Common Toddler Discipline Mistakes

Disclaimer: In the diverse and sometimes divisive world of parenting advice, one parent’s mistake is another’s best practice. So, for clarification, the way I define ‘mistake’ reflects the parenting goals I personally aspire to and is based on my experiences working with parents and toddlers for the last 18 years.  I consider these mistakes because whether or not they might seem to work in the moment, they can undermine the goal most of us have…a loving, trusting relationship with our child.

The word ‘discipline’ is a mistake in itself, because for most of us it connotes punishment. The Oxford Dictionary’s first definition: “The practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience.”  Oops.

Since I consider punishments the biggest discipline mistake of all, I’m ditching Oxford’s meaning and going with the definition Magda Gerber shares in Dear Parent – Caring For Infants With Respect:  “training that develops self-control, character”.  This is more in line with the actual source of the word, the Latin root disciplina, which means “instruction, knowledge”.

So, discipline is educating our children so that they understand appropriate behavior, values, how to control their impulses.  Here are some teaching methods and misconceptions that either mis-educate or just get in the way…


There are several reasons punishments (including spanking, time out and “consequences” when they presented punitively) are mistakes. The most crucial is that children who are taught through physical or emotional pain tend to stop trusting us and themselves. Expecting humans at their most vulnerable stage of life to learn through pain and shame (when healthy adults would never put up with this) doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? Can you imagine taking a college course and being spanked or banished to “time out” because you weren’t learning quickly enough?

Even if punishments didn’t have long term negative effects, the truth is they don’t work.  The loving, trusting bond our children have with us is what makes following our code of behavior and internalizing our values something they want to do. Erode that relationship, and discipline becomes an “us against them” struggle.

Perceiving children as “bad” rather than in need of help

There was a toddler in one of my parent/toddler guidance classes whose behavior could be considered “bad”. He was compelled to push limits, probably because his adoring, gentle mother struggled to set them confidently. She admitted that his behavior unnerved her.  That, in turn, unnerved him, and “acting out” was the way he demonstrated it.

Some days I would have to calmly follow this boy, shadowing him so that he wouldn’t push or tackle one of the other 18 – 24 month olds. When I sensed an aggressive impulse coming, I would place my hand in the way and say matter-of-factly, “I won’t let you push” or gently move him away from the friend he was tackling and say, “That’s too rough.”

There was no point in reminding him to touch gently (in fact, that would have been an insult to his intelligence).  He knew exactly what ‘gentle’ meant and was clearly making a different choice.  But what I would often end up asking was, “Are you having a hard time today?”  “Da”, he’d answer a bit wistfully, a hint of a smile on his face, recognition in his eyes.  This simple acknowledgement coupled with my calm, consistent limit setting would usually ease the behavior.

Toddlers love to be understood. They also need to know that their discipline “teachers” are calm, unruffled and understanding, not thrown or upset by their behavior.   And that is the way that I have come to understand challenging behavior. It is not intentionally bad, mean or a way to upset parents. It is a request for help

Help me, I’m tired. Help me, I’m too hungry. Help me stop hitting my friends. Help me stop annoying or angering you… better yet, stop me before I do those things. Help me by remaining calm so I sense how capable you are of taking care of me.  Help me by empathizing, so that I know you understand and still love me. Help me so that I can let go of these urges and distractions and be playful, joyful and free again.

 I offer a complete guide to respectful discipline in my book:

NO BAD KIDS: Toddler Discipline Without Shame

(More Common Toddler Discipline Mistakes to come)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. I need help with a will-ful toddler at bed time. My daughter desperately wants to sleep in my bed, which my husband is not so keen on. We’ve tried everything from sticker and routine charts to the Supernanny method of taking her by the hand and leading her back to her bed with her screaming at the top of her lungs. I’ve worked with toddlers for going on 20 years and have always had such a great relationship with them because of the respect factor, but this one I just can’t wrap my head around. Please advise when you have time. Thanks!

