Q: When should I start to discipline my toddler?

Question: I have a lively, energetic, sometimes strong-willled but otherwise delightful and loving toddler. I don’t want to be over-strict, but I don’t want to be permissive either. When should I start to “discipline” her and how should I go about it?

Mom and Todler

Answer: The word “discipline” is an often badly misunderstood word. Its real meaning is “to teach”. In this context you have been teaching your child about the world before she was even born. As you held, fed and nurtured her as a baby, she was learning about you, about herself as someone deserving of love, and about the world as a good and loving place to be. From this positive attachment between you and your child, she will continue to go on learning how to relate to others and how to behave well.

Children who do not feel securely attached to their parents, and whose needs were not met from birth, may enter toddler-hood feeling very insecure, and presenting with a number of behaviour problems. It is from these situations and us trying to manage them, that the bad connotations of the word “discipline” have emerged. The “D” word may then come to mean us trying to control the child’s behaviour, and punishing the child if their behaviour does not please the parent.

This can quickly escalate into scolding the child, withdrawing privileges, putting the child into a “time-out” or using “artificial consequences” (punishments, as opposed to natural consequences) for bad behaviour. It is best not to get onto that road at all, as children become unhappy, insecure, confused and angry and if they comply with what we want, it is out of fear of the consequences, rather than having learned anything useful. That is why we prefer not to use the “D” word at all if possible.

Rather we want to provide “loving guidance”, so it is probably best to think of it as a continuation of the loving connection that has existed from before birth and through babyhood, making your toddler feel secure and eager to learn about life and how to behave from her parents. Since young children want to be like us and copy everything we do (that’s how they learn) it’s important to notice how we are treating them. They learn appropriate behaviour by experiencing how we treat them, and watching how we treat other people.

Most parents want respectful, well behaved children, and the best way to achieve that is to be respectful to them. Children who have been treated with respect, will treat the world around them with respect, and children who have received kindness and caring, will be kind to other people and even animals. So the general rule is, never say anything to your child that you wouldn’t say to a much-loved friend, listen to them when they try to tell you something, and never talk about them to others in their presence, as if they weren’t there.

At the same time, toddlers are often a bundle of curiosity, impulses and energy, who can be unaware of potentially dangerous situations. They want to know about and interact with everything around them, because that is how they learn. But they can be very impulsive and sometimes stubborn, and above all, hate being told “no”, though sometimes we have to set firm boundaries to ensure their safety.

How do we stop these little balls of energy in their tracks when we need to, without discouraging the very behaviours that will serve them well later in life — without breaking the loving connection between us, hurting their innate desire to please us, or using power or punishments to keep them in line? Understanding and empathy seem to work best. If we can put ourselves into our toddler’s shoes, and experience how we would feel if we were restrained or told no, we are probably on the right track.

If we have to set a limit, it’s useful to remember that they just might have a meltdown – anything from a sad and dejected little face and some tears or whining, to a full blown tantrum, broken-hearted sobbing or anger. (See article on Tantrums). If we understand that these are appropriate reactions at their age and not “bad behaviour”, then we are on the right track. On the other hand, if we try to avoid the expression of their feelings, we may find that we have a battle on our hands, where we end up losing our cool, and find ourselves on the road to punishments instead of problem-solving.

When we have set a limit and had to say no, it’s important to stick to what we said, but at the same time, we can communicate to the child that we understand how badly they wanted to do the forbidden thing, and that we really care about how they feel. As they get the message that we care about their disappointments and are on their side, the connection between us stays strong, and most disappointments and upsets are over quite quickly. Often all the child needs is to know that we understand how they feel.

Learning should also be fun, so being playful with children is a great way to teach them any new skills we want them to learn. Laughter makes us all feel good (children are no exception). Filling their lives with fun and laughter is an excellent tool for teaching them how to relate in a positive way with other people. Children raised in this way are usually cooperative, well behaved and a pleasure to be around. If upsets are handled as soon as they happen, the issues get resolved quickly and the child can get back to doing the things they enjoy and mastering the skills they’re working on.

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  • 8 responses to “Q: When should I start to discipline my toddler?

    1. what do we do when they go to friends houses where the children are not well behaved do not share toys snatch them back and are not told off for this behaviour leading our child to either lose out playing with the toy after toy as each one is snatched off and eventually snatching back and hitting out in temper – what then as it looks like my child is the one at fault and however kindly i ask the mom or the child to do otherwise the child does not share. nearly as bad is when the mom is disciplining / asking the child to share nicely but it still ends up neither wants to share and they both snatch off each other, both parents then feel bad. i do go to one family that have been brought up well have three siblings and we leave them to fight out there own arguments as long as all are happyish and not hurt and there appears less fighting oddly, each one appears to understand where the other child is coming from and what they like or dislike and how far they can push each other what is the right way to go about visiting and having visitors and being fair and appearing fair to all

    2. Patricia Torngren

      Hi Laura, Young children mostly don’t have the concept of sharing, so I am glad you have found one family where the kids can mostly sort it out between them and seem to understand where the others are coming from. Meanwhile I’ll contact you on your email address and we can talk more.

