Effective discipline for toddlers and preschoolers



I have received a few requests from friends to do a post on effective discipline for toddlers and preschoolers because my friends think that my two boys are well behaved.  My two boys (almost 2 and 4) generally put on a good show when we are out (which I’m eternally grateful for) but at home, it’s a different story.  Like normal kids their age, there is plenty of whining, tantrums, negotiations, crying, pushing, fighting for the same toy, and more whining.  I have also been that mom that had to leave Chipotle in the middle of the meal because my three-year-old started a tantrum with loud crying and yelling.  I felt the stares on my back as I bolted across the parking lot with a one-year-old in my arm and a three-year-old being dragged along kicking and screaming.

I am not an expert on discipline for children by any means, but I have picked up some effective tips that I have put to good use and have seen good results with.  Most of these techniques are so simple that I wondered why I didn’t intuitively use them from the start.    I used to reason with my kids, telling them why they shouldn’t do something, but they would just throw a fit.  According to Dr. Thomas Phelan of 123 Magic, you simply cannot reason with young children because they will whine and cry when they don’t get something when they want it.  Therefore, it is the parent’s job to teach our children to learn to tolerate the frustrations of everyday life.  In fact, you should aim to frustrate your kids a little every day so that they will learn how to deal with life’s little irritations and be better equipped for school and beyond.  Kids that are used to getting everything that they want are the ones that have a difficult time dealing with frustrations in the real world where they are not the center of the universe.

6 Tips for getting your toddlers and young children to do what you want them to do:

1. Do a count down

Imagine that you’re working intently on a project on your computer and your spouse comes over, turns off your computer, and cheerfully tells you it’s time for dinner.  How would you feel?  Would you be mad?  I certainly would be.  Now imagine that your daughter is playing happily at the park and you tell her it’s time to go home and snatch her out of the swing.  Of course she is going to protest because she was having fun and she doesn’t want to leave.  Next time, tell your daughter that she has five more minutes at the park and then it’s time to go home.  When she gets home, she can play with play-doh or her favorite doll.

2. Use a timer

Buy a kitchen timer and use it for the count down technique discussed above.  Have your child set the time and when the timer goes off and they whine about not wanting to stop doing something, you can let the timer be the bad guy.

3. Stop behavior: No, Yes, 2 choices

When your children ask to do something that you don’t want them to do, follow my “no, yes, 2 choices” formula.  For example:

Child: Can I have a chocolate cookie?

You: You can’t have a chocolate cookie, but you can have a fruit.  Do you want apple sauce or banana slices?

Younger toddlers will likely fall for the trick and they will pick a fruit.  Older preschoolers will ask for the chocolate cookie again, in which case, give an additional alternative choice with detailed descriptions to distract them.

You: Do you want three red strawberries that are shaped like hearts or banana slices with almond butter or yogurt with blueberries on the bottom?

The goal is not to dwell on what they can’t have, but rather on what alternatives they can have.  You have to say the three sentences quickly so that they get distracted by the alternative choices.

4. Start behavior: offer a choice and make them think it’s their idea

Before kids, my husband and I had all sorts of idealistic beliefs about how we were going to raise our kids.  After having kids though, all ideals go out the window.  I find myself nagging, pleading, cajoling, and bribing just to get my kid to take off his sweatshirt because it’s too hot and he refuses to take it off.  Really?  When you want them to do something that they don’t want to do, offer a choice and make them think it’s their idea. For example:

You: Do you want to put on your blue shoes or your black shoes?  Blue shoes?  That’s a great idea!

You: Do you want to do story time first or put on your pajamas first?  Story time?  I’m so excited to see which story you will pick tonight.

5. Give them time to cool down

Don’t you hate it when your spouse does something that makes you upset and he/she keeps pestering you and asking you what’s wrong?  When we’re upset and we are not ready to talk about it or need time to collect our thoughts or calm down, it’s annoying when the other person keeps bothering us, right?  Toddlers and young children feel the same way.  In fact, they have much less emotional control than we have.  When they get frustrated, hurt, sad, or angry, they deal with it by letting out steam.  Let them sulk or yell or scream.  If you’re out somewhere, for the sake of not bothering innocent patrons of restaurants or stores, take them to the car or outside for a cool down.

Time outs are controversial because they are seen as a form of punishment.  The 123 Magic book I mentioned above advocates the use of time outs to control obnoxious behaviors.  The key is consistency.  I see time outs not as a form of punishment or isolation technique, but rather, a change of scenery or “reset” to allow the angry and frustrated child to get it out of their system and cool down.  Time outs need not be in the child’s room, it could be in a different room or a quite corner.  You can be there with them physically for emotional support but just don’t talk or look at them.  I often turn my back to them or you can close your eyes.  Typically, the time should be no longer than the  child’s age.  So for a three-year-old, the time out is three minutes.

6. See things from your child’s perspective

We are always rushing our kids – from putting on their shoes to getting to a class.  I still can’t fathom why it takes us a good hour or two to finally get out of the house to do something fun on the weekends.  Because we are often so check-list oriented, trying to get everything done, we forget that our kids are seeing things or doing things in the world for the first time.  Have you ever stopped for a moment and observed your child studying something intently?  You see a weed, but your child sees a dandelion that has dozens of little parachutes that fly up in the sky with a puff of air.  How fascinating!  Slow down sometimes, get onto their level and see something from their eyes.  It will excite them to know that you’re interested in what they’re interested in and it will help to reinforce the bond between you and your child.

I want to end by saying that there will always be days, despite everything you do, that your child will be cranky, fussy, and won’t eat or nap.  You’re tired, and they’re tired, and it’s just a day that you want to put behind you.  Before you pull out all of your hair, realize that it’s just one day in the big scheme of things.  Rest assured that your kids will likely not remember this day but you undoubtedly will sprout a few more gray hairs as a result of the day’s battles.  After the kids finally go to bed, put your feet up and pour yourself a glass of wine.  They say that the most expensive part of having kids is all the wine you have to drink.  Ha!

Do you have any techniques that have worked well with your children?  If so, please share!

Thanks for stopping by.  If you found this post to be helpful or think it may help another parent, please feel free to share it.  Click the “follow” button to receive email notification of future blog posts or follow me on FacebookInstagram, and Pinterest.

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The post, Effective discipline for toddlers and preschoolers, first appeared on Happy Chic Mom.

Photo credit: Jordan Whitt


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