    1. We model what we want our children to learn. And when it comes to sleep we are modeling self care around this important basic need. The verbal toddler is old enough to be given the problem in an honest, respectful, and straight forward manner. At this point no doubt she already knows that this is not working for you. Here are a couple of suggestions that work wonders with toddlers. At each point we include the child in the solution of the current sleep issue. State the problem or what is currently not working but only do so a couple of times…then focus on the solution. We don’t hype anything or try to “convince them” of how great the new way will be. We are honest, matter of fact and tell them what WE are going to do in the night. WE (mom and dad) are going to get as much quality sleep as we can.
      “Sweetie this is not working. Mommy needs to sleep to be the best mommy she can be…here is what we are going to do…”

      1 Set up an environment for success – Make her bedroom the container by using a gate or closing the door. Make sure to involve your child in this process and tell her that the gate/door is a reminder to get back in bed and go to sleep.

      1. Offer snuggle time in bed AFTER wake up – create a wake up ritual that is initiated by you. During this “snuggle time” talk about how the night went. If it went well say specifically what went well about it. If it did not go so well…say so with a light touch and move on…”that was hard…tonight will be better”

      2. Use the sticker chart as a visual representation of success – some children are motivated by stickers and some are not. Most like to track and see their success.

      3. Play scenario and sleep story – This is a more detailed exercise but the gist is that we create a play scenario where we give the child the problem and then act out the solution with dolls, stuffies or anything the child is attached to. Here again you act out the problem once and then focus on the solution.

      I work with many teachers and caregivers. As you know our children trigger us emotionally more than any other human on the planet. Be kind to yourself we respond VERY differently to “ours” than we do to other children. It is part of our human mommy condition.

      Eileen Henry, RIE™ Associate
      Compassionate Sleep Solutions™

      1. Yes I’ve noticed children accept instructions better from a teacher or caregiver than from a parent.

        IMO kids know parents are there “forever” while teachers and caregivers are not permanent in their lives. I see this as the authority difference which makes the difference between how your own kids accept direction vs. other people’s kids.

        I agree with all the pointers mentioned. I hope you find the sleep solution quickly.

      2. I’m amazed that Eileen would recommend a sticker chart. Are extrinsic rewards damaging? We avoid praise and rewards (such as stickers).

        1. Technically what she said was use stickers to track the passage of time. Not if x stickers then prize.

    2. We had the same problem with my daughter recently and I finally asked her why she didn’t want to sleep in her bed. Part of it was that she didn’t like her bed, and of course the other part of it was that she liked sleeping with mom and dad.

      Once we got her a new bed with sheets/blanket that she picked, we changed the bedtime routine to have her reading a story in her own bed, and then we (Husband and I) rest next to the bed for 10 min with the light off while she settles. I think it has the same feel as falling asleep in our bed but instead it’s in her own room. It’s been good for a few nights – if she wakes up asking for me, I lay down next to her for another 10 min until she resettles. I’m hoping it keeps going well.

      Good luck!

      1. Thank you to Eileen and Shasta for your very thoughtful responses for Christie.

        Christie, reading your comment I kept thinking… What do you want? It seems to me that your daughter is not getting clear signals from you and that is keeping her in this unsettled state. A rule of thumb with our sensitive young children: If we aren’t sure, there’s no way in the world they can feel sure and settled. I would figure out what you want and believe is best for your daughter. Then I would proceed with total honesty, calmness, confidence. Bedtime, especially, is a time when children need us to do whatever it takes to ease the battles. No one can sleep if there’s angst and a lack of clarity.

    3. Hi, Christie. I’ve got two toddlers who would love to cuddle the night away in the “big bed”, but that doesn’t work for my husband and me. So we put a twin mattress on the floor between the wall and our mattress (also on the floor). They boys and cuddle or nurse to sleep with me on the big bed, then we transfer them to the smaller bed. They sleep feet to feet, with their own pillows and blankets. They feel secure in the room with us, but are not actually in our bed. It works for us! I hope you find a solution that works for you and your family.

    4. Is it that you dont mind her bedsharing , but your hubby does? She will pick up on that I think 🙁

      We actually bedshare but we have a crib sidecarred to the bed, where we all snuggle to sleep, and then the baby gets placed in the crib for the night. Of course it’s not fun when you get a morning wake up at 5am with a 8 month old yelling dadadadada over and over whilst banging on the crib rail, but it’s a sweet way to wake up haha. 🙂 Kids are small for only so long, don’t be in such a rush to kick them out and have them be independent.

