It can be hard for parents to know where to draw the line between being too permissive, or being too strict. Learning to discipline your toddler and preschooler with consistency and patience will help you find the right balance.

Try to think about discipline as guiding your child to be an adult who can make decisions that are good for them and those around them.

This means as they get older, you need to start holding back more and letting them make their own decisions, and bear the consequences of those decisions themselves. Take clothing for example:

A toddler could get a couple of choices – the blue shirt or the red shirt? A preschooler could be more involved in the decision – check out the weather today, discuss what activities they will be doing, and help them select appropriate clothing.

Your input will slowly become less and less until your child gets to the stage where they go and buy their own clothes with their own allowance!

Where people go wrong is often giving too much freedom too young, not enough freedom when they are older or giving the freedom without teaching them how to make a good decision.

Discipline is Not Punishment

This is a really important place to start, but I’ll keep this section short and sweet. Discipline comes from a place of loving kindness, it can be firm, but it’s always fair. And the goal of discipline is to create clear boundaries for your child, so that they learn what is and what isn’t acceptable. When they cross those boundaries, your response is firm, but calm, and always consistent.

Slowly, over time as they display more of the behaviour you’re guiding them towards, you can push the boundaries out further, and give them more control over their own lives.

Punishment is not discipline. Punishment comes from a place of anger and a desire for control. Punishment is a response to you feeling like you’ve been ‘wronged’ and wanting to get back at your child, so they know their place in the world. You were probably punished as a child, so it comes very natural. But it’s not a loving strategy, and over the long term, it just doesn’t work.

Slowly, over time, punishment leads to resentment, power struggles and sometimes a complete breakdown in communication.

Age Appropriate Discipline for Toddlers and Preschoolers

These tips will work for most ages

  • Spending time with your child and giving them lots of affection and affirmation will ensure you have a strong relationship to deal with the rocky times.
  • Know your child, if there are situations you know set them off, try to minimise these whenever possible.
  • Show respect for your child. Don’t choose discipline strategies that belittle or embarrass. Think about how you discipline your child in front of others so as not to embarrass them. Maybe you could have a hand signal to tell them they’ve stepped over the line?
  • Walk the talk! Modelling appropriate responses is the most effective way to teach your children.
  • Give affirmation and praise for what they are doing right, and for who they are.
  • Be consistent, but within reason. Make sure your child knows that when you say something, you mean it and will follow through. However it is important to allow room for negotiation or flexibility. If you are bending a rule, make sure you can explain to your child why. For example, if you have a rule that your child does the dishes, but they are really tired from a family outing and have a test the following day, by all means let them go to bed and do the dishes for them – but tell them why! This is different to the inconsistency where one day they are allowed to jump on the couch, but the next they get yelled at.
  • Keep your child’s emotional and physical needs topped up. A hungry, tired or attention starved child is more likely to push boundaries.
  • Give a clear warning or reminder before imposing consequences.

Once they are past the baby stage

  • Pick your battles. It can be equally frustrating for toddler and parent to hear ‘no’ 100 times a day. Begin allowing your child to make choices, good and bad, and try to intervene only when it’s absolutely necessary to change their behaviour.
  • Involve your children in setting rules for the household.
  • Create a team feeling by using phrases such as: In our family we…
  • Use natural consequences. This lets your child understand the result of their action. So, rather than battle with them to put their coat on, you could let them go outside and get wet and uncomfortable. Hopefully the next time it rains, they will remember and put their coat on without fuss. Some consequences would be unsafe to allow, so make sure you pick these carefully.
  • If natural consequences are unrealistic, try to make the consequences related to the child’s actions. If they have drawn on the furniture, the related consequence to that could be cleaning it off. You may also set a time frame for this which could mean they miss out on something while they are cleaning.
  • Help them right their own wrongs. For young children that might mean fetching the brush and shovel so you can clean up their mess, for older children it might mean getting a job so they can pay you back to replacing the neighbour’s window.
  • Choose your battles carefully. Allowing your child some control over what happens to them goes a long way to creating a positive relationship.
  • Try to limit saying no as much as you can. If you find yourself saying no constantly, try:
    • “Yes! When… then…” Eg, “Yes! When you’ve tidied your toys, then we can go to the park.”
    •  “Convince me!” If your child wants something, instead of immediately saying no, say “convince me”. If you’re not convinced, say so and let them try again.
    • If you see them being “naughty” ask them to explain what they are doing. Maybe it looks like your child has made a huge mess in the kitchen and wasted lots of food, but really they saw you were having a bad day and were trying to make you a surprise cake to help you feel better!

