Monday 27 June 2011

Gentle Discipline for Toddlers

This post was written for inclusion in the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline hosted at Parenting Gently. All week, June 27 - July 1, we will be featuring articles and posts about alternatives to punitive discipline. See the bottom of this post for more information.


Now that my youngest is 18 months old, I am reminded daily - hourly - of both the joys and challenges of raising a toddler. It's a fantastic age. Everything is new and exciting, filled with squeals and exclamations. I love it.

But it is also, for him, filled with frustrations, and he doesn't yet know how to express those frustrations without a lot of yelling and crying.

Since this is my second time around the toddlerhood block, I have the benefit of being able to look back on those days with my first. I can see the areas where I took things too seriously, and I can see that many of my worries were unfounded. Toddlers really do grow out of normal toddler behaviour.

But at the same time, we all need tools to help our children (and our sanity!) make it through this tumultuous stage. So here they are, my top five tips for toddlerhood, with the hope that you'll share your own toddler-related gentle discipline tips in the comments below.

Don't take it too seriously

Take a deep breath. This is just a stage; it will pass. They shriek because they can't talk. They melt down because they don't know what else to do with these huge feelings. They persist because they want what they want and don't yet have the developmental ability to reason much beyond that. The more worked up you get, the more they feed off of your negative energy, so take that deep breath and stay calm.

Give them the words

Yes, they shriek because they can't talk - so give them the words. Reflect their feelings and give names to them while describing what you see.

"You are MAD! You WANTED to play with that!"

"You are crying. You wanted to go with Daddy. You are very sad."

"You threw your toy because it wasn't doing what you wanted! You wanted to stack it and it kept falling over. You were frustrated."

"You fell and bumped your head. Ouch! That hurt!"

As they get older, encourage them to use these phrases themselves, coupled with other appropriate means of expressing their feelings.

Give them alternatives

Instead of focusing on what they shouldn't do, teach them what they should do. Show them better alternatives to undesirable actions. Be calm and consistent in enforcing the alternative.

"We don't hit. Be gentle with your hands. Show me gentle." Stroke your cheek with his hand.

"Be calm. Deep breath. Calm." Take an exaggerated deep breath.

Look for the need behind the action or the cause behind the behaviour. Can an acceptable alternative be offered, allowing us to say "yes" to the driving need instead of "no" to the action? Can the root cause behind the behaviour be solved, such as a nap for the tired toddler or a snack for the hungry one?


Along with teaching appropriate alternatives, redirection is a major tool during the the toddler stage. "Not that...this." You can't play with Daddy's book; here's one of yours. This is not for you to play with; let's go play with that.

Say it and then do it. Calmly and consistently follow through by picking them up, removing them from the situation, and moving them to a more acceptable activity. Distraction can be a great co-tool here - "hey, let's go check the mail!"

Keep it short and sweet

Give them words, but keep your sentences short. No big speech necessary, just short, simple, and to the point. Include a brief explanation with your requests. Teaching the why behind the what is one of our main discipline goals, allowing our children to understand and internalize the rule for a lasting impact.

As their understanding and verbal skills expand, they can be given brief options. "Hold my hand. If you can't hold my hand, I will help keep you safe by putting you in the stroller/up in the baby carrier." If they don't hold your hand, carry through - they go in the stroller/baby carrier. Short and simple. No discussion, no arguing, no endless admonitions. Just make it happen.

The phrasing itself can often be the difference between punishment (which is intended to cause pain) and discipline (which is intended to teach). It is the difference between angrily snatching a toy away with a "this toy is going away since you can't treat it properly!" and calmly telling a child "I see that you are having a hard time treating that toy properly, so I will help you by putting it away until you are calm enough to take care of it." It may sound like semantics, but in my experience, children react very differently to the two types of phrasing. Repeated use of a calm "I will help you by..." was met with understanding by my toddlers, and "help" was often requested on their own part rather than imposed by me. An off week of a more demanding tone was soon met with resistance and anger rather than cooperation and understanding. Phrasing and tone are important.

Reserve a sharp tone for dangerous situations such as hot stoves. This is your startled "danger voice", and it will cease to be so if used for commonplace situations. A loud sharp "OUCH! HOT!" as they get close to the stove will get the message through quickly for most toddlers.


Calm consistency is key with our children, who grow and thrive in the safety of age-appropriate boundaries. For toddlers, consistently give them words, consistently teach appropriate alternatives, consistently redirect, and keep it all short and simple.

Additional Resources:
The Hows of Discipline
Gentle Discipline for Babies
Attachment Parenting Series

What's your favourite gentle discipline tool for toddlers? Do you have a persisting situation you'd like to brainstorm a solution for?

Welcome to the 2nd Annual Carnival of Gentle Discipline!

