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Discipline in the Terrible Twos

Last week a number of you asked me to write a post about how to discipline a toddler! I have so much to say about this I don't know if it will fit all in one post, but let's give it a try.

First, a bit of perspective. I firmly believe that the more you discipline a child up until the age of 3 or 4, the less you have to discipline a child around ages 15-17. And it's at 15-17 when they can get into some serious trouble! That's why it's so important that toddlers are taught to respect your authority and to obey.

I know "obey" is a dirty word. We don't want to impose our wills on these bright, impressionable children. But let's not forget that they are "children". They are not adults. They don't know everything. And they need to be taught to channel their energies in the right direction. Besides, it gives them a feeling of security when they realize that they are not in charge of this big, huge world. When they know there are checks and balances, and that Mommy and Daddy will stop them from doing something bad, they actually feel freer to explore this world than when they are given no limits at all.

So let's move into how to discipline.

1. Schedule/Routine works so well. If you can institute a schedule or routine so that the children know what to expect, you are less likely to need much formal discipline. One of the reasons kids act out is because they are confused or overwhelmed because they don't understand what is going on. That's why kids are more likely to act like brats in a new situation meeting all your relatives, for instance. It's an unfamiliar situation.

As much as possible, then, kids thrive with a schedule. Up at 7, play until 7:45, then breakfast. Play until 10, then outing. Home for lunch. Do a craft. Take a nap. Etc. etc. And try to make outings have similar themes! Have toys that you only take on outings. Go to the library at the same time on the days that you go. When kids know what to expect, they are far more likely to relax and enjoy it than to get upset and start acting out.

2. Make Allowances for Them. Kids are kids, and often we expect them to be able to behave better than perhaps we should. When my girls and I used to grocery shop when they were babies and toddlers, I would stick them into the grocery cart and then head immediately to the produce department, where I would buy two bananas. Then I'd go to the checkout and pay for my two little bananas. I'd keep the receipt handy, in my pocket, and I'd let the girls eat the bananas while we shopped. That kept them from fussing or from trying to touch all the food. If they already had food, they were far more likely to enjoy the experience.

It's unrealistic to expect a 2-year-old to sit calmly in a grocery cart in the middle of all that food for half an hour or 45 minutes while you get a huge shop done. Buy them a healthy snack at the beginning, and you get away from a lot of trouble.

Similarly, if you're waiting at a doctor's office, or if another appointment, it's unrealistic to expect them to sit calmly there, too. I always kept a few small toys and several books in my bag, and whenever we were out at stuff like that I'd whip them out and keep them occupied. It works well at restaurants, too.

I know it doesn't look like the first two have much to do with discipline, but I believe that if we aren't unreasonable with our children, and if we have a routine, kids in general will behave better. Now let's turn to the times when they don't behave.

3. Determine the root cause. My oldest daughter, for instance, threw temper tantrums like there was no tomorrow when she was 2. She'd get upset about something--like we had to leave the park--and she'd start screaming. The problem was she couldn't stop. She'd get to the point where her temper tantrum had nothing to do with what set her off. She was just screaming now because she was overwhelmed with her emotions.

It's frustrating as a parent, but much of life as a 2-3 year-old is learning things, and one thing you have to learn is handling emotions. Becca just couldn't do it at the time (she's still working on calming herself down when she feels panicky or upset, but she's much better at it at 15).

If you can see that it's not that she or he is being defiant, but it's just that they're tired or overwhelmed, that can at least perhaps temper your anger. It doesn't mean you don't discipline; it just makes you a little more sympathetic.

I would take Becca, in the middle of these tantrums, and talk quietly to her but make it clear that she couldn't be with the family or with other people if she was going to scream and thrash like that. We'd either remove her from the room we were in, or, if she was thrashing too much, I'd hold her on my lap, not talking to her, until she was able to calm down.

I never bribed her or tried to get her interested in something else. She needed to learn how to calm herself down. That's the main lesson she needed to get out of her temper tantrums, and if I calmed her down by giving her something, like chocolate, than the lesson was thrown out the window. It was frustrating because it's hard to listen to her screaming, but we'd either put her in a room and let her cry on her bed or I'd hold her on my lap, keeping her arms down, so she wasn't a harm to anybody.

