Toddlers are like drivers in a snowstorm: they desperately want to know where the lines are.
As your toddler’s parent, you can provide the limits she craves. You do this through discipline. After your love, discipline is the most essential gift you can give your child. And you can start your discipline when she’s a baby. Discipline for a toddler, however, looks different.
Discipline: Training, Not Punishment
Do you hear “discipline” and think “punishment”? Then consider this: are Olympic athletes “punished” by practicing their sports until they can win gold medals? Of course not. Discipline is training, not punishment.
Think of yourself as your child’s coach. What kind of a “gold-medal adult” would you like your child to become? Seriously, take a few minutes right now to set some goals. Do you want her to be:
- Kind, thoughtful, and compassionate?
- Good at solving her problems?
- Physically healthy?
- Pleasant to live, work and play with?
- Other good things?
Spending time today picturing your child all grown-up can help you keep your training on target in the tempestuous toddler days ahead.You’re not raising a child, you’re raising an adult. Train her to be a #GoldMedal grown-up! Click To Tweet
Here are some helpful ideas to move your child toward that goal.
Establish and Enforce Limits
Limits are like lines to color inside for your child. They provide a framework a child can rely on to make sense of the world. A few essential limits include:
- Set up routines for mealtimes, bed times, and getting ready to go. Include some fun elements like a silly song you always sing while you wash hands, or “burrito kisses” for your towel-wrapped child after a bath.
- Have a few key rules. Teach her what’s okay in your family (like gentle touching, holding hands to cross the street…) and what’s not (like hitting, biting, running into traffic…).
- Keep love unlimited. Unconditional love—love that’s not dependent on performance—is your child’s biggest need. She will make mistakes and make you mad. Keep loving her anyway.
“Recent research shows that infants and toddlers are far more empathetic than we once thought. While they have short fuses, and don’t cope well with sharing, they are capable of being compassionate,” says Julia Luckenbill, a child development expert. You can build on your child’s ability to consider others’ feelings by:
- Modeling empathy. Speak kindly to others, forgive, and treat your child with respect.
- Interpret others’ body language. Point out, “Did you see Grandma smile when you gave her the flower? You made her feel happy.”
- Help her right wrongs. Teach her to apologize and to clean up her messes by doing these things with her.
Hitting and Biting and Pinching—Oh My!
Your toddler is learning and developing in so many directions that she can sometimes feel overwhelmed. Tantrums may result. (Read some suggestions on dealing with tantrums here.)
She can also use her hands and fingers and teeth in many new ways, and not all of them will be nice. Now is a great time to help her use sign language to express what she wants to say before she can speak the words.
Child development expert Dr. Sears has observed, “Aggressive biting and hitting is most common between the ages of 18-months and 2½ years when the child doesn’t have the verbal language to communicate his needs. Instead, he communicates through actions. Biting usually stops as the child’s verbal skills grow but hitting doesn’t.”
What’s a parent to do when these behaviors occur?
- Don’t bite (or hit or pinch) back. If biting is wrong for her, it’s wrong for you, too.
- Seek to understand the trigger. Is your child being naughty or just innocently experimenting with a new behavior? (Hint: if you’ve corrected the behavior repeatedly, it’s not innocent!) If your child is hitting because she’s frustrated, say, “You’re sad Jimmy took your toy. Instead of hitting, let’s ask him to give it back. Jimmy, please give us the toy…”
- Use time-outs to restore calm. Remove your child from the situation and especially the people she has hurt. Let her calm down in a safe place for a few minutes. Then welcome her back with plenty of love. Never let her think her behavior keeps you from loving her.
See Through Her Eyes
It’s easy to forget that our children don’t yet have the maturity to control their bodies and their emotions like a grown-up. When life with your toddler threatens to make you nuts, take a minute to see things from her perspective. She has so much to learn, and she’ll make a lot of mistakes. (You did, too, at two!)
Then go on loving her with patience and grace—the same things you need when life feels like too much to handle.
Gold Medal Parenting
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Discipline for Infants: Can I Really Train My Baby?
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Watch Me Grow: Your Baby’s Development in Months 1 to 3