Please join us all week, June 27-July 1, 2011, as we explore alternatives to punitive discipline. We have collected a wonderful array of articles and essays about the negative effects of punitive discipline methods, like spanking, and a myriad of effective alternatives. Please visit our other writers each day of the Carnival. Click on the links below to see each day’s posts - new articles will be posted on the following theme days:

June 27 - Practical Tips for Getting Started with Gentle Discipline
June 28 – It's All About Feelings: Respecting Emotions and Consensual Living
June 29 – A Fork in the Road: Turning Points in Gentle Discipline
June 30 – Gentle Discipline Recipe: Love, Patience, and Cooperation
July 1 – Gentle Discipline Resources


  1. Oh, this post is so timely for me as I'm in the midst of the life of a 2.5 year old! The reminder of the importance of tone and words was really needed for me, since I think I've been struggling with that recently.

    I'm wondering, the technique of teaching to take deep breaths - how do you do that? Do you teach that during everyday positive interaction times? I've tried doing it with my daughter, but it's usually when she's in the midst of a tantrum/emotionally distraught time, and she just doesn't seem to get it then.

  2. Excellent, as always! I seriously think you should write a book. <3

  3. Wonderful post; thanks so much for sharing. I love how you remind us to keep the sentences short and how you give the words in those challenging situations - really empowering stuff :)

  4. I blogged about my favorite breakthrough in the past few months...I tell E. That other kids are allowed to do certain things because they have different parents...then if it makes sense (which is almost all the time) I explain why our family makes the choice we do.
    For example, I would say that other kids are allowed to scream at their mother in restaurants, but that those kids probably don't get taken as many places as she does as a result.
    Here's the post if you're inclined to read it:

  5. Great question, Beth. I typically used the phrase "calm" with my oldest right at the moment when he was starting to get upset about something. More often than not, it prevented a full-out tantrum from occurring, allowing us to resolve the situation calmly and circumventing a meltdown altogether. I began by instructing and modelling a deep breath in and out; once it had been ingrained in him, all I had to say was "calm" and that was his cue to take a deep breath so we could proceed to find a resolution. If he got to the point of meltdown, it was unlikely that he could calm himself down so easily. Practicing deep breaths during everyday positive interactions is a great way to go about it!

    Dulce, thank you so much for those encouraging words. <3

    Mrs. Green, thank you for the kind words. I'm heading over to read your contribution shortly!

    Kate, that is a great suggestion. Thank you for sharing! I'll be sure to check out your link as well. :)

  6. So much of this continues to be true for preschoolers as well! Especially the "giving them the words," "giving them alternatives," and not taking it seriously. With my preschooler's newfound sense of a strong will (ahem), I am SO glad that I started on the road of gentle discipline when he was a wee one!

  7. Great post full of useful ideas.

    As for teaching breathing techniques, I did this with my 18 month old by association. I'd tell him to smell flowers to breathe in and blow out candles to breathe out. We did it at bedtime each night for calming down to sleep so it was something he was already familiar with when it came to recalling it when he was on the verge of a tantrum.

  8. Very true, Dionna, thank you for pointing that out. These techniques have definitely become the foundation on which we continue to build with my preschooler. Stay calm and teach them what they should do!

    From the Belly, what a great way to teach the deep breathing technique. I'm just beginning to work on it with our second toddler, so that will come in very handy!

  9. I have just joined the community of mamas of toddlers, so I sincerely thank you for your thoughtful advice and comments!

  10. This is great. So much wonderful practical advice, thank you!

  11. This is so great! I wish I had this when I worked in child care...I worked with 2 and 3 year olds, and this would have been so helpful on the days that the kids were just all melting down together. Those were fun days...

  12. I love how simple and practical you have made this, Cynthia! I have a solid idea of how I *want* to parent, but sometimes in the moment, I'm at a loss as to what to say or do. This sort of thing is exactly what I need.

  13. Wonderful ideas! It's so true that simple techniques like redirecting and giving alternatives can help many situations. And calm consistency is definitely important! Deb @

  14. My toddler is now entering the "no" phase. He keeps telling me no when I ask him to do something. Any suggestions to gently deal with that? It makes me angry.

  15. Ah, Jennifer, we're there right now too. Even when my toddler stirs in his sleep, he mutters "no no no"! It cracks me up.

    Speaking of cracking up, if there's one thing that's going to get you through this stage, it's keeping a sense of humour about it all. Try not to allow his "no's" to anger you (much easier said than done, I know!). It's a normal, healthy stage and it will pass.

    As for what you can do, practically speaking, in the meantime, this is an age for ensuring he knows that your words have meaning. Say something, repeat it with an offer of help, and then get up and (calmly, gently, matter-of-factly) help him follow through despite his protests. You won't win a power struggle with a toddler, so don't even engage in one. Take the "no" out of the equation and just carry through with helping him do what you asked him to do. It's inconvenient in the moment but pays off in the long run.

