The smart parent's guide to taming toddlers

By setting a few boundaries and acting with authority, you can tame your toddler in no time

By Sheryl Cohen, Aquarius magazine
00:00 March 1, 2012

It's 6.05am on a Thursday morning and Sarah is wondering if she should get up before her four-year-old son Michael comes to join her in bed. This would add at least another five precious minutes to her schedule - which she can't afford. She hauls herself out of bed and is half-dressed when she hears the pattering of small feet. The following conversation ensues:

Michael: (running into room) Put the light off! Put the light off!

Sarah: It's the sun Michael. I can't turn the sun off!

Michael: I want the light off! Put it off! Get into bed mummy! Put your pyjamas back on!

Sarah: Mike, I can't get back into bed. I'm already late and I don't have time.

Michael: Please, mummy, put your pyjamas on and come lie with me!

Then Michael starts to cry. When the tears have stopped, his demands resume. Sarah weighs up two minutes of lying on the bed with him versus another 10 minutes of arguing, then surrenders. She lies back down, still half-dressed, for another two minutes. After which Michael has a new thought and announces, "Mummy - it's cake sale today - let's get up!". As he thunders off again, Sarah groans and ponders her lack of toddler-taming skills.

Why children need boundaries

Sarah's example is small change compared to many tantrum stories that can be told. Yet this recurring situation stresses her because Michael's wishes cause her to be late and rushed. In this case, something as simple as setting her alarm clock for ten minutes earlier might help her to cater to Michael's cuddling time. But she also knows that there are times when discipline is essential.

Educational psychologist, Sheryl Cohen, says, "Children feel safe with predictable boundaries. Left to their own devices, they will often create their own boundaries and rules in order to express themselves, in effect, they create their own discipline."

Sheryl cites the example of a study conducted with two groups of children. The first group was given a ball and placed on a rugby field. They were simply told to play, and then left to their own devices. The group fought a lot and couldn't get a game going at all.

The other group was also given a ball and placed on a rugby field, but in addition to the ‘go and play' they were given another instruction: they could play only inside a demarcated area. The result was that this group was able to get a game going quickly and easily.

Sheryl adds, "If you watch children play, it's not unusual to see them taking 20 minutes working out the rules and then just five minutes actually playing the game! They really do feel the need to gain control over their environment."

The power of choice

It is a parent's job to provide opportunities for self-expression within predictable boundaries for their children. For example, at breakfast time, you could make it mandatory for your toddler to sit at the table with you, but allow her to choose what to eat from a few different options that you provide.

Sheryl says, "Parents sometimes give their children too many choices. It doesn't help a child who's throwing a tantrum if you keep giving her more and more choices. If she rejects the first choice and the next two after that, she's quite likely to simply carry on rejecting each new choice you offer."

She advises that limiting choices can simplify both your lives. For example, if it's bath-time, this isn't negotiable. You can, however, say, "It's bath time - would you like me to lift you into the bath or would you like to get in by yourself?" If you're leaving a party, you can say, "We're going home from the party now, but you can decide if you're going to go on the slide or the swing before we leave."

The bottom line is that giving your toddler a choice within the boundary that you're setting at that moment helps her to feel empowered. Providing the element of choice also distracts from the fact that she is being made to do something that she might otherwise not want to do.

Where to begin?

Sheryl says, "When your child is still a baby, begin with routine and predictable family structures. This allows children to start recognising and predicting times when they get hungry or sleepy or are going to be bathed.

"A day is a long time for little children, so if it's broken into predictable blocks, it helps to build a sense of control, as well as helping to create self-discipline later," she says. She adds, however, that as a parent you mustn't be too rigid either. "Children are unpredictable and so you should build unstructured time into your routine."

It seems that about 13 or 14 months is when the wheels first start to come off. This is when you can expect your child to suddenly refuse to wear that sunhat, refuse to lie still during nappy changes, or refuse to sit still at the table. She suddenly begins to realise that there's a discrepancy between what she wants and what you want: her wish is not your command and the relationship is not entirely symbiotic. This is when temper tantrums and other undesirable behaviours can arise, as she realises her separateness, autonomy and independence from you. According to Sheryl, "Children must lose this struggle. They must see that they are separate and autonomous to you."

She cites examples of children who never threw tantrums because they always got their own way. She believes it's far better for children to have tantrums when they are little as it's actually desirable and age-appropriate and helps them to establish a sense of self: "If your two-year-old always gets her own way, she'll be unbearable at three and much worse at four if she never had her ‘terrible twos' tantrums," says Sheryl.

The voice of authority

It's Sheryl's opinion that in bygone days, parents generally disciplined with certainty even when they were wrong, while today many parents discipline with doubt even when they know they are right. She advises using a calm voice in order to send the message that you know what you're doing. At the same time, she advises, "Ask yourself if the reason for the tantrum is due to a primary or secondary cause, because primary or physical issues like tiredness and hunger can impact your toddler's mood."

It is also critical to distinguish between paying your child positive attention versus negative attention. If possible, it's far better to completely ignore inappropriate behaviour because otherwise, you simply reinforce the undesirable act.

