Ah, the terrible twos. You’ve heard about them, you’ve laughed about them and you’ve listened to your friends with children lament about them. But now your child is 2 and after that gigantic tantrum in the middle of the grocery store last week, it doesn’t really seem like a laughing matter. I know there is some trepidation, especially with new parents, regarding how to go about disciplining their toddlers. While nothing with a toddler is necessarily easy, you can work loving discipline into a routine that becomes easier for the both of you.
How Old Is Old Enough?
I am often asked by new parents how they know their child is old enough to be disciplined. There is understandably fear on the parents’ end — they don’t want to discipline a child if the child doesn’t understand what their parents want or why they’re being disciplined. Beginning anywhere from 4 to 7 months, children are able to understand limits that you’ve set for them. If they bite while breastfeeding and you repeatedly put them down, they’ll learn not to bite. If you give them a poker face and put them in their crib if they tug at your jewelry, they’ll eventually learn not to do it. Remember that discipline is not the same as punishment — it’s setting limits so they have a firm grasp on what they can and can’t do later on. By this standard, you can start disciplining your child as early as 4 months.
Try to Understand Why They’re Having the Tantrum
Around 24 months, many children rebel, test the limits that have been set for them and demonstrate a desire for autonomy. Of course, as parents you know that regardless of how big they think they are, they’re not just able to wander in the store alone. Couple this with a limited ability to express themselves or process their feelings and you’ve got a recipe for a tantrum. This is also when a lot of parents see biting and hitting — both are just ways of expressing feelings of anger and frustration your child currently has no words for. While understanding this won’t stop the tantrum, it can keep you focused on why they need to be disciplined — because setting boundaries and teaching them to express themselves in a healthy way will make them happier and more independent in the long run.
What Can Be Done?
Try giving them the communication tools to express themselves. If they’re frustrated that they can’t reach their favorite toy at home you might say, “You must be frustrated that you can’t have that. Let’s see if we can get it this way.” If they bite or hit someone, try saying, “Don’t bite; that hurts,” and remove them from the situation.
Try to distract them during a tantrum by giving them a job to do. For example, if you’ll be going into a grocery store, have a list of pictures for them of some of the items you’ll be getting and have them cross the items off the list as you put them in the basket. And if they’re having a full-on meltdown, realize there are some things you can’t control and you’re not lacking in parenting skills if you can’t calm your child down. If distraction isn’t working (and let’s be honest — trying to rationally talk to them will likely not work at this point either), just remove them from the situation. Be consistent — that’s the best thing you can do. And remember, you’re doing a great job!
What’s been your experience with discipline during the toddler years?
Linda Ly, M.D., is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who cares for patients at Meyerland Plaza Clinic. Her clinical interests include preventive medicine, hypertension and diabetes.