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How To Discipline Your Toddler

Your toddler tests your nerves because he is testing boundaries all around him. Every day, little by little, he is mastering new abilities and accomplishing new feats, and is anxious and excited to use these skills. Sometimes it's tough to reel in a toddler, but it can be done. And setting rules and limits now — when your youngster is learning what behaviors are acceptable — will help prevent bigger problems down the road.

Here are some ways to help you keep your youngster on the right track:

1. If your roving toddler does head toward an unacceptable or dangerous play object, calmly say "No" and either remove your youngster from the area or distract her with another activity. It's important to not spank, hit, or slap your youngster. At this age, children are unlikely to be able to make a connection between the behavior and physical punishment. The message you send when you spank is that it's OK to hit someone when you're angry. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) discourages spanking, which is no more effective than other forms of discipline, such as timeouts.

2. If you need to take a harder line with your youngster, timeouts can be an effective form of discipline. A 2- or 3-year-old who has been hitting, biting, or throwing food, for example, should be told why the behavior is unacceptable and taken to a designated timeout area — a kitchen chair or bottom stair — for a minute or two to calm down. As a general rule, about 1 minute per year of age is a good guide for timeouts. Shorter timeouts can be effective, but longer ones have no added benefit and can sometimes undermine your efforts if your youngster gets up (and refuses to return) before you signal that the timeout has ended.

3. By now, you've figured out that your toddler wants to explore and investigate the world. Toddlers are naturally curious, so it's wise to eliminate temptations whenever possible. That means items like TVs, phones, and video equipment should be kept out of reach, as well as choking hazards like jewelry, buttons, and small items that children can put in their mouths. And always keep cleaning supplies and medications stored safely away where children can't get to them.

4. When it comes to discipline, it's important to be consistent. Moms and dads who don't stick to the rules and consequences they set up don't have children who do either. For example, if you tell your toddler that a timeout is the repercussion for bad behavior, be sure to enforce it. Only issue warnings for things that you can follow through on. Empty threats undermine your authority. And don't forget that children learn by watching adults, particularly their moms and dads. So make sure your own behavior is role-model material. When asking your youngster to pick up toys, you'll make a much stronger impression if you've put away your own belongings rather than leaving your stuff strewn around the room.

5. Even the most well-behaved toddler can have a tantrum from time to time. Tantrums are common during toddlerhood because children can understand more than they can express and this often leads to frustration when they can't communicate their needs. Toddlers get frustrated in other ways, too, like when they can't dress a doll or keep up with an older sibling. Power struggles can ensue when your toddler wants more independence and autonomy too soon. The best way to deal with tantrums is to avoid them in the first place, whenever possible. Here are some strategies that may help:
  • When children are playing or trying to master a new task, offer age-appropriate toys and games. Also, start with something simple before moving on to more challenging tasks.
  • Make sure your youngster isn't acting up simply to get attention. Try to establish a habit of catching your youngster being good ("time-in"), which means rewarding your little one with attention for positive behavior.
  • Know your youngster's limits. If you know your toddler is tired, it's not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in one more errand.
  • Give your toddler control over little things. This may fulfill the need for independence and ward off tantrums. Offer minor choices that you can live with, such as "Would you like an apple or banana with lunch?"
  • Consider the request carefully when your youngster wants something. Is it outrageous? Maybe it isn't. Choose your battles; accommodate when you can.

If your youngster does throw a tantrum, keep your cool. Don't complicate the problem with your own frustration. Children can sense when moms and dads are becoming frazzled and this can just make their frustration worse. Try to understand where your youngster is coming from. For example, if your youngster has just had a great disappointment, you may need to provide comfort.

Ignoring the outburst is another way to handle it — if the tantrum poses no threat to your youngster or others. Continue your activities, paying no attention to your youngster but remaining within sight. Children who are in danger of hurting themselves or others during a tantrum should be taken to a quiet, safe place to calm down.

Some children will have a hard time stopping a tantrum. In these cases, it might help to say to say, "I'll help you settle down now." But whatever you do, do not reward your toddler by giving into desires. This will only prove that tantrums are an effective tactic for getting what he or she wants. Instead, verbally praise your youngster for regaining self-control.

As their language skills improve and they mature, children become better at handling frustration and tantrums are less likely. If you're having difficulty handling you youngster's temper tantrums or have any questions about discipline, ask your doctor for advice.

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