Discipline for toddlers and children

If you feel that discipline should include punishment, or are unsure what the word means, you might like to read the page about discipline in general before continuing.

Discipline and the ‘terrible twos’

It’s around the time the child starts walking that many parents feel at their wits’ end. This small person has a large will and considerable determination, as well as a very loud voice. Confused by countless voices offering varying advice, many parents see the situation as an ‘us vs them’ scenario, where, if they are not careful, the child will exercise control over not just his parents but his entire environment.

At the other extreme, perhaps, some children of this age become very clingy – apparently losing the independence they had as crawling explorers, they now cry pitifully every time their mother leaves the room.

It helps to know that all this is normal. At around a year of age the child has just about worked out where he ends and where his mother begins – and that she can leave him. When she is out of his sight, he feels devastated. So either he cries when she is not there, or he becomes angry with her when she is, particularly if she tries to distract him, or stop him from doing something.

The key at this stage is for the parent to remain calm, to remember that this is still a baby who is not deliberately trying to taunt his parents or manipulate the world. He may be tired, he may be hungry, he may be desperately trying to communicate something. He is likely only to be able to speak a few words at this stage, but will almost certainly understand a great deal more – so talk to him. Hug him, sit him on your lap, tell him you love him, and tell him that you don’t understand when he screams, or stamps. Explain why it’s not a good idea to throw toys, because they could break. Perhaps offer him a ball, and go outside to do some appropriate throwing and catching together. Ask if he would like to go out – a child can feel cabin fever as much as a parent. Offer him a drink, or perhaps a healthy snack. If you can’t work out what he wants, try reading to him; a favourite book usually calms down the angriest of toddlers.

As the child nears two – sometimes as young as 18 months, sometimes as late as three years – the stage called ‘terrible twos’ may become apparent. In this, a child may throw himself on the floor kicking and shouting, or stamp and scream, hitting out and shouting even when the parent goes to pick him up for a hug. If the tantrum is because you have said that he may not have something – for instance, a toy in the supermarket, or another piece of cake – explain, gently, that he cannot always have everything he wants. Say that you understand that he is upset, and you are sad that he feels that way, but there is no cake left, or he broke the last toy you bought him (or whatever the reason is). Try not to be arbitrary in your decision-making so that you do have a valid reason to explain  things to your child.

When a child in this stage has good language, he is less likely to throw tantrums, so long as you take the time to offer him choices, and to explain any boundaries or guidelines. Be prepared to answer questions and to negotiate, and perhaps to come up with a compromise. All this is discipline in the truest sense of the world – teaching the child about acceptable behaviour, and also modelling the art of compromise. It takes a lot more time and self-discipline than just yelling or hitting the child, but is far more effective long-term.

Discipline for children

As your child moves beyond the toddler stage, his personality will develop in clear ways, and his interests are likely to be wide. As he develops conversational skills, he will also learn the power of negotiation. We need to give children some boundaries for their safety, but these should be as few as possible, and always open to discussion. No child wants to be in danger, after all. So long as parents take their children seriously, and listen to them, and give them plenty of time and conversation, most children will equally take their parents seriously and accept that – at times – the parents are more knowledgeable and experienced and should not be ignored.

Continue to discuss issues with him, to answer his questions, and to explain any rules or guidelines that have to be followed. Playing board games is a useful way of showing how ‘rules’ must be followed in certain situations. If your son wants to play chess, then the pieces are restricted in the ways in which they can move. If he wants to move randomly around the board, then of course that’s fine – but it’s not playing chess.  Once he has the idea of board games and rules, you can explain that – for instance – if you eat at a restaurant, he must sit quietly rather than running around, and must not throw his food. If you visit other people’s houses, they might have rules that must be followed too.

Some children are undoubtedly easier to raise than others, willing to listen and to compromise. Some are naturally aware of other people’s feelings and have no wish to disturb family harmony, while others seem determined to cause conflict regularly! Every child is unique, and every child has a great need for parental approval and love. So keep giving hugs, and affirmations, and take the time to listen to your child, responding without judgement.

If you educate your child at home you will find it easier to spot when he is over-tired or perhaps going down with a bug, and will be able to adjust the environment where appropriate to avoid conflict. If school is the only option, then expect your child to be tired and cranky when he gets home, and most likely to learn some behaviours that you do not particularly like and wish to discourage.

As your child approaches the teenage years, you should find that you think less and less about behaviour and discipline, as he develops his own maturity and self-discipline. You can read more about the teenage years at the page: Are all teenagers horrible?

Further reading:

Understanding temperament
Learning styles

Is your child a TV addict?
Parenting theories
Jealous of the new baby