fly- you have to learn your toddlers temperament, what makes them tick, what are they motivated by, do they even understand consequences yet, are they extroverted/introverted, how old are they, are they socially motivated, are they easy-going or strong-willed (we all know what Juliana is), etc. There are so many questions and things to consider when disciplining a toddler!
Toddlerhood is a particularly vexing time for parents because this is the age at which children start to become more independent and discover themselves as individuals. BUT they still have a limited ability to communicate and reason, so discipline can become dicey. Here are some tips that have helped me, but also being a behavior specialist, I have used these tactics on my students as well.
- Be on the same page as your partner (which I talked about above)
- Be consistent. Toddlers, especially strong-willed ones, need routine and order! For example, bed time should be around the same time every night. I totally get that you can’t always have a bedtime routine, especially when you have more than one kiddo, but at least aim for the same time every night. I had to sleep train Juliana and since we went hard with the training before our second was born, I was able to give 100% and be 100% consistent on putting her to bed at the same time. Research shows that toddlers respond very well to consistency in rules, routines, mealtimes, and schedules because then they know what to expect. Even naps…don’t skip a nap if you know they will be terrors. BUT also, don’t beat yourself up if they don’t nap for you, but will nap for daycare..(hmmm, wonder who that is)
- Prep, prep, prep- It can be helpful to prep your toddler for change or the future. For example, if Auntie Erin is babysitting, it can help ease the transition for your toddler if you explain what is happening. Juliana totally gets language and can understand, even if she may not always be able to retrieve the appropriate words, she can understand me. When I prep her for dance class, bed time, going to Nana and Papa’s or Mimi and Papa’s, etc., it seems to help her transition without behaviors.
- Try really hard to avoid stressful situations/meltdowns- Meltdowns are inevitable in toddlers. They will happen and they may even happen multiple times a day- with little things like when you tell them to put their puzzle away. Yikes, it can a while to get out of the meltdown, but if you know what triggers them, see if you can avoid it. For example, if you know that mornings are tough for all of you, pack lunch and outfits the night before. Or if you know that going to the grocery store will cause meltdowns because he/she wants to walk around the store independently and may take off, maybe that iPad or YouTube kids will come in handy. You are not a bad mom for that. Do what works for YOUR kids. But if you know what gets them upset, see if you can proactively fix that.
- Set rules & set a precedent– Set rules from day one. Maybe they can earn a special something that they don’t normally do, but set rules and stick to them, especially when it has to do with safety. Make sure everyone in the family is on board as well because again, toddlers thrive on consistency and structure. For example, Juliana learned at a young age to always stay with an adult when we go out. We practice this all the time, but I will be honest. I also instilled a little fear in her- My mom’s friend’s baby was almost taken by a stranger and I had to explain to Juliana that some people are mean and can take you. She never gives me a hard time when we are out now. Also, at daycare, they learned to yell, “Cars coming” and go to the door if a car pulls in the driveway. Whenever we are in a parking lot or out, she knows to always hold my hand and looks both ways. Now that she’s 2.5 going on 17, if there is a new rule, she plays with the boundaries and tests her limits so new rules are totally different stories. For new rules, it’s a good idea to practice these rules and make them part of bedtime routine or make them into a story.
- Distract, distract, distract- The art of distraction works wonders for toddlers. We all know that toddlers can go from 0-60 in a matter of a second, so always try to distract first. Start with their interests or random stuff. The thing that works the best for me as a mom and a special education teacher is something SO random. If Jules is in the middle of a meltdown, I will pretend I see a bug or something weird. 90% of the time she will stop in her tracks and ask why a million times and then we start having a 10 minute conversation about bugs or princesses.
- Time in or time out? Know what is best for your child and remember time out isn’t always the best option. At work, time out doesn’t usually work. We have something in our classroom called vacation station (you can also name it Cozy Corner, Chill Zone, Relaxi Taxi). However, Juliana responds well to time out, but a very specific kind. You can’t ask her to go in the corner and think about what she did because she will run away in 2 seconds laughing. We used to have to put her in her high chair at one point, but she would try to escape. Howie and I really struggled with this, because if she hit Noah or Hudson and really hurt them, there needed to be a big enough consequence for her to understand that she can’t do that again. We talked to our pediatrician at length about consequences for a strong-willed and hyper kiddo. Time outs, but holding her in the time out. It wasn’t fun at first, but we have a designated area in our house where she needs to sit while mommy or daddy hold her/hug her for 2 minutes. It sucked at first because she was scream and cry and try to bang her head in my chest. We never talk to her during the brief time out, but what I found was that she totally needed it. She calmed right away and then apologized to whoever she needed to. It was about a 5 minute ordeal and we moved on to the next thing. Don’t talk about it after it happened. Just move on and breathe. Time outs and time ins are always hard for the parent.
Extinction is the withdrawal of all attention after a child engages in an undesirable behavior. (It is a tough method to use at first and bystanders may be shocked if they aren’t prepared.) Children live for attention and they love exaggerated emotional responses. Attention is stimulation. Whether that attention is good or bad, it is stimulating and they like it. The idea behind extinction is that you do not reinforce undesirable behavior by giving the child a reward for their bad behaviors — the reward being attention and an exaggerated emotional response.
This is also known as planned ignoring. This is a difficult strategy, but it can work for things such as screaming, throwing, tantrumming, but not safety. You should never ignore anything that pertains to safety. Juliana tends to try to hit her brother, but ignoring it could obviously hurt him. She also just started hitting the dog, which of course is hard to ignore. Again, make sure everyone is on the same page.
9. Stay calm, cool, and collected- Toddlers are very sensitive to highly charged emotions. Stay even keel because when toddlers see that you can keep your cool, chances are, they will too. We all know there’s no calm tantrums, but if they learn to react calmly, chances are they will when they are older too. Research shows if you yell or hit your child because you are upset with them, it can cause depression, tempers, anger issues, anxiety, increased aggression, and low self-esteem. It is SO normal to be upset with your toddler and wants to lose your temper or scream, but take a step back, take a deep breathe, and assess the situation. Will you do more harm or good when disciplining? There are some days I really want to run away and/or I lose my shit- like yelling, slamming doors, lose my shit…because my kids don’t like to sleep. I also lost my shit once when Jules hit Hudson and Noah in the head. I felt like I lost all control, but I kept hearing those mama demons saying- take a step back and breathe. These little babes love us so much and when we get yelled at by big people it can hurt or intimidate us- now imagine how they must feel.
10. Keep a bag of tricks- Dolls, barbies, iPad, puzzles, gadget toys, non toys (because babies love anything that isn’t a real toy) anything they like! Keep it on hand in case of emergencies- Target runs, car rides, plane rides, etc.
11. Praise ALL the good behaviors- I love it when you’re such a good big sister/brother. Great job helping me. You are so good at helping Mommy with chores. This goes along way. In the ABA world, we call it shaping.
12. Make sure consequences are tied to the behavior so they can relate and have a better understanding what consequences are. Examples- if your toddler hits, remove them from that situation immediately and explain why. I usually do a timeout where I am holding her for 2 minutes then have her apologize. That works for us. Toddlers don’t have concept of time quite yet so if you are “punishing” them after the fact, they probably won’t understand why.