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How to discipline a toddler (and keep everybody happy)

how to discipline a toddler

Key points:

  1. Effective discipline involves understanding the reasons behind a toddler’s actions. Instead of asking “”what’s wrong with them,”” consider “”what’s going on?”” Empathy is key in identifying underlying feelings and concerns.
  2. Discipline is an opportunity to teach toddlers healthy conflict resolution and self-soothing techniques. Being a role model, expressing emotions respectfully, and communicating consequences help in building social skills and emotional intelligence.

If there’s one thing everyone wonders when they become parents is how to discipline a toddler. Sometimes they’re difficult, they don’t listen, they defy limits, or their endless amounts of energy may end up causing little mischief. As a caregiver, you should remember to always take a minute to ask yourself not “what’s wrong with them”, but “what’s going on?”.

The key to disciplining a toddler effectively is to focus on the why behind your child’s actions. In order to determine an appropriate path forward, it’s important to identify underlying feelings and concerns. Is your child feeling unheard? Frustrated? Left out? Being empathetic is a strong first step in solving problems together. When a child feels misunderstood, it’s hard to find a solution and help them calm down.


Discipline can be an opportunity for parents to help their children build social skills and emotional intelligence. The earlier we teach healthy conflict resolution and self-soothing techniques, the more grounded our children will be as adults. And the best way to teach these skills is by being a role model. If we yell and scream, our children will think that’s okay. It’s perfectly fine to express that you feel hurt, irritated, or disappointed, but doing so in a respectful way will show your child how they should behave, too.

Here are some helpful tips on how to discipline a toddler:

1. Empathize

  • Give your child your undivided attention and listen to what they’re saying.
  • Acknowledge their feelings, even if you don’t necessarily agree. Just make sure your child feels like their emotions are valid. A helpful phrase could be, “I totally get why you’re feeling that way, but your behavior is not okay.”
  • If your child is struggling to name their emotions, consider using an emotions chart like this one.

2. When negative behavior is happening

  • Describe what you see first. For example, “I notice that you’re becoming upset” or “I see that you’re having trouble putting your toys away.”
  • Less is more, use few words to go straight to the point and be better understood.
  • Talk about your feelings too! Using “I” statements to help your toddler understand how their actions affect you.

3. Communicate consequences:

  • Express why you don’t approve of the behavior your child is engaging in.
  • Remember to focus on the behavior and not your child.
  • Let your child know what you expect from them and ways they can fix what they have done (ask for forgiveness, make amends, clean, etc.).
  • Offer choices for future behavior.

Every parent parents differently. But keep these tips in mind as you navigate these early years with your little one.

Ale Ruiz is a child and family psychologist with a minor in Education and a Masters in Mental Health Counseling.  She is certified in Early Childhood Development and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.  She teaches parenting classes that focus on the parent-child relationship, through positive communication, emotional empathy, and play. Her goal is to help give every child the opportunity of a whole education and optimal development.

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