Use these techniques sparingly

  • Time out. Time out works best when it is a break from an overwhelming situation, rather than an isolating punishment. Most people use 1 minute for each year of the child’s age. Young children may benefit from sitting with an adult watching the play and going back when they feel they are able to follow the rules.
  • Rewards: Rewards are a part of our adult life – there are few people who would continue in their job if they weren’t being paid for it! The trick with using rewards is to ensure your child is not rewarded for everything. They should have some chores they do simply because they are part of the family. Other things they should do because they can see the value in the task itself.
  • Removing privileges: Diane Levy suggests using a ‘GST’ approach to withdrawing Goods and Services. If your child hasn’t complied with a request, and you’ve ensured they heard the request; wait until they ask for something and then use the Yes! When.. then… technique. Eg. Yes! When you have emptied the dishwasher, then you can watch TV. This seems to be more effective than withdrawing possessions for set periods.

This guide aims to give some advice as to what approaches are appropriate at different stages of development.

Age appropriate discipline for toddlers (1-3)

Keep in mind at this age:

  • Most toddler tantrums are meltdowns: they can’t cope with their strong emotions caused by an event – even one that is seemingly trivial to adults.
  • Discipline will still be around safety issues, as well as starting to teach children about family and social rules.
  • Toddlers don’t understand rules of possession. In their minds, everything is theirs.

Preventative management

  • Take time to understand your toddler’s behaviour.
  • Give toddlers two or three choices: “Do you want an apple or an orange?” Will often get a better response than “Eat your apple.”
  • Baby proof your house as soon as your child gets mobile. The fewer “No”s, the easier for everyone.
  • Make a game of turn taking so they get the idea of letting someone else have a turn.

What works

  • Removing the child or the object to a safer place.
  • Distraction, give them another toy or direct their interest elsewhere.
  • A clear no, or simple explanation can help them to understand.
  • Hugs and comfort as they deal with the frustration of not getting what they want.
  • Act quickly. Toddlers live in the moment so you need to have consequences that are implemented straight away and over quickly.

Age appropriate discipline for preschoolers (2-5)

Keep in mind at this age:

  • Memory improves significantly around age 4.
  • Preschoolers are just starting to understand that other people have different perspectives to them.
  • Children at this age are visual. If you say to them “No running inside”, chances are they will miss the no, and just visualise themselves running around the house.

Preventative management

  • Take time to understand your preschooler’s behaviour.
  • Phrase family rules in an objective, positive way. Say blocks are for building, rather than don’t throw the blocks.
  • Give them as much choice as you can without overwhelming them.
  • Help them to understand other people’s point of view by discussing stories or events that have occurred.
  • Discuss with your children possible issues before they come up. If they are allowed to jump on the furniture at home, it may be a good idea to explain that they may not do that before arriving at Grandma’s house.
  • Teach them how to recognise the difference between funny and silly.
    • A good catchphrase could be: once is funny, more is silly.
    • Help them to recognise the signs that people around them are not finding their behaviour funny: facial expressions and body language are great ways to guage people’s reactions.

What works

  • Redirection.
  • Reminding them of the rules and why they are in place. Eg we use gentle hands, if you keep doing that your sister might get hurt.
  • Once they’ve been reminded of the rules, if they continue, remind them what the consequence will be to give them a chance to stop first.
  • Use active listening to help them express their feelings.
  • Give them an option. If they are throwing the blocks, offer them a ball to throw instead.

Remember: As your child grows and changes, your parenting techniques will need to change as well. It’s important to recognise that as your child develops, some of the techniques you use will need modification.

Don’t be afraid to try a new technique if what you are doing doesn’t seem to be working.

For more expert advice on toddler behaviour, check out our Preschoolers: Behaviour section

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Frank McColl is a primary teacher and writes teacher resource materials for primary and secondary schools. She has one quirky toddler who keeps her on her toes.

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Roger Willcocks

“Convince me!” really?
It can take 30 minutes to get my son to stop arguing for something he wants.
Actually, it can take 30 minutes to get my son to stop arguing.
He has literally argued that black is white and that winter should be summer.
I’m about 98% convinced he’s arguing for the sheer joy of arguing.

Thalia Kehoe Rowden

Great series of articles, thanks, Frank!

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