Discipline: When nothing else works


Any mom with a toddler will tell you that raising her is no easy task. There’s a reason why the term “terrible twos” was coined – and it’s not just the two-year-old you need to be wary of. Little children are difficult – from one year, when they can walk and talk, right up to four and beyond.

It’s who they are, it’s part of their nature and their development, and it’s up to us, as parents, to curb their “misbehaviour” – so normal in many ways – and steer them in the right direction. But how do we, as parents, fulfill this momentous task? How do we get our little ones to listen to us? And how should we discipline them when nothing else works?

Why they misbehave

According to Cape Town-based child play therapist in private practice, Jodi Lord, two-year-olds like to push boundaries: it’s what they do. They try to see how much they can get away with, because everything is new. They haven’t developed the means to deal with different situations or scenarios yet, and thus test boundaries and their parents all the time to see how far they can push them.

“Pushing and hitting is fine the first time but after this, they need to know – after being reprimanded by you – that it’s not acceptable. The more they get away with, the more they will learn that their misbehaviour is acceptable, and this is why parents need to take a stance right from the beginning.”

Two-year olds are also impulsive and “they don’t always filter their actions through their moral base or superego, like adults. It’s normal, but we have to curb this almost natural behaviour and show them the right way, therefore developing a moral base to draw from,” says Jodi.

“This doesn’t mean that you should tell your toddler that it’s not alright to be angry, cross, or frustrated. All of these are allowed. But rather, it means you should show her what to do with these feelings. Get your toddler a punching pillow or bag or let her run around the garden. Let her take her frustrations out on these things, rather than adults or other children.”

Jodi adds that toddlers are busy developing a new sense of autonomy and trying to be an individual, separate from their moms, which is why they often want to do tasks and activities on their own, saying, “I can do this by myself.” If they’re not allowed to attempt things on their own, they feel shame and self-doubt and don’t achieve that developmental milestone.

What works for the one-year-old

While it might be difficult to discipline a one-year-old, it’s important to lay down the ground rules from early on. Just because they can’t talk, doesn’t mean they can’t understand you. The one-year-old also needs to be monitored closely at all times – especially at playdates – so that if she does hit or bite, it’s noticed and sorted out right away.

A child of this age typically behaves in this way to see what will happen and to get a reaction. You need to show her that it’s not on. A one-year old won’t understand the concept of time out (keep this for the “terrible twos”) but she will understand your tone of voice and know what she’s doing is wrong.“Your child knows you. She knows your negative tone of voice, your facial expressions and your body language. She will know if what she’s done is wrong,” says Jodi.

Turning around and ignoring your young toddler is also a very strong form of discipline, and sends off signals to her brain that you don’t approve of her behaviour. “Once you’re done, you need to show your toddler how to behave properly and model good behaviour. For example, show her how to pack away her toys. Imitation is a very important tool in teaching your child how to behave.”

What works for the two-year-old

Children also need rules and boundaries to feel safe and contained, and as far as the two-year old goes, Jodi believes that consistency is key and strongly urges parents to make the rules, and then stick to them. She also stresses that what might work for one child, won’t necessarily work for another.

“If you decide on a set of rules, which varies between different children of different temperaments, you need to stick to them. Even if you think they’re not working: they do. Children don’t like to be punished, so even if they say they don’t care that they’re being sent to the naughty corner, know that they do. In my opinion, the bathroom is the best naughty corner. It’s cold, it’s grotty, and there’s nothing to play with in there. If your child is two, then two minutes in there should be enough.”

She adds that a united front is crucial, so be on the same page as your partner, even if you don’t agree with him or her. If you are divorced, then your ex needs to have the same set of rules stuck up in his house as you have at yours – pictures work well for toddlers. In addition to this, let your children have two of their own rules too, so that it’s not all about you.

Always follow through

Finally, she urges parents to always follow through, as toddlers need to know that there are consequences to their actions. “Don’t ever threaten and then not follow through; your child will learn to not take what you say seriously. Then, once you’ve disciplined your child, listen to her, otherwise your child will feel like she wasn't heard.”

Rewarding good behaviour is also paramount in creating good behaviour. “Star charts work very well – but again, stick to it for six months to a year and don’t lose interest, otherwise your child will too. Twenty stars for a reward is also too many – limit it to five. And get a jar of the rewards and show it to your child. Children work well with visual goals.”

Word of mouth, and just telling your child that you’re proud of her and happy with her can also be enough reward for good behaviour. “If you continually run your two-year-old down, she won’t meet her developmental milestones,” says Jodi. "Discipline also works best when there’s a positive relationship between the parents and child,” she adds.

Top 10 discipline don’ts

  • Never make up rules on the spur of the moment, and don’t punish your child for not knowing and not following that rule.
  • Don’t punish your child with no warning – unless they’re doing something to endanger themselves or others. Always give two warnings before sending your child to time out.
  • Don’t take away special bonding time from your child as punishment – like a bedtime story. Rather take away luxuries like TV or ice-cream.
  • Don’t smack flippantly and impulsively with emotion, for every single thing. It loses its impact completely. If parents hit with emotion, it’s abuse and is no longer about the behaviour of the child, but about the parents' emotions.
  • Don’t negotiate or try to reason with your toddler. Give commands.
  • Don’t shout and scream.
  • Don’t give your child too many choices. Tell him he can decide what he eats first, second and last on his plate, but he will eat what is given. They need you to be in control.
  • Try to stay away from giving sweets or money as rewards.
  • Never bribe a toddler.
  • Don’t delay discipline for later in the day. Always do it immediately and never give in.

Keep in mind...

If your child is sick or tired, you can’t really expect her to behave properly. Don’t take her to the shops or social events late at night, or expect her to play nicely with her friends when she’s not
feeling well or it’s her naptime. Ask yourself: Would you want to?

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