  2. I hear you Ms Janet…but sometimes !?!aaarrgg I am trying but I’m just not there yet.. My 2 year old is rowdy and emotional it takes him seconds to ‘decorate’our house with…a mess! It seems like I live in meltdown after meltdown town and too often some of them are from me… I’ve recently posted about moving from spanking to timeout…I’m trying to use more matter of fact calm statements “I will not let you hit your sister” but to often it’s “CALEB! STOP HITTING YOUR SISTER!! loud angry frustrating is what comes out…but he just keeps on hitting his sister (8 months old) kicking her throwing things at her dragging her around by her feet…often he is doing this with a smile like maybe he’s just trying to play with her but he is ROUGH on her….Sometimes I feel like I’m an emotion two year old right along with him…I’m certain this can’t be the best for my household but I am making progress (at least I hope I am) and I feel like I have to do something..there has to be a consequence for continually mistreating his sister and throwing he is in a throwing stage…seems everything just has to be thrown especially if he is mad…I try to give him appropriate ways to display anger, like hit the bean bag, I don’t get on to him for crying or yelling (I often got in trouble as a kid for crying “shut up or I’ll give you something to cry about” I’ve never said this to my child…I remind him to go outside if he wants to throw his balls….life with a toddler…I’m just trying to ride the waves and pray it’s just a phase and we both will get better soon….I enjoy your blog…it often causes me to ponder, reconsider my parenting ways….

    1. Have you tried wrestling with him? I can tell when my more rambunctious twin needs some connection because he goes after his brother. I remind him that wrestle-wrestle is with mama and daddy only, then we tussle. He gets his connection, and burns off some energy in the process. It’s made a big difference in how he interacts with his brother, and how I interact with him… I’d rather wrestle than yell 🙂

    2. Hi Chelle! I think this definitely will pass. Remember that because your little guy is human, he MUST have very strong feelings about his adorable new sister taking up so much of his precious mom’s time and attention. If he’s like most big sisters or brothers, he has a wide range of confusing feelings to deal with… There is no doubt lots of pain. Being as calm and accepting as you possibly can, while also protecting the baby, is of the utmost importance right now. This time is as tough for you as it will ever get… And your boy needs your unconditional love now more than ever.

    3. If your toddler can’t handle being with his little sibling without regularly causing pain you might need to literally keep them separated for a while when you can’t be sitting on the floor playing with them. Some stages you have to solve the problem a different way then just waiting until the child can process directions safely. Maybe keep the little one in the kitchen with you while the toddler is in the play room. Or maybe inside a pack and play if you can’t be close. Sometimes it takes longer than we want to grow through a stage.

      Also make sure you aren’t blaming the little one for things that the big one wants to do. Example: We can’t go outside because little is sleeping. But instead: we are playing inside now. We can go outside in one hour. Not: baby is eating you have to wait. But: now we are eating. Soon we can all play catch. Helps reduce the friction between littles and all the changes a second one brings to the first ones life.

  3. I have had exactly the same problem with my son (almost 3 years old). I also tried everything – stickers as rewards, the Supernanny training, etc but nothing worked. Funnily enough I have also worked with children (for about 15 years) and always had a fantastic relationship with them so struggling with my son was getting so frustrating for me. I happened to be seeing a Chiropractor for my newborn son. I asked her to look at my older son and found that he had a number of sublaxations (basically vertebrae shifted off and pinching nerves)that have been found to contribute to sleeping problems. At the same time because of my newborn having feeding problems, I put us all on the Royal Prince Albert Elimination Diet (also known as the Failsafe Diet). We’ve been on the diet for 6 days and my son has seen the Chiropractor for 3 sessions. Last night was the first night that he slept the entire night in his own bed. He didnt come through at all. It may be worth looking at diet and spinal adjustments to see if this is contributing to your daughter’s difficulties. Good luck.

  4. Janet you are the toddler whisperer! Thank you so much bcuz now my son is too old for RIE class I sometimes forget and still need your guidance. More help to help my son . please!

  5. Dana Grimes says:

    Janet, I read this with tears in my eyes because it also applies to teenagers. I teach art to 9th-12th graders and had a particularly hard time with one student who has 2 sets of parents and he is the only child. He challenged my authority at every turn, and when I blurred the boundaries he upped the ante. For all the wrong reasons I finally took a stand and calmly held it. He shook my hand and hugged me on the last day of school. My daughter, Shelly, helped me make sense of the entire episode by quoting this blog entry. Many, many, many thanks for this positive direction!

