Disciplining Toddlers: The Art of Loving Guidance

By Jean Merrill, Maryland

shutterstock_109751162Watching the blossoming independence of a toddler is a beautiful thing: their sweet little bodies growing more capable and independent, their exploding understanding of language. They are darling. Then they aren’t.

A toddler meltdown is a tornado of emotion and can be very difficult to handle. It is a challenging situation in the moment; there is no reasoning with a toddler over the edge! Still, this does not mean the parent has to follow. This situation is a rite of parenting passage. It is in these humbling parenting moments that we slowly and painfully build our parenting competence. These moments allow us the opportunity to create a toolbox of strategies for avoiding toddler meltdowns in the future. Here are some strategies that I consider essential:


With very young toddlers, a good distraction can save you from a parenting crisis. This is where all of the techniques you learned in high school drama will be tremendously useful. While babies might be satisfied with an alternate or new toy as a distraction, toddlers need to believe you when you divert their attention to something more exciting than the object of the pending meltdown. Luckily, toddlers find us very entertaining, and the actual event you are diverting their attention to does not have to be monumental.

Let’s say your toddler really has her sights set on the candy section of the grocery store. Summon your dramatic enthusiasm and say “Ooooohh! Look here at these beautiful, colorful apples!  Should we get red or green apples? Can you pick four apples out of this pile?” It doesn’t always work (wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if only we could promise parenting success with certainty!) But, it does work surprisingly often.


Ninety-nine percent of parenting with loving guidance is in the preparation.  Even toddlers, who are still mastering language, understand more than you think. Let your child know what your expectations are prior to entering a new environment or situation. Headed to the library? Practice talking in a whisper voice all the way there. Make it a game. Ask loudly, “Is this the way we talk in the library?” Your little ones will likely love to tell you “noooooooo!” Discuss expectations about sharing toys before the play date, talk about saying please and thank you before going to the grandparents’ house, explain cart safety before entering the grocery store. Then, if you see a behavior that isn’t consistent with the expectations you have discussed, you can simply restate the rule—quiet talking in the library—rather than imposing punishment. You might be surprised at how quickly even young children are able to self-correct with just a gentle reminder.

Empower with Choices

Everybody loves choices, and empowering young children is the key to gaining cooperative success. Give your toddler the choice between two equally acceptable options to help build their autonomy and, in turn, build a partnership that will ensure success. If you need a few more minutes of patience while you finish a phone call, ask if your little one would rather separate all of the socks out of the laundry basket or build with blocks. Ask if they would like strawberries or apples. Ask if they would like to leave the park now or in five minutes. They are already on board if they get to choose. They feel empowered and important.  They feel valued and in control. Doesn’t everyone want to feel that way?

shutterstock_112148354Reasonable Expectations

Setting the stage with reasonable expectations is fine and good; that is, until you have exhausted the patience of your toddler. Chatting for hours over coffee sounds lovely to us, but your toddler is ready to move on after every nook and cranny of the floor beneath the table has been explored. Remembering age appropriate time limits is an important key to success. If you are expecting a long catch-up session with a friend, pack a “goody bag” for your little one.  Bring out something fun every 20 minutes (or as long as their attention span allows). Perhaps stash some paper and crayons and then offer a snack. After the snack, bring out some silly small toys, and then perhaps bring out stickers or a small puzzle. Everybody can get their needs met and have happy outings. We don’t have to be prisoners to our toddlers. Happy toddlers have happy parents, and toddlers like to be out in the world, too!

Loving guidance does not mean “no limits.” Just because we don’t want to punish our children does not mean we can adopt an “anything goes” philosophy. Toddlerhood is an important building block in laying the foundation of socially acceptable behavior. It is a disservice to your child to sweep poor behavior under the rug, or stop taking them out with you. This might mean that you will have to leave the library or a play date if behavior doesn’t improve with reminders. It is a sure thing, though, that leaving a few times will send a clear message to your child and ensure cooperative behavior in the future. If you allow inappropriate behavior despite reminders, you send the signal that your requests are optional. You are likely setting yourself up for many difficult outings in the future. The children know if you don’t mean it. Don’t let all of that preparatory work go to waste. Mean it and sick to your guns. No punishment required.

While there are no guarantees that you won’t sometimes want to pull your hair out (you most assuredly will), approaching our children with loving guidance is the foundation that teaches self-discipline. Isn’t that our goal as parents anyway? We can offer, through demonstration and plenty of repetition, the type of internal talk that will help our children make the right choices and behave judiciously all on their own. An empowered, peaceful, independent, confident toddler who has been given narratives about the right way to behave grows into a child that you can be proud of, and more importantly, a child who can be proud of themselves.