4. Keep Discipline Immediate and Quick. Kids don't have long attention spans, and they don't always understand things when there's too much time between infraction and punishment. If they've just bitten somebody, then you must respond right then. If my children were at playgroup, for instance, and they did something horribly inappropriate, like biting or throwing a tantrum, we would leave. They were very upset about that, and it often made the tantrum worse, but they had to learn that they couldn't act that way in that setting.

Kids need to learn that in public there are certain things you can't do, like screaming, or hitting, or being violent. If they were, they lost their chance to play.

If you're going to institute something like this, don't lecture them or be mad. Just treat it like it's natural. "It's too bad we have to leave now, but that's what happens when you bite. Maybe we'll be able to come back tomorrow if you decide not to bite again." Then don't yell at them. You've already punished them. Let them understand that it was their choice to leave, since they did the biting. Next time, if they make a different choice, then you can stay.

But it must be immediate. Don't dilly dally and wait around and second guess yourself, or you've lost the chance. You can always come back another time, and it does help kids learn to control themselves when they see that they lose something important to them.

5. You Must Be Consistent. If you are going to make it a rule that everyone tries two bites of everything on their plate, for instance, then you have to make them. You can't do it one night and not the rest, or you'll have to start from scratch all over again. They'll know they can push the limits.

That's why it's better NOT to discipline or threaten if you're not going to follow through in the same way all the time. If you're going to let it go sometimes, but not others, you just confuse kids, and you actually put yourself in a worse situation. It's better to have small consequences that you always enforce than some big ones you're haphazard about, because you just confuse kids about the rules.

So don't threaten something in anger. Ask yourself, "can I really follow through? Can I follow through like this on another day, too? Is this something I can regularly do?" And if it's not, don't do it. When kids feel there's a CHANCE they can get away with something, they're more likely to push the limits than if they feel like there are no limits at all, if that makes any sense. It's better not to do anything than to do it halfway.

So with toddlers, choose small things to discipline about. Remove a toy. Have them stand in time out for 3 minutes. Take them out to the car if they're acting up in a restaurant. Leave a playgroup. As for spanking, you can do this if you want to, but I never recommend it because some people do spank in anger, and that's dangerous. If you don't spank in anger, and you're controlled and calm, then that's really up to you. I just don't want to get involved in that decision-making chain of yours!

Let me tell you, though, that some research has shown that spanking is much more effective for boys than for girls. Girls often react badly. Boys often react well. Nevertheless, you know your kids, and you choose what is best for them.

One more thing: try not to yell. If what you're doing is just enforcing consequences, you can do it in a nice voice. "It's too bad you can't play with bunny anymore today, but Mommy warned you, and I have to take it away now." Yelling scares kids and undermines your authority. It's not nice, it creates a horrible environment in the home, and it's not necessary except in really bad circumstances. Kids are far more likely to accept a consequence when you announce it in a firm but normal voice than if you go off the deep end.

I hope that helps! Leave your comments and other ideas below, and maybe I'll leave a follow-up post on Thursday!

If you want to hear more just like this post, you'll love Sheila's audio download, "To Love, Honor and Vacuum"! Do you feel more like a maid than a wife and a mother? Do you wonder how to get your home under control--and how to raise your kids well? Listen in to this hour long talk!

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At 10:55 AM , Blogger Deborah said…

I have a question. For background, I'm pregnant with my first child, so I have absolutely NO experience disciplining kids, other than going by very clear guidelines that their parents have given me. It makes perfect sense to me to say "we have to leave playgroup/the party/the park now because you've chosen to bite/throw a trantrum/whatever." My question comes in in the situation where you have multiple kids there--twins or closely spaced siblings. How, then, do you make leaving the natural consequence/punishment for one's bad behavior without punishing the other, who may have been behaving just fine?


At 11:29 AM , Blogger Sheila said…

Hi Deborah--

Good question! You're right--that response works best if you only have one child. I would say that if the other siblings are younger, like say under 2, you should pack up and leave anyway. They'll just think the playtime's over and they'll go along with it eventually.

If the other children are old enough to understand, then you have a bit of a problem. I'd say, in general, set a limit, and give everybody 15 more minutes and then we have to go, and take the offending child and make them sit with you for that remainder of the time. That way the older ones get to say good-bye and get accustomed to the fact that they will have to leave, while the younger one is with you.

Sometimes you just have to punish everyone. It's not fair to the others, but it's a family. And the good thing is you tend to only need to do it one or two times and then they know you're SERIOUS. After that, a warning usually suffices to get everyone to agree! But you have to follow through with something drastic first to make the kids sit up and take notice!