    3. Hello, thank you for this timely article. I have a very rambunctious 11 month old who can run, climb and already throws tantrums. He is very different than my other son who is now 8. I know he doesn’t understand reason and logic, and am a little nervous about a trip we are taking on a train and plane. He has a hard time staying still and will scream, really high pitched and loud when he is held and wants to go go go. Do you have any suggestions on how to show him that the screaming is too loud? I am teaching him sign language so as to alleviate some of his communication frustration but I am unsure how to get him to stop screaming. I can handle it(most times) but am concerned others en route to our destination may not be able to.

      • Hi Moyra, I hear your concerns. You’re right. Toddlers don’t understand reason and logic, and certainly not at 11 months! What I would suggest with an older child would be to make up a game called “Shhhh” and practice playing it. Everyone speaks to each other in whispers. But your baby is too young to understand this. There seem to be two issues — keeping him still — very hard with such a small one, and the more he has to keep still, the more likely he is to start screaming. or throwing a tantrum. A few suggestions (a) walk him up and down the aisle of the plane or train so he doesn’t have to be still for too long — most people can handle movement better than noise (b) Take a few brand new toys to keep him interested (c) If he starts throwing a tantrum, take him to the toilet or somewhere he can let it out. If you are still breastfeeding, offering the breast might help. Also take courage — most people know that babies of that age are noisy. Best of luck!

    4. I am really struggling with my daughter. She is a very strong-willed high-needs 12 month old girl. We practice attachment parenting and have a family bed. We primarily breastfeed and supplement with solids. I have been wearing her since birth. I try to respond to her needs immediately and consistently. That being said, she has been since her first breath a tantrum-throwing, screaming baby. She is easily over-stimulated. We are really struggling getting her to calm down enough to sleep. Since she was born, I am lucky if I get one hour of uninterrupted sleep, and rarely six hours at a time laying down. She is so fussy and strong-willed. We have taken her to two pediatricians, four doctors, and a chiropractor. She is healthy, just high-needs. She forces herself to stay up at night, how can we get her to lay down? She’ll be so tired her eyes are rolling back, but she’ll continue to stimulate herself, clapping her hands, pinching, kicking, “talking”, sitting up, spinning around. (She doesn’t kick or pinch meanly, it is just stimulus for her.) We’ve tried everything: spanking, not spanking, rocking, walking, ignoring, cuddling (which she hates), singing, swinging….I refuse to let her “cry it out” for two reasons, one it is cruel and two she has NEVER calmed down or passed out from crying, she’s amps up when crying not winds down. Can you help? Is this a discipline thing? My husband and I are tired and cranky from this last difficult year. Any advice would help. I have yet to find someone who actual knows anything about high-needs babies other than those that are high-needs because of extreme allergies, of which this is not our case. Thank you.

    5. hi Tara, I hear you that you are having a hard time at the moment and want to give your little one the very best, which is lovely. I would love to reply in full but time doesn’t permit right now. I don’t seem to have an email address for you, so please send me one so that we can talk about things in greater detail. Also, are you on facebook — if you are, please send me your contact details there, because we have several Aware Parenting groups where we are discussing these issues and moms are sharing — I would be happy to link you up. In the meanwhile, here are a few links that might help you, and I do intend to reply in full when I can find the time. Best of luck and warm wishes!





    6. Hi Tara, I have a little more time now. I hear you that you are totally exhausted and don’t know how to calm your baby down. I also hear that you don’t want to leave her to CIO, which is wonderful. But what some mothers don’t know is that there are two reasons why babies cry. One is to tell us that they need something in the present like a feed, they are in pain, they need more loving holding, etc. When we meet those needs, the crying stops. But there is also another kind of crying babies do (just like adults) and that is that they need to cry in our loving arms if they are upset, if they are overtired and had a stressful day, or if they went through any trauma like a difficult pregnancy or birth, or were separated from their mothers after birth. This kind of crying is healing. It is the total opposite of leaving babies to CIO alone, which is traumatic. But crying to release stored hurts, in our loving arms, and with our full and respectful attention and us listening to them, then that is healing. If your baby hasn’t been doing that, then “allowing” her to cry in your arms before bed will help her release the stress and sleep ever so much better. It is when stress builds up that babies wake frequently in the night and often need to be nursed back to sleep, even when they are long past the age for needing frequent night feeds. I hear you that when you let her cry, she “cries up a storm”. Is it possible to come to the place where you can trust her that is what she needs to do (in your arms) and that when you allow it to happen and for her to finish, she will be calm and peaceful afterwards. I know that for those of us who were not allowed to cry in someone’s arms when we were babies, this can be disturbing, so if it upsets you, can you find a “listening partner” (friend, relative, therapist, etc.) that you can talk to about this. As you become more comfortable with allowing her to cry in your arms, she will become more comfortable too, and you will find that she soon calms down and starts to sleep better. I am going to give you a few more helpful links, and please feel free to get back to us if you need to.

      Here is the facebook group where we discuss these things and anyone with these concerns is welcome:

      Here is some advice from mother who is also an Aware Parenting Instructor:

    7. Pingback: Discipline and Loving Guidance | Parenting With Love

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