    1. Dana, I can’t thank you enough for sharing this story… You might have given this boy something he’s been needing for a very long time (without even knowing it). He probably won’t forget this…

  6. Janet, I can not thank you enough for this post! I have been struggling lately with explaining (mostly to family) WHY I parent like I do. That it’s a conscious choice, and not permissive or boundary-less at all. I will use this as a reference, and I look forward to the next one!

  7. Janet- I find this really interesting and timely because I just finished reading “Bringing Up Bebe” by Pamela Druckerman. What’s so interesting about it is the overall philosophy about the nature of children and it completely affects the way French parents relate to and ultimately discipline their children. Druckerman writes that instead of seeing children as impulsive and uncontrollable, the French see them as completely understanding and rational people with their own wants and needs. It is the parents job to ‘educate’ their children about how to live in the world and thus they guide them gently into being patient and capable human beings. The largest part of this ‘education’ is a consistent frame or boundary of rules that are explicit coupled with a great amount of freedom within the frame.

    There is also this idea of ‘betises’ or small acts of naughtiness, that are seen as simply part of being a child and not a big deal to parents generally. Which means that instead of punishing children for acting out in small ways they reserve severe discipline for much more serious actions. Most of these ideas come from Francoise Dolto, whose ideas about children I think are very much in line with what Magda Gerber taught. If only her books were in English!

    1. I really agree, I am French living in the US (and have read Pamela Druckerman’s book) and have found many common points between the French way with children and RIE.

    2. I love that, “small acts of naughtiness!”

  8. “It is a request for help”

    So incredibly true! When my son starts getting “crazy” I always view it as a sign that he needs me to reign him in. Not punish, not threaten, not make ultimatums, but HELP him. Cuddle, listen, feed, rest, play, whatever. Just help.

    I’m also with you on the “mistake” aspect of parenting styles. I’m not going to pretend that I think punishments aren’t mistakes, but as I recently told a friend of mine (who does not share my parenting values): I hope your choices work as well for you as mine do for me 🙂

  9. Dearest Janet, how useful this insight is for me… a loving but sometimes really confused parent and teacher! I´d love to share this post in Spanish for the people following La Casa Naranja, if you agree. This “discipline” issue has been on top of discussion during playgroups and at the blog… Mothers sad because teacher punishes her little 5 years old for playing with water while washing hands… mothers advising her toddler: “Fernanda is upset with you” when I was just trusting and reinforcing his ability to sit at the table to share breakfast, my self being upset with my older kid for not wanting to share my greatly planned “family time”… Oh! So true what you share! Once again, thank you from my heart, as always. Love, Fernanda

  10. My daughter is a strong will 3 1/2 years old girl. We have been following Montessori principles for practical life to encourage her independence and self confidence. She can put her clothes on, her shes, brush her teeth, etc. The issue is that she gets frustrated very easy and she starts whinnng and screaming asking for us to do it or her. We want her to keep trying because we know she can do it, but he keeps whinning and fitting with whatever she is doin. The main issue is her whinning sets me off and I loose it. I throw a tantrum right there with her which sometimes includes spanking or time outs 🙁 I know it desn’t sound sgood, but it’s the true and I’m looking or help.

    She is a very sharp girl, but unfortunely she is afraid of failuire. That is why we know she doesn’t want to keep trying.

    I’m not sure how to handle the situation, how to teach her to stop whinning for everything and how to turn the page and start a new parenting style. I’m not a very patient person and it hasn’t help with the situation.

    Your help will be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Joha, three and a half is a little young to be “afraid of failure”. If she is afraid of anything, I believe it is your angry responses to her whining. And I believe that she is whining because you reject her wish to be helped by you. Just because young children are able to do certain tasks independently, does not mean that they want to do those things. Children often want and need the feeling of connection that goes with being helped to put on their clothes, brush their teeth, etc. They want our support, not a demand that they do these things on their own. I would start by rethinking the way you interact with your daughter and what her options vs. responsibilities are. Getting dressed independently at 3 years old should be the child’s choice, in my opinion.

