Struggling with a child that won’t listen to you? Learn how to discipline a toddler without hitting and yelling using age-appropriate ways.
No parent sets out to get upset at her child, but how are you supposed to discipline when he’s reaching for the cord or playing with scissors? When you’ve told him a million times not to drop his food on the floor—yet he still does? When he could care less about consequences, much less understand what they are?
We’ve all wrangled with a toddler who doesn’t listen, and instead hits and screams in a fit.
You’ve tried telling him “no” over and over or explaining the reason behind your instructions. Any discipline you try doesn’t seem age-appropriate. And as frustrating as his bad behavior may be, you don’t like the idea of hitting his hand or yelling to finally get his attention.
How to discipline a toddler without hitting and yelling
I hear you, friend.
It’s not easy when you’re constantly scolding your child, yelling his name, or shouting “No!” over and over. Not only does this make everyone feel terrible, but you don’t want him to start thinking that yelling is normal and model that behavior.
Thankfully, there are ways to discipline children this age, all without getting upset or resorting to spanking or hitting. Many of these are preventative measures to help you avoid these situations to begin with. Take a look at these do’s and don’ts and learn how to discipline a toddler without hitting and yelling:
1. Do praise your child’s good behavior
Do you feel like you’re constantly policing your child, looking out for behavior he shouldn’t be doing or could do better? Try to focus on his good behavior instead.
Sure, it might seem like his good behavior is few and far between. But find even the smallest thing to praise, from petting the dog gently to taking a nap right away. Known as positive discipline, you’re helping him continue the behavior you want to see instead of always focusing on the ones you don’t.
After all, he craves your attention, whether good or bad. The more positive reinforcement he receives about his good behavior, the more likely he’ll keep them up.
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2. Don’t give rewards
That said, don’t fall for the trap of giving your child a reward for good behavior.
Perks like stickers, candy, or new toys put the focus on extrinsic rewards, rather than intrinsic ones that he should hone in on. Their effectiveness also fades away once the newness wears off, forcing you to up the ante or see him revert to old habits.
Nurture instead his pride and confidence for having made good choices. Even a simple, “Thank you for helping me put your toys away!” can feel rewarding.
3. Do talk about your child’s feelings
Even though your child’s communication skills aren’t mature, start labeling her feelings. By giving a label to her emotions, she knows that…
- how she feels is normal and common
- feelings are both joyful and challenging
- feelings come and go
- there are words for how she feels
The best part? She can start using words to communicate how she feels instead of throwing a fit. She might say “Mad!” rather than pitch herself on the floor.
4. Don’t do timeouts
At first, timeouts make sense.
“Bad” behavior is followed with an unpleasant experience, often sending your child to a designated spot alone. This is supposed to be his opportunity to think about what he had done, or at least realize that his choices have consequences.
But in the long run, timeouts are ineffective and, more importantly, miss out on learning opportunities.
For one thing, he’s not thinking clearly about his behavior, or brainstorming different ways he could’ve behaved better. Nope—he’s stewing in anger and channeling the blame toward someone else (most likely you). He’s too emotional to think logically about what just happened.
Second, this is exactly when he needs you the most. Sending him to a timeout sends the message that his challenging feelings push you away. (And conversely, that you’re there for him when he’s happy and pleasant.)
And finally, timeouts miss out on the opportunity to turn the situation into a teachable moment. He doesn’t learn about boundaries, how to better communicate, or the importance of empathy, for instance.
His behavior doesn’t need “punishment” so much as a conversation—even nonverbally through body language. By talking about alternative ways to behave, he’s more likely to behave in the future. Sadly, he can’t learn these skills by sitting in a time out.
5. Do meet your child’s needs
One of the easiest ways to prevent your child’s misbehavior is to make sure you’re meeting her needs. A hungry, sleep-deprived toddler doesn’t have the energy to, say, show empathy for others or control her impulses.
Stick to a routine, especially for naps and bedtime, ensuring that she’s well-rested throughout the day. Offer regular meals, and bring a snack on outings should you find her getting hungry.
