Every mother goes to sleep one night with a baby and wakes up the next day to discover she now has a toddler. We know the transition is coming, and we see it happening gradually along the way, but there comes a tipping point when our darling infants become more child than baby.
Like a roller coaster peaking over a steep drop, the transition begins to pick up speed. Suddenly, parents and babies alike are catapulted into a new world of big emotions, new abilities, and the determination of a bulldozer.
With the transition comes an urgent need for discipline and boundaries, both to keep this tiny, mobile person safe in an unforgiving world, and keep mom sane.
But how do you begin to discipline a child with a very limited vocabulary (and attention span)? How do you set boundaries without dampening the spirit of exploration and discovery?
With a transitioning baby-toddler myself, I’ve put together my 20 best tips for you.
How to Provide Structure and Discipline for Your New Toddler
Setting the Tone for Obedience in Your Home
1. Give your toddler the opportunity to obey
Our tendency when a toddler picks up an object we don’t want him to have is to snatch it away and exclaim, “No!” We follow them around doing this, blocking off areas we don’t want them in, moving things out of their reach, “baby-proofing.”
However, when we do this for everything, we take away the child’s opportunity to choose to obey. This is not to say we should leave a sharp knife in reach and give them the chance to obey when we tell them to put it down. But maybe he picks up a decor piece that you want to stay in it’s place. Before rushing in to snatch it, try telling your toddler it’s “not for [name]. Put it back, please.”
It might take several repetitions and a little time, but you’ll likely be very pleasantly surprised to find that your toddler puts it back when he’s asked, and eventually learns to leave it alone.
This also is not to say baby-proofing is bad. We want their environment to be safe, but we don’t want to deprive them of the opportunity to learn obedience and boundaries.
2. Create a toddler-friendly environment
While it’s constructive to leave a few things in your toddler’s environment that provide an opportunity for obedience, you shouldn’t have to constantly follow them around and tell them “no” every thirty seconds.
Their environment should be safe and encourage exploration. Space allowing, it should also involve some things that are their size. Imagine the world from a toddler’s perspective: everything is adult-sized and towering above them.
What does this have to do with discipline? you might be wondering. If a child feels like she has some influence over her environment, feels like she is a part of her environment, she will feel more secure and act out less. Having a few pieces of child-sized furniture, and keeping your child’s things where she can reach them will go a long way toward mitigating bad behavior and tantrums.
3. Praise obedience
Your child doesn’t only want to hear the things they’re doing wrong… They want to make you happy and hear about the things they do well!
My one year old LOVES climbing the stairs (which she is only allowed to do with supervision, don’t worry). Sometimes, though, I don’t feel like going up and down the stairs five bazillion and one times. So I say her name, get her eye contact, and tell her firmly, “No stairs,” while shaking my head.
Sometimes she disobeys, and shoots up the stairs extra fast hoping I won’t catch her. In that case, I bring her back down, repeat that we aren’t climbing the stairs right now, “Mommy said no stairs,” and redirect her attention toward something else.
Usually, though, she will come back off the stairs, shake her head in acknowledgement (no stairs), and go do something else on her own.
When she obeys, I praise her! “Thank you for listening! You obeyed very well!” She even claps her hands, recognizing that what she did was good.
4. Provide options as much as possible (rather than dictating)
Your toddler will be far more cooperative when he feels like he has a say in how his day goes. You don’t need to rebel when there’s almost nothing to rebel against. As your toddler gets older, these choices can become more involved. Broccoli or green beans? Red pants or blue? Stroller or carrier?
Initially, though, choices will probably need to be simpler. In fact, they may not even need to be vocalized. Rather, it may come down to you simply recognizing what your child prefers in the moment and running with it, instead of insisting on your own way (when appropriate, of course).
Even though my one year old isn’t talking yet, I always try to allow her some expression. Instead of declaring that I’m going to change her diaper, I’ll say something like, “Your diaper feels wet. Are you ready to go potty and get a clean diaper?” And she’ll nod. It helps her to understand what’s going on and feel like she’s taking part in it rather than just having things done to her. (And this is something we’ve done practically since she was born. Her head-nodding is just the most recent development).
5. Set expectations from the beginning
Don’t allow something one day and prohibit it the next. We knew when our daughter started becoming mobile and trying to climb things that we either needed to rule out the fireplace hearths completely, or allow her to explore freely. Allowing her to cruise along and try to climb the hearth one minute, and then pulling her away from it the next just wouldn’t work. If we were going to prohibit it, it would have to be off limits at all times.