      1. Hi Janet im curious to hear your thoughts for a 5 year old on spectrum without speech impairment, infact very switched on. Negotiates almost everything.. “i wont eat my dinner if you dont feed me” or “i wont eat my dinner if youvdont put the television on” or “im not going to go in the car unless you let me take my scooter” or “im not going to go to sleep if you dont sitcin my bed first” so every night she continues to wake 5 + times overnight and i just sit on her bed for a few minutes as im too tired to deal with 40 minute meltdowns per ocassion. She can feed herself at childcare / kinder but bot at home (we are ocerseas to you so she starts school in 2021 just after she is 6years old) she grunts points and says “mum feed me” ive begun negotiating back sure i say lets take it in turns i.e i start and feed her a mouthful then she does one (its been a long road to this point) and its still so tedious. I personally get frusturated by aggressive nature shd always asks for help and refuses to ever try first and i try and encourage her to have a go and if she gets stuck im happy to help. Every single self help task clothes, etc is what i feel challenging. I try just kerp praising every single time she tries something, hives it a good try etc “well done that makes me happy you tried – do you feel proud you just did x task?!” still feel like this doesnt achieve much. The every day battle of tasks is tricky. We talk about zones of regulation, recognising emotions etc but we still have multiple meltdowns a day and emotional anytime we try and discuss a moment from the day where she might have been having trouble. Tried social stories and reward charts she loses interest in.

        1. Lately i fell completely overwhelmed and i don’t know what is the best approach with my 1year and 9 months son.
          Eight weeks ago i gave birth to our second son. I know it will be a very difficult period for my eldest and we tried to prepare him for the arrival of the new baby. We showed him a book that described the arrival of a new baby in the family, that i will be gone for a few days to give birth and he was actually excited about the arrival of the baby. At first things seemed ok, he would come and give kisses to the baby, sometimes he woul try to pinch him, and we would explain that the baby is fragile and it would hurt him. We took a nanny to help me with the kids while my husband was at work. Also we moved to a new apartment a week ago. I know that there are so many changes for him and it’s hard to process everything, and i do try to give him all the attention that i can. I leave the baby with the nanny to play with him, i always try to be at bedtime, sometimes bringing the baby with me, i breastfeed the baby and sing to my eldest, Mihnea, to sleep. The problem is that he is more and more agitated and aggressive. He tries to pinch and hit the baby or us more frequently. We try to explain calmly not to do that, or take his hands and stop him from hitting and say “no hitting”, and trying not to make a big fuss out of it. In the park he literally attackes every kid he sees. I have to be constantly behind him to stop him from hitting a child. I see he is very distressed because he is clenching his theeh when he is doing it. Today i left the park in tears. He went to every kid in his proximity and pulled his hair or pushed him for no reason. He was fed and was not tired. I picked him up and went home. I feel that i can not manage this situation. I don’t know what to do, or where i fail. I am reading your book and trying to find an answer but i really don t know how to approach things. I am very tired and my hisband also with the moving to a new place and all the sleepless nights and sometimes i loose my temper. If you have any advice, i really need one.

  11. I have a very strong-willed 2.5 year old daughter. For the last few weeks I can’t get her to stay in time outs (never been a problem before). Tonite after hitting me, continuously running out of time outs and jumping on the couch, I took her lovey away and put her to bed without books, etc. I have never felt like a worse mom than I do tonite. She cried and screamed for about 40 minutes then fell asleep. I’m sure it wasn’t the right thing to do but I just didn’t know what else to do! Help

    1. Maggie, I’m not a fan of time outs. (For more, please read:

      I’m not clear as to how the time outs started in this particular incident… Was there something that happened first that led to the time out? Or was it the hitting and jumping on the couch? I would stop the hitting by first blocking it while saying, “I won’t let you hit me. If you are mad you can hit or stomp on the floor” (or whatever) and holding her arms if necessary. As strong-willed as she is, she is a small girl and you are a much bigger adult. I know it’s hard to get this perspective sometimes when our children act-out, but we need to. This helps us rise above the situation and stay calm.

      If she jumps on the couch after you’ve calmly, but firmly told her not to, I would go close to her and tell her you will pick her up and take her down from the couch and into her room (if it’s bed time). “You’re having a hard time stopping the jumping. I’m going to help you.” This is not a time out, it is “time in” together, but also removing her from the situation she is having a hard time in.

      I would not take away the lovey, but I would probably not be in the mood to read books and not doing so would be a respectful and logical consequence, in my opinion. It’s being honest. “You were having a hard time doing as I asked and now it’s late and I don’t feel like reading book” (again, spoken calmly).

      On the other hand, carrying her into her room might well lead to a big explosion of crying or tantruming — a cathartic release for her. And if you stick by her and support this release rather than putting her in time out, it will bring you closer. She’ll likely end up feeling relieved and loving towards you and maybe even genuinely apologetic. And you might feel like reading the books.