At 11:59 AM , Blogger Cassie said…

Great post Sheila! This is precisely how I parent my toddler! He is 20mo and getting into what many call the "NO" stage, lol!

I quited your entire post on my blog, you can find the post here:


At 2:17 PM , Blogger Kelli said…

Thanks for this Sheila! It's funny. I had one of those moments with my son (2 1/2) yesterday in the store. It was quite the humbling experience! I actually posted about it on my blog and did a link to yours. I did laugh when I read your blog today, realizing that it's about what I had written. Thanks so much for your input. Sometimes mothers of toddlers just like to hear that they're not alone. This discipline stuff is hard work!


At 3:09 PM , Blogger Tessa said…

I have an "emergency" matchbox car in my pocket nearly all the time. Nuff said lol!


At 3:11 PM , Blogger Tessa said…

Oh, one more note, can we please stop referring to them as the terrible twos? I call them the Terrific Twos becasue it's such a fun age when they start learning things and interacting with and understanding everything around them. Perhaps a change of phrasing will take away all the negativity involved with rambunctious toddlers. Just a thought.


At 4:08 PM , Blogger Laura said…

You are right! Routine helps. We have a routine and on the days that we are off it seems that EVERYONE is off. We love our routing.

Consistency is also HUGE. My kids are learning that the rules are the rules no matter where we are. If they act up at grandma's house they still have the same consequences as they do at home.

A little before my daughter turned one she started resisting (a lot) during diaper changes. I would calmly tell her "Mommy is boss and we are going to change your diaper." She eventually started understanding that and now if we are in public and she starts to act up I just whisper in her ear "Who's boss?" It lets her know it's not worth fighting because she won't win. It may seem like a silly thing but it works for us and it lets her know who's in charge.

Another point on consistency... it's really important for a mom and dad to be together on discipline. When we have an issue with the kids we will talk about how to deal with it and be on the same page. I think that has made a big difference with out kids. The two's really haven't been too bad at all.


At 7:33 PM , Anonymous Allyson said…

I have so much to say with three kids ages 1-5 but I think you, Sheila, pretty much covered it all! However, did you ever run into issues with bed times/getting out of bed/etc.? Just curious how you handled that one! :-)


At 4:07 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said…

I am 12 (boy) and have a sister (19) She says that I was a very difficult child from 2 so my parents started to spank me. My sister was never spanked. She tells me (cos I don't remember) that I responded well to the spankings so parents did it whenever I got in trouble. But as I grew they increased the spankings, so now I get almost each week a long punishment with belt or cane on my bare bottom and also on my bare legs. It hurts a lot and in school i get teased because I have visible marks on my legs (I always wear shorts).
So be careful, if you start spanking at low age, it can get very hard later.


At 12:34 PM , Blogger jessica said…

I have a 22 month onld and an 11 month old. My 22 month old gets into everything and we started teaching him no and right from wrong around 6 months so he understood b4 he was a year old what no meant and all that but now he's not been listening he gets mean to his brother and stopped feeding himself I'm going crazy with 2 kids so close. I need advice on what to do I have actually fixed the not feeding himself but he doesn't eat that much is that normal for one kid to not eat very much and for the other younger one to eat like a pig? Anyway I need help! I can use suggestions and tips on just about everything from potty training which we r doing pretty good at to discipline and not listening. I do spank or I would call it was swat on his butt but I don't do it in anger and I don't do it hard it doesn't phase him so I'm guessing its prlly not doing anything. It hurts his feelings sometimes but he's the kind of kid that u really don't hurt his feelings too easily. Please help thanks!


At 2:49 PM , Blogger Sheila said…


Thanks for your comment! You do have your hands full with two so close together.

The best I can tell you is that sticking to a schedule so that the kids learn what to expect and when to expect it will help a lot. If he knows now it's play time, and then it's clean up time, and then it's nap time, and it's that way everyday, he's more likely to listen.

I wouldn't concentrate so much on the "negative" discipline like spanking right now as much as on setting up schedules, planning times when he does have your attention, like reading or playing, and then other times when he'll have to learn to play on the kitchen floor while you cook or something.

And yes, it is normal for a 2-year-old to stop eating!

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About Me

Name: Sheila

Home: Belleville, Ontario, Canada

About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.

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