(We allowed it, even though it’s “dangerous,” and we’re so glad we did.)
You need to work out your strategy with your partner. Your expectations are not clear if you allow something and your partner does not, or only one of you enforces certain boundaries.
6. Create “stop lines”
You can’t baby-proof EVERYTHING, and even baby gates have their constraints. At some point, your toddler will have to learn and accept some physical boundaries. A good way to help mark an area off-limits its with a “stop line.” You can create a stop line using colored tape, like blue masking tape, and whenever your child comes near it, reinforce that they are not to step/crawl/wiggle/reach/roll over it.
For example, you might have a desk with lots of electrical cords, electronic devices, and drawers that your toddler really just does not need to play around. Lay a boundary around the desk using tape, and as long as you are consistent, pretty quickly your toddler will learn to respect this area.
Responding to Your Toddler’s Bad Behavior
7. Find alternatives to the word NO
Even as adults, hearing “no” constantly is demoralizing. How much more so for a little one who just wants to explore and experience his environment? “No” certainly has a place in our vocabulary, but it will carry more weight when used less frequently.
Some alternatives we use are:
- No touch —>Not for baby/name
- No hitting —> Soft touch/gentle touch (assist)
- No standing (in the chair) —> Sit down, please
- No running —> Use your walking feet
“No” is not a bad word, but it can be a lazy one. Finding positive alternatives to just shouting “NO!” will go a long, long way toward helping your toddler to listen and obey.
8. NO is a serious word
It’s fun to be silly, but “no” is not a silly word, at least not while your toddler is still learning its use. When kids are older, “no” can have a wider range of meaning, but when they’re little, it’s best to keep things clear and only use “no” in situations where you really mean it.
9. Save the loud [scary] voice for emergencies
If someone yelled at you all the time, you would probably start to ignore them. It’s no different for the littles. If you react the same way to your toddler picking up an ink pen as you do to them for an electrical outlet, they’re going to become desensitized to your “no voice.”
If everything is spoken (or projected) in emergency mode, you don’t leave yourself much room to escalate. You want your child to be able to pick up on sudden urgency in your voice and react instantly to it in a true emergency situation.
10. Find a distraction
When a toddler is fixated on something you don’t want them to do or have, sometimes no amount of words or even mild pain (bum swatting, hand flicking) will deter them. At this point, you may need to physically remove them and find a distraction. “You can’t have Mommy’s phone, but why don’t we go play with your baby doll?”
11. Teach respect by demonstrating respect
The way you want your child to interact with you is the way you need to interact with them.
Yes, you are the authority and adult, and as such, you can do and say things that would not be appropriate for a child. (You can tell them no, they cannot tell you no). However, you will want to be careful how much you exercise this right. Toddlers are imitators; they learn from watching you.
If you don’t want your toddler snatching things out of your (and others’) hands, then you should not snatch objects out of their hands (outside of absolute emergencies). If you toddler picks up your phone, rather than just grabbing it and putting it out of reach, both of you will benefit more if you nicely but firmly ask for your phone back, and give them the chance to return it to you.
If he refuses, or worse, takes off running and giggling, you may have to recover it more forcibly, but you still aren’t simply snatching it away the second he picks it up. Explain that you’re taking it because it’s “not for [name]” and he would not give it back when you asked.
12. Teach the proper way to do things, rather than restricting by default
Maybe your toddler, like mine, is infatuated with animals, but is a bit overzealous when “petting” them. Instead of restricting your toddler and not allowing them near the pets (unless safety is a concern), you can assist your child in learning a “soft-touch” for petting the animals.
My daughter used to try and shred any potted plants she came across. She’d just grab a fistful and start ripping and twisting. Instead of always snatching her up and carrying her somewhere else, we showed her to use an open hand and stroke the plants gently if she wanted to touch them. It took some repetition over time, but now she always pets the plants very nicely.
She benefits in two primary ways: first, she learned the right way to do something and now doesn’t have to be removed any time we’re near a plant, and second, she gets the sensory experience of feeling a plant without having someone yelling “No!” at her from across the room.
As a parent, you have the great, rewarding task of teaching and empower little ones to do things for themselves. You may be amazed how much your toddler can pick up from you if only you’ll take the time to show them.
13. Break their focus/get their attention before correcting
Sometimes children (like husbands) completely zone out. Their attention is locked onto whatever they are doing or thinking about doing, and your voice bounces right off their hard little heads. If your toddler is about to open a desk drawer and inevitably pull out every last piece of scratch paper, first break their focus and try to get eye contact before correcting and redirecting.