  12. Tasha Jordan says:

    Hello, i have a 4 year old, who well “acts out” in the worst ways.. Shes hardly ever listening to anything i ask of her, like picking up her toys, Playing nicly with her younger sister, ect. ect. Now lately shes been getting up before the suns even out, ive explained to her before, that if u wake up and the sun isnt out then you need to stay in bed because Night time is sleeping time. But she does get up and she runs threw the house, Like dumping out ceral boxes and climbing on the washer and dryers to get to my make up and other womanly stuff for myself.. Im at a complete lose, ive done the talking and sitting next to her while she is crying, ive tryed getting up around 7, but she was already up and getting into stuff, ive done the time outs, ive even done spankings 🙁 that i absolutly HATE! Please help me, give me some advice some ideas on what u should be doing with this on going problem

    1. Tasha, it’s hard for me to unravel this situation and advise you with just the brief description you’ve given me. Limit-pushing behaviors are almost always the result of our discipline approach… These are a sign that we aren’t “getting it right”. The time outs and spankings have certainly made matters worse…Those things create an “us against them” situation. Children need a calm, but confident response to their misbehavior.

      It also sounds like some of your expectations might be unreasonable… “Playing nicely with your sister” is not a reasonable expectation, because we can’t force children to play. But “not hitting your sister” is something we can be there to limit (calmly) by standing between the girls and perhaps holding your 4 year old’s hands. We also can’t control what time children wake up… This can’t be a limit, but we can encourage her to stay in her room later by making a plan together…i.e, “What would you like to play with if you get up early? Shall we have a special snack for you to eat before breakfast?”

      This post might help:

  13. Just wanted to say thank you, something really clicked for me with this article.

    I say “I will not let you….” when a behaviour is extreme (eg pushing another child), but I always follow that with “gently”.

    Never once (despite the glaring obviousness of it) did it cross my mind that my son knows that this is not gentle and is choosing otherwise. Far better to limit and then describe the behaviour “That is too rough”….

    Thank you.

    1. You’re welcome, Leonie! So glad it “clicked”.

  14. I’m too old school for this group. Too many people got phD’s figuring out how other people should take care of their kids. I’d love to see how well they practiced what they preached once they have their own.

    1. Not sure what you’re talking about, Daniel. I have 3 of my own.

  15. Your article was a real help, but with my 5 year old son positive discipline seems no good….he quite often push and hit his younger 3 year old sister ….all the polite request, rewards and even some spanking could not stop him… whenever he become angry or frustrated with her….he just hit her…ohhhh i feel so helpless…don’t know how to deal with him!!!

  16. Great post, Janet, I have been practising this with my 23 mo old and am getting pretty good at it, it’s really working. It occured to me recently that punitive practises really start a vicious circle/dyanmic of “victim/bully/rescuer” early on. I have struggled with that dynamic myself as an adult and it has taken a lot of time and self-awareness to step out of it and relate differently to certain people in my life. By punishing, shaming, forgiving, it’s exactly the dynamic that is being established at such an early age. Setting the stage for unhealthy relationships later on, instead of healthy ones with kindness and good boundary setting to honor one’s own needs.

  17. Hi
    Could you give me some guidance in how to deal with a toddler ( 25mths old) that I care for fulltime m-f as his childminders,
    Since quite young he’s always wanted what everyone has and found it a battle ( him) in just playing without constantly stressing what everyone else has or is doing. He spends all day intimidating others and physically blocking/ pushing/hitting /
    Snatching and actually being quite sly.. Today he followed a one year old around just waiting till the little one let go for the briefest sec so he could grab the buggy and run off with it deliberately.
    I try to distract him and explain that he has to share and wait his turn as xxxx is playing with it now to which he throws a tantrum and will lash out or grab the said toy angrily,
    Every day is the same and is affecting the other children in my care as they’re worried they can’t put a toy down to play with it, I’ve taught them its OK to say No to him but not sure how to get him over this behaviour, its not through lack of sleep as he’s a fantastic sleeper and eats well too,
    Any advice please ?

  18. What do you recommend for children who spit but are too young to understand what the word “spitting” means and continue to do it despite frequent, gentle verbal repetition of “I don’t want you to spit” or “no spitting?”

