Discipline for toddlers

Discipline is not the same as punishment. ‘Discipline’ is about using positive reinforcement to teach your child how to behave. The three Cs of parenting provide a good framework for understanding discipline – they are Consistency, Care and Communication. The three Cs will help you build and maintain trust with your child, which is the cornerstone of good discipline. Without trust, there is fear and instability.

When your response to your child’s behaviour is predictable, they will more quickly learn right from wrong. If children get a different response each time, they get confused. When they see you behaving in ways that you discourage, this is also confusing. Remember, monkey see monkey do.

When children grow up knowing they are loved and cared for, they develop healthy attachment to their parents or caregivers. The beauty of a healthy attachment is that it promotes feelings of safety and trust between you and your child. A child who trusts that your good judgement will keep them safe is more likely to follow your rules.

In all relationships, good communication is vital. The more you talk to your child about everyday activities and routines, the more they learn from you. When you talk about your emotions, they are developing empathy and understanding about their own emotions and the people around them. Communication is both verbal and non-verbal – when you walk the talk, your child develops trust.

Keep calm
If there was a fourth C is would be Calm. It’s normal for children to behave in challenging ways, and understanding their behaviour is an important step in managing it. Take a deep breath and consider whether your child tired, hungry or overstimulated. Next time, plan to go shopping after a nap and or a healthy lunch.

Use positive reinforcement
Children like knowing what is expected of them. Praising children when they do the right thing is the best way to encourage good behaviour. Ignoring bad behaviour or giving them time out works well for toddlers.

Smacking should be avoided. Parents who smack their children are modelling negative behaviour and risking injury to the child. They are also breaking the child’s trust. The child is likely to feel scared, angry and confused, and while the parent is hoping for compliance, the child is likely to act out in return.

Setting family rules
Sitting down as a family and deciding on family rules and consequences is a great way to set clear boundaries and standards of behaviour for the whole family. Children who participate in setting family rules have greater ownership of them, and are therefore more likely to comply. This process also has the advantage of not singling anyone out – the rules apply to everyone.

When thinking about house rules, consider the typical disagreements and issues your family faces, and develop rules to address them. For example, for kids fighting, swearing or making a mess, the rules could be: we look after each other, we speak respectfully, and we look after our things. A few simple rules can make all the difference.

Setting consequences
When deciding on consequences it’s important to be age appropriate – it is also important to follow through. Consequences such as quiet time or time-out works well for toddlers as a pattern interrupt, and also to give them time to calm down. Loss of privilege works better for older children, such as taking away a favourite object or activity.

When you use consequences in the same way and for the same behaviour every time, your child knows what to expect. With consistent reinforcement, children will learn how to respond appropriately in different circumstances – at home, child care, or at the supermarket.

Over time, your children will learn to manage their own behaviour with less input from you. Consistency is key. When each behaviour has a predictable response, your child will quickly learn right from wrong.


  1. Parenting: The 3 C’s – Consistency, Care, Communication
  2. 7 Signs Your Child Has Developed A Healthy Attachment
  3. Discipline and guiding behaviour: babies and children

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