One good way to do this is a sharp clap of the hands paired with the child’s name. Once they pause their trajectory to look at you, speak in a calm, clear, firm voice, “Do not open the drawer. No touch.” You want to see that they processed your words before taking physical action because otherwise they really might not have even heard you, and then wonder why you’re snatching them up when they were busy!
14. Don’t make it a game
We’re wired to be sensitive to our babies’ emotions, and we never want to make them cry, so it can be hard to deliver a firm “NO” when we know it will upset them. The wrong approach is to make a game out of boundaries.
For instance, if your toddler makes a beeline for the stairs, and you pull out your sing-songy Dr. Silly voice to say, “No no no, Goober-Goo, don’t you go up those stairs! …If you go up those stairs, I’m gonna have to get you! All right, you leave me no choice; here I come!”
Of course he’s going to take off up the stairs! You made it fun and attractive. If he goes up the stairs, he’s going to get positive attention and tickles!
15. Sometimes the best response is to ignore
Even the youngest baby-toddler will occasionally (or more than occasionally) act out in order to incite a reaction from you, positive or negative. Other times, they will inch closer and closer to a behavior they know is prohibited (touching something, climbing something) to test you.
Many of these times, ignoring the behavior is the best response. However, note that if your toddler is using bad behavior to get attention, they are begging for your attention! Find an opportunity to redirect them to an acceptable activity you can do together, even if you are busy and only have a few moments.
Moving Forward After Correcting Your Toddler’s Behavior
Every day, your transitioning baby-toddler is experiencing new, big things. They’re able to explore more, feel more, see more, do more… but especially FEEL more.
They don’t know what to do with these strong emotions, and while that doesn’t excuse unacceptable behavior, they need your guidance to process them. Do so firmly, but gently. They push back against boundaries, but they want them and need them to feel secure.
17. Provide explanations, even if you don’t think they have the vocabulary to understand
You might think “no” is all your baby-toddler has the capacity to understand right now. You might be afraid too many words would be lost on them, or worse, just confuse them.
But how else will they learn? It’s beneficial for you and your child if you get in the habit of providing explanations for why you do or don’t want them to do something now, even if you think they don’t understand you.
First of all, they probably understand far more than you think they do, and secondly, if not now, then when?
Use simple phrases and sentences, and speak slowly, but don’t just assume an explanation isn’t worth your time.
18. Don’t sweat the little things
The more things you feel like you need to control, the more things will seem like bad behavior. If your toddler is going to scream because you put clothes on them, don’t put clothes on them (provided you aren’t trying to leave the house). The more flexible you are about the trivial stuff, the less push-back you’ll feel.
19. Don’t diminish the way they’re feeling
When your toddler is upset, even if it’s over something as trivial as being told “no,” it’s good to allow them a little space and time to process their frustration. No, tantrums are not acceptable behavior. But, that is something you can correct over time.
You can remain firm that screaming will not change your mind, or get them their way, but you also don’t have to immediately squelch the outburst. Try not to diminish what your child is feeling. Phrases like, “you’re ok,” or “you’re fine,” and “get over yourself,” aren’t helpful. Instead, think of yourself as a sportscaster and make observations: “I can see that you’re frustrated by not getting your way,” “You’re screaming right now because I wouldn’t let you have the razor,” “You’re very upset, and it’s scaring the kitty.”
It does not have to be a power struggle! There’s no universal law that says you must prevent a tantrum. You can say your piece and walk away (unless you’re in Walmart–then it might look bad if you walk away).
20. Don’t dwell
Whatever happened, correct it and move on. Don’t stay upset at your child about it. Don’t stay stressed about it. Don’t feel the need to bring it up again, and good golly, don’t talk about it in front of them to other people.
Final Thoughts on Teaching Your Toddler to Obey
There are two things I want to encourage you to keep at the front of your discipline philosophy.
First, always seek to balance firmness and authority with respect. Your home can be parent-led (and I believe it should be)–you can be authoritative–without being rude and disrespectful of your child. You have to remember that, though young and small, are independent, autonomous people and deserve as much consideration and respect as anyone else.
Second, discipline with a toddler is not a zero sum game: every single situation does not have to have a winner and a loser. Sometimes, you’ve just got to let the small things go; it’s not worth your energy to get worked up about every little thing–and it’s not good for you child.
Remain calm and firm and try never to lose your temper. The discipline will fall into place. Defiance will happen. Disobedience will probably be common. But they will learn, and you will, too.
Share a story with me! What is something discipline-worthy your baby or toddler has done that took you by surprise, and how did you handle it?
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