Besides her physical needs, consider how much attention she also needs from you. It’s no coincidence that on days you feel harried and stressed are the same when she doesn’t listen or throws a fit. Take a step back and see what she needs from you, as that can melt her defenses and get her to comply.
6. Don’t give empty threats
“Put your toys dishes in the sink, or you’re not going to watch TV!”
“Keep behaving that way, and we’re not going to Disneyland.”
“Now we have to get rid of these toys because you didn’t clean them up.”
Sound familiar? Sure, empty threats like these can spur your child to act, especially when he truly does believe that all his toys will go away. But do this often enough and he’ll catch on pretty quickly and figure that these consequences likely won’t happen.
These consequences also have little to do with the behavior, or don’t need to be as drastic. Hitting his sister has little to do with whether he can go to an amusement park. And even if he didn’t clean his toys, perhaps setting them aside for the day—instead of getting rid of them completely—sends a better message.
Even worse, you’re going against your word. He should know that you mean and do what you say, however difficult it can be to follow through. Build that trust now so he knows he can always count on you.
All that to say, avoid giving empty threats, even if they “work” at first. Instead, stick to feasible consequences that tie in to his behavior.
7. Do set boundaries
Kids need boundaries on how to behave, but the key is to find the right balance. Too many and they feel stifled, resentful, and frustrated. But not enough and they feel lost and directionless.
You can set boundaries through all aspects of your day:
- Have meals, naps, and bedtimes at certain times of the day
- Establish your expectations with rules and responsibilities
- Stop misbehavior and replace with alternative ways to communicate
- Set a timer to help transition from one activity to the next
- Talk about how people should treat one another
8. Don’t give 1-2-3 warnings
Do you count to three as a way to get your toddler to start or stop doing something? Maybe she has until three to climb the carseat or stop banging on the table. You may have even given her more time by saying, “Two-and-a-half…”
But warnings weaken what you say, especially when she doesn’t get consequences until the last moment.
Instead, give a simple “head’s up” long before you need her to do what she needs to. You might say, “We’ll leave in about 10 minutes,” and even follow that up with, “We have five more minutes until we leave.”
And if she’s doing something she’s not supposed to, nip it in the bud right away instead of giving her time to stop.
9. Do stay calm
This is perhaps the most difficult tips to follow, but the most important. In fact, I often find that the best way to stop a meltdown is to focus on the parent first, not the child.
Your calm demeanor will help you think clearly, show empathy and compassion, and model for your child how to behave. You’re better able to respect him as a person, even in the middle of a temper tantrum.
The first place to start is to notice your triggers and see what typically sets you off. Is it when he misbehaves in public, whines for what he wants, or wakes you up in the middle of the night? The more you can notice your triggers, the better you can pause and make better decisions.
Which brings us to your habits. Yelling and getting upset are automatic habits that react when those triggers happen. Once you’ve identified your triggers, replace the habit of yelling with another healthier one.
Maybe that’s closing your eyes and taking a breath, or walking out of the room for a minute to collect yourself. Perhaps it’s reciting a mantra to yourself to bring perspective, or getting down to his eye level and making eye contact as you speak to him.
Staying calm doesn’t mean having to feel happy or chipper, either. It’s okay to feel disappointed or frustrated, which are still better than losing your cool.
Learning how to discipline a toddler without hitting or yelling is possible.
Praise your child’s good behavior, but do so without giving external rewards. Start labeling how he feels instead of putting him in a timeout or giving empty threats and warnings. Make sure his needs are met, making him less likely to throw a fit.
Set boundaries and establish your expectations about how you treat one another. And lastly, focus on staying calm above all else—this will help you think clearer and him to settle down as well.
Yep, even as he reaches for the cord or drops his food all over the floor.
Get more tips:
- How to Discipline a Strong Willed 2 Year Old
- 5 Things to Remember when You’re Losing Your Temper with Your Toddler
- How to Discipline a Toddler Who Doesn’t Listen
- Top Toddler Discipline Books to Get Your Child to Listen
- How to Get Toddlers to Listen Without Yelling
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