Discipline and Boundaries with Strong Willed Toddlers
As Occupational Therapists we are often asked to advise on how to manage difficult behaviour in the classroom or at home. One of the most challenging times of development to set boundaries and manage behaviour is with toddlers. Below we offer some tips on how to discipline and set boundaries with strong willed toddlers.
Discipline tips for toddlers from the experts:
- Tone of Voice – When reprimanding your tone of voice needs to go lower so that it is noticeably different from your happy or calm tone when your child is behaving well. Children sometimes don’t process what we are saying in a meltdown but can process tone of voice, facial expressions and non verbal body language.
- “No Elephant Stomps Right!” – This is a silly acronym for you to remember in the middle of your little toddler’s stomping meltdown! No stands for Name the Emotion. Elephant stands for Empathise. Stomps stands for Sensory Soother and Right stands for Reassure. If a child is having a meltdown, remove them from the situation and say something like: I know you’re feeling angry, I would also feel angry if my friend took my toy, but mom is going to hold and rock you and soon-soon you will feel better. Repeat this in a calm soothing voice until your child calms.
- Be Consistent – Consistency is key to success when it comes to setting boundaries. Your yes must be your yes and your no must be your no! This way your child will learn to trust what you say and won’t feel the need to constantly test what you say! For example, if you said that your child must say sorry before he can go and play after an incident, then stick to that. Even if it means removing him from the situation or holding him until he decides to follow through. If a verbal sorry is too hard, a non-verbal hug or high five sorry can suffice.
- Closed Choices – Try not to ask open ended questions with children who often answer no. For instance “Can I take off your jersey because you’re hot?” Rather use closed choices, for instance, “Am I going to take off your jersey or are you?” If your cross little one still says no, then you can try saying, “I am going to count to 3, then I will take off your jersey because you couldn’t choose.” Make sure to follow through despite the struggle which may ensue.
- Don’t be Scared of the Fall Out – This is a common pitfall for boundary setting. Remember that he is just a little child. You are bigger and wiser than him! Neurologically your child’s frontal cortex is still developing, so things like judgement, reasoning and problem solving are not yet mature and so he will react with his immature fight/fright/flight brain. Be confident in your handling choices and stick to your guns. If you make a mistake, reflect upon it, discuss it with a friend or family member and endeavour to do better next time. You can always say sorry to a child if you didn’t handle a situation correctly. But in the moment – be confident with your handling choice and stick to it.
- Don’t Allow Long Ended Negotiations – Make an executive decision if your child can’t decide. Children can get themselves and you caught in a round-and-round, never ending negotiation that goes nowhere. Offer her the independence to try sort out issues or make choices, but if she can’t, step in as the adult and make the call for her.
- Look for Positives – Some days your child receives a lot of negative feedback from you or others for bad behaviour. On these days be extra watchful for positive behaviour and praise her very specifically. Don’t say something too general such as “you’re a good girl.” Rather say something more specific such as, “you ate your snack well and packed away your bowl beautifully.” Positive reinforcement is often more successful.
We hope these tips and handling principles help you to get discipline with toddlers right and make your family dynamic more loving and positive! Find more tips in our Groovy Adventurer parenting book here.