Communication is the key to toddler discipline

By Dominique Groenveld, Oh Beehave

The toddler years are difficult time for parents and caregivers, famous for “terrible twos” and the inevitable tantrums that come along with it.

Over time, ideas as to how toddlers should behave, along with how parents should or shouldn’t react to their behaviour has changed. More recent trends have moving away from the old “children should be seen and not heard”, towards acknowledging the need for toddlers to learn and explore.

Along with this shift has come a whole array of opinions from parents, grandparents, and the general public alike as to whether “the old ways” of punishment (e.g. “misbehave and you get a smack and go to your room”) versus the new shift towards communicating with your child, discussing their behaviour, the associated emotions, and how they might choose to behave in the future.

The debate seems to be never ending as to which approach is more appropriate (and unfortunately many parents may feel judged for choosing one approach over another).

So, what is the best way to discipline a toddler?

Firstly, it’s important to understand what discipline is, and secondly it helps to understand why toddlers have so much difficulty managing their emotions and behaviour.

Despite what many people may think, effective toddler discipline may have less to do with controlling their behaviour using punishment and rewards, and more to do with how you communicate with them about their behaviour.

But, if you’ve ever tried to talk sense to a toddler, the above sentence probably sounds like a bit of a joke. Which is why it is important to understand why toddlers behave the way they do.

If you think about it from a toddlers point of view, they have recently learnt to walk, they’re starting to talk, and the possibilities for exploration are endless!

Which is exactly where the tantrums come in. Despite wanting to look at, touch, and explore every single thing they see.

What they hear is stop, don’t touch that, no or they get picked up and carted away from whatever they were about to do or explore. How frustrating is that!?

Of course, they want to let you know they’re not happy about it. But unfortunately, they haven’t learnt the words to tell you that, so they default to what they know… which is to cry to get what they want.

So, that’s all well and good, but what can you do about it?

It’s interesting to look at the strategies considered “most appropriate” by parents in recent times.

A few years ago, a study found that mothers’ acceptance of discipline strategies, from most accepted, to least accepted were:

  • Explaining rules
  • Timeout
  • Removal of privileges
  • Social reinforcement
  • Planned ignoring
  • Yelling
  • Smacking

Interestingly, mothers indicated yelling or smacking as the least acceptable strategies, many mothers indicated using these strategies more often than what they would consider acceptable (most mothers reported yelling as often as using time out!).

The reason for this is not clear, but I suspect strategies such as explaining rules and reinforcement are much more time consuming, whereas, yelling and smacking are, in comparison, less time consuming, and may occur in the “heat of the moment”. Plus, they are more likely to result in immediate compliance (even though there is no research to support that these methods are effective in the long term).

So, we know what parents do most commonly, but what is the most effective?

Some studies indicate that the key to effective toddler discipline is communication and relationship building. But unfortunately, if you take this approach, it doesn’t mean you will be likely to see the results straight away.

Recent findings indicate that the better a child can recognise and understand emotions, and the greater their vocabulary during the toddler years, the better their behaviour will be after they have passed the stage of toddler-hood.

So, while you may not be able to stop the toddler tantrums from happening, it is how you respond to your toddlers’ behaviour during those years, that will likely influence how they behave once their toddler years are over.

It’s basically thinking of it as a long-term investment in their future behaviours.

So, what can you do?

Build your relationship through reasoning
When your toddler displays a behaviour that you do not want to see repeated, discuss the behaviour with them and how you expect them to behave in the future. This approach is particularly helpful for common toddler behaviours such as hitting, tantrums and throwing.

An example of this might sound something like “When we go to the shops we are getting grocery’s, not toys or treats. If you ask me for a treat, I will say no. You might feel upset, and that is ok, but even if you get upset, I will still say no.”

If you use this approach, it’s handy to remember that your toddler can understand and recognise emotions from a young age – as young as around 20 months. They are also likely to understand more of what they hear, than what they can speak.

Discuss emotions
Talking to children about emotions helps them identify and communicate how they feel in different situations.

For example, if you are reading a book, ask your child questions throughout, such as; “How to do think [the character in the story] is feeling?” “Why do you think he feels this way?” etc.

This helps them recognise and understand how others feel, which may also pave the way for future prosocial behaviours.

Understanding emotions is thought to be closely related to emotion regulation, and in turn behaviour management, which means the better your child can understand and recognise their own and others’ emotions, the more likely they are to manage their own emotions, and behaviour and be kind and caring towards others.

Just communicating with your child in general can help. A study has found that children with larger vocabularies at 24 months showed better behaviour regulation and less behaviour problems once they started school (and as an bonus they achieved higher results in Maths and English at school too!)

The important thing to remember using this approach is, even if your child can only say a few works, you can still carry on a conversation with them. Try talking to them as you go about your daily tasks, chores, etc. Talk to them about what you’re doing, what’s happening next, ask them questions etc.

The more words they know, the more likely they to understand what they are experiencing and therefore regulate and self-monitor their reactions and behaviours (plus, they develop the words they need to use to express when they feel sad, mad, hurt, angry, upset or frustrated, rather than having to have a tantrum because they can’t find the words to express how they feel).

Be consistent and reinforce behaviour
Consistency and reinforcements are also important when dealing with toddlers. Regardless of the approach you decide to take, make sure your response to your toddlers’ behaviour is consistent over time.

Toddlers are in such an important phase of development that their minds are constantly working to learn new concepts and ways of behaving. The more consistently you respond to their behaviour, the more likely you are to see the behaviour you are looking for (or reduce the behaviour you don’t want to see).

Remember to also provide positive reinforcement when they display the behaviours you want to see. Positive reinforcement can be praise, it does not have to be physical rewards.

Last but not least
Hang in there! The toddler years are a short period, even though they can feel like forever!

What you do now can influence their future behaviour, so remember to think of it as chipping away at a long-term goal for the behaviour you want to see in the future.

- Grazzini, I., Ornaghi, V., Agliati, A. & Brazzelli, E. (2015). How to Foster Toddlers’ Mental-State Talk, Emotion Understanding, and Prosocial Behavior: A Conversation-Based Intervention at Nursery School. Infancy. 21 pp. 199–227
- Morgan, P., Farkas, G., Hillemeier, M., Hammer, C.S. & Maczuga, S. (2015). 24-Month-Old Children With Larger Oral Vocabularies Display Greater Academic and Behavioral Functioning at Kindergarten Entry. Child Development. 86(5). pp. 1351–1370
- Passini, C. M., Pihet, S. & Favez, N. (2013). Assessing Specific Discipline Techniques: A Mixed-Methods Approach. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 23(8) pp. 1389-1402

Note: The views and advice expressed on this blog post are those of the author and are not representative of the Pregnancy Babies & Children's Expo.

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