    Because this is an age where they are asking "how much power do I have over myself?", give him choices when possible. This shirt or that shirt, this cup or that cup, this snack or that snack.

    Some playful parenting can help to remove his need for power over himself and engage his cooperation instead. Everything's more fun when it's a game. :)

    I hope something there helps and encourages you. You might find some more new ideas in my post The hows of discipline.

  16. I really enjoyed reading this post. I think I will keep referring to it, so much helpful information! We redirect a lot here, but I need to start including some of these other ideas. I really enjoyed the thought on the difference between punishment and discipline.. I think this is lost on so many. thanks !

  17. How do you do this with a 15 month old who has to wear glasses he doesn't want to wear? He doesn't have a choice, we can't distract him from them for longer than a few seconds before he takes them off again, so we put them back on and it happens again and again and if we try that for longer than a couple of minutes he gets distressed and I feel like I'm torturing him. What do I do?

  18. Heth, what a difficult situation. I have no experience with that (if any other readers do, please chime in with what worked for you!), but I'll give it my best shot.

    Are the glasses a non-negotiable, or are they something that can be worn only at certain times (the same way he has to wear shoes when he goes outside, a hat when it's cold, or pajamas when it's bedtime)? If they don't have to be worn at all times, see if they can be tied to a certain event to make them less traumatic.

    If they do have to be worn at all times, persistence seems like your best chance here. At 15 months, he may be approaching the age where a simple explanation will aid things ("the glasses will keep you safe" or some similar phrasing that he may understand). Explanations worked incredibly well when my oldest was that age, but I know other parents have different experiences.

    I hope that time has brought improvement with the situation. The only other encouragement I can offer is to keep things in perspective: the glasses are new and incredibly bothersome to him and he doesn't yet understand why you keep putting them on him. He's not being defiant and it's not a battle, as difficult as the situation must be for you. Best of luck!

  19. I have just had my second baby and am finding it very difficult to get my two-and-a-bit year old to come with me if we need to leave a location and I have the baby (either in arms or sling). He will lie on ground, run away etc and it's very difficult to "help" him come with me (ie if you can't walk with me I will help you by carrying you etc" because i have no free hands/body space to make it happen. I am very patient but this breaks me! Any suggestions? Bec

    1. That's a frustrating situation for even the most patient parents! One of the first suggestions I would offer is to work on transition with him. Easing transition may include:
      * advanced notice ("We'll be leaving in five minutes...two more minute..."),
      * the opportunity to say good-bye ("Let's say good-bye to train now!"),
      * reflecting/validating his feelings ("It is hard to leave sometimes, isn't it? It would be fun if we could stay all day!"), and
      * a shift in focus to the following activity ("Time to get our shoes on so we can go home for a snack! What should we have for a snack today?").

      To help get through this temporary stage, would the use of a stroller be practical for you? Alternatively, do you feel comfortable wearing the baby on your back, allowing you less restricted use of your arms? Either option would make it easier for you to gently "make it happen" until he matures beyond this stage.

      Best of luck!

  20. Our son started wearing glasses at 18 mos. Consistency is the key. At first I needed to follow my son around & keep putting on his glasses. And when he cried out in frustration I gave him a hug & told him that I knew it was hard for him but he needed to wear his glasses so he can see. I always made sure when we read books that he had his glasses on. And we read a lot. So he could see that he can see better with the glasses on. Also his glasses were ones that had an elastic strap that we could easily slip over his head. They are bright blue in color so we could spot them on the lawn when he'd take them off. But just putting them on again & doing this like it was something he just needs to do helps him to adjust. I do know that he had a harder time keeping them on when someone pointed them out. So I tried to explain that to people that we saw frequently not to mention them. Then he would leave them alone. It gets better he's 28 months now & wears them 90% of the time. But he still has his days now & then.

  21. AAAH BEST BLOG EVER! My easy going, chilled out, easy 18month old has almost suddenly changed into a kid...? overnight with ideas about who he is what he wants what he doesnt want etc etc. I adore and love him to pieces and am trying to handle the tantrums, stomping of the feet, yelling etc etc the best way possible without the highschool teacher in me jumping in to keep control and expect reason and.... obedience- BAHA! this blog is perfect and i love it. thank you for the inspiration and the examples of how to tweak my responses and word things a bit better so he feels more confident and understood! Cant wait for tomorrow to try it out haha!

  22. I realize this is an older post. But I really needed it. I have a strong willed 3 yr old and a newborn. I have been struggling to find the right tools to help my oldest with the transition. She is very loving and I just need to have patience. And now I feel I have the confidence to follow my instincts to lead her with love. Thank you for helping me find the right path thru this phase.