How to Effectively Discipline Young Kids

Young kids act out in ways that seem designed to push our buttons: screaming, hitting, shouting “no!” (then shouting “no!” again). Take a breath, stay calm and remind yourself that such behavior is totally normal.

“It’s typical for toddlers to test the limits and push boundaries. They don’t have the communication skills yet to tell you what they want or need, so they show you with their behavior,” says Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta Strong4Life licensed therapist Jody Baumstein, LCSW.

Tantrums may raise our blood pressure, but they’re a form of communication. (In fact, many child development experts don’t even call them “tantrums.”) A parent’s job is to model calmness while teaching young kids to manage their feelings. Read on for helpful toddler discipline tricks.

child getting disciplined by parent

First, let’s talk about what discipline is—and is not. Discipline is about teaching. It’s about “guiding your child on the path you want him to be on,” says Baumstein. Discipline focuses on the big picture and giving kids skills for the future.

Punishment, on the other hand, is a random penalty enforced by the parent. It reacts to a past behavior. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends discipline strategies over punishment.

infant crying in parent's arms

There’s no such thing as discipline or punishment for babies. “It’s not appropriate to think of disciplining infants when their basic needs are in your hands. They’re not crying to annoy you, for example; they’re crying because they need something,” says Baumstein.

Similarly, you can’t spoil a baby. Holding and snuggling your baby gives them a basic sense of security that will someday translate to independence.

mom talking to son in his bedroom

Has your tot turned into a tyrant?

Here’s what to do:

  • Stay calm. Not only is calmness the compassionate response (after all, toddlers don’t always know better), it’s the best way to teach kids to be calm themselves.
  • Be firm. It’s not OK to hit, push, bite and so on. Be consistent and swift with your response.
  • Offer an alternative. You might be surprised how easily toddlers can be redirected: “You may not hit the dog, but you may pet the dog.”
  • Consider a “time-in,” which is like a time-out, only the parent sits with or near the child. “Putting a child away in another room doesn’t do any teaching, and you’re giving the message that ‘you are bad,’” says Baumstein. “We want to give the message that ‘you are fine; you made a poor decision. Let’s take a moment to calm down. Want to take a few deep breaths with me like we practiced?’”
  • Pick your battles. If you discipline every little mistake, you’ll be disciplining all day (and you’ll probably be really tired, too). Stand firm where safety is concerned, but maybe let your toddler wear that ridiculous, mismatched outfit.

mom wagging finger at son

It’s not always easy in the moment, but try to avoid these disciplinary mistakes:

  • Spanking. Studies have proven that spanking creates more aggressive behavior later in life (in other words, it’s a vicious cycle). The AAP opposes corporal punishment (like spanking) and stands behind research tying spanking to mental health problems, such as depression.
  • Yelling. The AAP ranks verbal abuse with spanking in terms of the emotional damage it can do.
  • Lengthy explanations. Toddlers have short attention spans, so keep it short and sweet: “We don’t hit because it hurts the other person.”
  • Unfair expectations. “Naturally, young children have trouble understanding the world around them,” says licensed therapist Kathleen Hill, LPC. You can encourage your child to share, but don’t punish them when they don’t, as sharing isn’t natural for toddlers and is learned with time and practice.

mom and son having snacks outside

The best kind of discipline is not having to discipline at all. Look ahead to triggers that could cause your toddler to act out. If you need to run lots of errands, for example, pack extra snacks and take play breaks. When your child starts to fuss, redirect their attention; maybe act silly to make them smile.

Be sure to praise good behavior: “I told you to put on your shoes and you did it! That was really good listening!” Not only do you boost your child’s self-esteem, you’ll motivate them to repeat that behavior.

How you discipline your children is ultimately up to you, and what works for one family may not work for yours. The important thing to remember is that kids are not born knowing how to manage their feelings. If you think of discipline as a way to teach and not to punish, everyone benefits: Parents feel less frustrated and angry, and children get more nurturing and guidance.