University of Illinois Extension

Discipline for Toddlers

Patti Faughn, Family Life Educator

When we hear the word discipline, we often think of punishment and harshness rather than teaching and guiding a child in good behavior. The word discipline comes from the word disciple, meaning, "to teach." Just as children have different needs at each age and stage of their development, their discipline needs change also. And since children are unique in their personalities and reactions, discipline needs also may vary from child to child.

Toddlers are learning to be independent, which includes saying no! Their main job is to explore the world, learn how things work, and learn how to do things for themselves. They are learning to talk, ask questions, express likes and dislikes, experience emotions, control movements, imitate adults, walk, run, jump and climb.

For you, their behaviors might be challenging. You may be dealing with their constant motion, frustrations, temper tantrums, hitting, biting, grabbing, running away from you, throwing things, screaming, whining, potty training, power struggles, getting into things, and separation anxiety. What's a grandparent to do? Here are some of the best ways to respond to these behaviors:

  • Satisfy their need to safely explore with pillows to climb, space for running, and sand, dirt, water, or play-dough.
  • State limits (rule and reason): Stay in the yard. The street is not safe.
  • Use rhymes and songs: If you hit, you must sit. After we play, we put our toys away. What is the song for picking up our toys?
  • Teach what they CAN do: You can color on paper. (not on the wall)
  • Use books to teach, like a child's book on potty training.
  • Use substitution: Heres a brush you can keep.
  • Make logical consequences: Let's put toys away when they cause us to fight.
  • Provide choices: Would you like to wear your blue shirt or your green shirt?
  • Use humor: The tickle bug's gonna get your frown.
  • Always monitor for danger.
  • Reinforce desirable behavior: Thank you for coming when I called.
  • Help child use feeling words: You are sad that we have to go.
  • When possible, ignore undesirable behavior like temper tantrums.
  • Use a firm tone that says, I mean business such as Stop! or Come here.
  • Physically remove the child from danger or power struggles. (grab from street)
  • Use short time-outs for hitting or biting: You need to sit until you are calm.
  • Ask questions that get the child to think: Where did I say you couldn't go? And where did you go?
  • Tell stories about a situation and the child's feelings: Once there was a little girl who loved the outdoors so much she didn't want to go inside.
  • Make a game: Can you get in your chair before I count to 5? Let's pretend we are kangaroos as we pick up.

Research consistently shows that children with caregivers who are warm and affectionate and who set clear, firm limits, are likely to be well-adjusted, have good self-esteem, be self-controlled, have good morals and high achievement. Appropriate discipline helps children take steps toward self-control, experience success, learn from mistakes, and feel good about themselves.