As your child gets older, introduce her to the logical consequences of her actions. For example, ‘If you bounce on the bed after I've told you not to, and you fall off, you could hurt yourself.' If you can't introduce very small children to the logical consequences of their actions, you can create consequences for them - for example, ‘If you hit, you sit!' This is also a good disciplinary tool that you can use anywhere and at any time.

To smack or not to smack?

This is one of the big issues in parenting today. Sheryl says, "I think if parents want to use smacking, it should be as an absolute last resort, for example to prevent bodily injury in the case of a toddler about to run across a road." She believes that smacking teaches a child that hurting and hitting is an acceptable way to express anger. She suggests that we remember another injunction we try to teach our children: ‘Your body is your own' and she feels that smacking them is ultimately in contravention of this lesson.

If parents ever find their child's behaviour at that moment simply too much to deal with, then best practice advice is always to put your child down in a safe place or hand her over to another responsible adult temporarily, to give yourself some breathing space. Your child will come to less harm from crying in your absence for a short while than if you end up harming her physically.

Supernanny's super tips

The naughty step

Well-known for her version of making children take ‘time out' - using the Naughty Step/Chair/Room - Supernanny (aka Jo Frost) provides sensible strategies for family management, says Sheryl. The basic idea of the Naughty Step is to get your child to think about her actions and learn what happens when she misbehaves. It encourages children to think for themselves, take responsibility and be accountable for their actions. And ultimately, it helps parents keep control of their tempers and avoid having to resort to smacking. Your child needs to be removed from the scene for a short while so she has a chance to calm down, think about what she's done, and apologise for her behaviour. By doing this, you're showing her that behaving badly is not the way to get attention but will ensure she can't join in family activities, or do what she was doing, until she has sat out her time and apologised. Saying sorry is crucial and time out on the Naughty Step goes hand-in-hand with an apology for the behaviour that put your child there in the first place. It must be a sincere apology and you must thank your child for it in an equally genuine manner. The earliest age you should use the technique is two. Your child needs to be talking fairly fluently so that you know her reasoning is developed enough. Never use the Naughty Step if your child has a short attention span, is suffering from separation anxiety or is mentally underdeveloped. The technique of the Naughty Step works in stages and you shouldn't skip one...

  • Give a warning Begin with a warning about the unacceptable behaviour, and use a firm voice. Go down to your child's level when you speak to her.
  • Remove child to Naughty Step When the behaviour is repeated, take your child straight to the Naughty Step or Chair.
  • Explain the reasons Then explain why she's been put there - go down to her level again.
  • Then walk away Don't engage with her, no matter what she says to you. If she gets up from the step, put her back.
  • Repeat Return to your child and explain again.
  • Seek an apology When the time is up, get her to apologise. She must explain (if old enough) what she's apologising for, so she understands.
  • Accept the apology Say ‘thank you' and give her a kiss or a hug. Invite her to join in the family's activities or resume what she was playing with before.
  • Keep persevering Obviously the first time you place your child on a newly designated Naughty Step she's not necessarily going to feel like staying there. But don't try to hold your child in place as she may fight the restraint and you'll end up one step away from smacking.
  • Time it The basic rule of thumb is for your child to stay on the Naughty Step for as many minutes as her age. So a two-year-old would stay there for two minutes. This reflects the fact that very young children have short attention spans.

Discipline for toddlers aged one to two

Cultivate an authoritative manner (it will certainly stand you in good stead later as well): a stern voice, look and body language that says to your toddler, ‘OK that's it - don't even think about it.' It might be a good idea not to wave an index finger around in a cross fashion - your baby will quite possibly take some delight in waving it back at you! When you need a bit more than the authoritative manner, try the following:

  • Hitting, biting and pinching:  Immediately place your child so she is facing something boring. Kneel behind her, holding her hands at her sides and say repeatedly, ‘We don't hit/bite/pinch.' Most toddlers will stand still for a short while to see what the game is and will probably giggle and then get upset. After about ten seconds of your child being upset, let go. Follow up with approving attention as soon as your child starts doing something acceptable. Repeat this same strategy every single time she starts an aggressive act.
  • A tantrum: Carry your child to her cot, tell her that she is having a tantrum and that as soon as she is done she can come back and play again. Removing her from the situation means you don't have to ignore a tantrum that's going on at your feet. Remember that anything you do that pays attention to the tantrum - coaxing, reasoning, scolding, demanding - only fuels the tantrum further.

Discipline for toddlers aged two and three

  • Try something new:  At this age your child hates to stop anything she's involved with, but is usually eager to start something new and interesting. Instead of ‘braking' your toddler, it's best to turn her in a different direction and accelerate into something new.
  • Show your interest: Interact with your toddler and show that you're interested in what she's doing - this is the best positive reinforcement you can provide.
  • Time to choose: Try to give choices rather than orders or requests (or hide something that is actually non-negotiable inside a choice).

Top supernanny tip

"Never forget about praise. Positive reinforcement through praise, rewards and shared activities helps build relationships within the family unit and between each child and each parent, making the unit tighter. Positive feedback brings love and fun back into the picture."