  19. This seems reasonable for a 18- to 24-month-olds. However, what to do with a 4-year-old in an aggressive situation? My son is tall for his age and stopping him “gently” (and quickly!) from hurting his 11-month-old brother is a challenge. Sometimes, he will make a fist and hit my husband and me. I often feel torn between addressing his behavior and the baby’s tears. We do not hit/spank/swat him, and he has not watched violent TV programs, but he does attend a preschool with 24 other children in the class. I appreciate your website and visit often. I am new to this approach and while this advice is certainly helpful for my 11-month-old, I’m finding it hard to apply these principles with my 4-year-old.

    1. Hi Tina! How have you been handling your son’s behavior up until now?

      1. Thanks for your reply Janet! I place a hand between them, tell him “I won’t let him hit,” and many times he continues to move around me in order to poke or prod. If this happens, or if he hurts TJ after I leave the area, I will separate him from his brother for a brief time. He expresses anger when this happens, and often screams or yells (and sometimes hits me). I think separating B from his brother (usually to a separate area of the common room) is contributing to the problem, since I believe he is experiencing jealousy and wants more of my attention for himself. This morning was a great example: 4-year-old B was directing our play with Legos (we played together for 30 minutes), and then my 11-month-old (TJ) woke up. Prior to getting the baby from his crib, I expressed my expectations of B. Things went well until I left briefly to start breakfast. I came back to find B roughly tapping a toy on TJ’s head. TJ was upset. I said, “TJ doesn’t like that” as I moved toward them to intervene. He continued tapping a few times, until I was within reach.

        1. I have had to pick him up as he kicks and screams to remove him when he loses control. He’s 42 inches tall and it’s a challenge to be gentle with long arms and legs flying–I try to avoid his limbs hitting me or the baby. When I remove him from situations in this manner, he hates it! I understand, and I would, too. After he settles, I apologize for picking him up and we talk about it and he says, “I don’t like when you treat me like a baby.” We have used time-outs in the past, and I think he’s still “recovering” from time out, if that makes sense.

  20. Hi Janet, as always love love love your articles. I have a few questions about time “IN”…. I think often I find my son just needs some time to chill on his own. I don’t think of this as a time out. He can pick the toys and such to play with. He will just play and rest in his bed and then tell me he’s done. I find that even 2 minutes away from each other, and we are both more ready to cope and handle whatever the situation is. I have found if I sit with him, sometimes he just stays exactly the same, very upset, screaming and yelling…whereas if we have a few minutes apart he can work it out. Thoughts on this? Also, how do you do this “time in ” concept with more than one child who needs you at the same time? Thanks Janet, Deb

  21. Does anyone have any advice regarding a toddler that prefers one parent? My 16 month old prefers his father to me most of the time, especially if he is needing comfort. At first this was very difficult for me and I probably showed too much emotion. Lately, I have been trying to keep my composure when my son rejects me. It is a bit better, but he still will go to his father if he is available, which isn’t always practical. My son may have a tantrum if he wants his father to pick him up and my husband walks away or I try to pick him up instead. I’m a little perplexed as to what to do next or perhaps it is just a phase and will pass…

    1. Hi Sarah,

      We had a similar issue with my daughter when she was about 2 1/2. She only wanted to be with me, and would pitch a fit when my husband would try to take her out of her car seat, play with her, hold her hand while out, etc. He initially would grow very angry, which of course did not increase her desire to be around him.

      We talked it through together, and before helping her with anything, he began to simply say things like, “May I help you ____?” And if she said no (which she did, for several weeks), he would kindly acknowledge her decision and tell her he loves her. He also started to instigate play with her more often. Over time, she began to ask him to help her and to play with her. As I said, it took several weeks, but once he stopped taking it personally and initiating playtime with her, it really turned around.

      I hope that helps!

  22. Michelle M says:

    Hello Janet,

    Our 15 month old son has been at home with a combination of grandma (for 3 days) and the same wonderful nanny for the the other two. He is very active and will-ful. He is starting at a child care center in a month. Today he did a visit to the center and went with his age group outside to play. He jumped right in with the other boys and girls and was having a lot of fun. However, when when a little girl took his toy he hit her across the face. My husband and I were mortified. We haven’t seen him do that before. My first reaction was to call all his caregivers and make a plan with all of them to him a timeout anytime to hit the dog or any of us. I was convinced I spoiled him. Then I read your article and really want to make sure he is getting loving, confident discipline. Any suggestions on how to redirect the hitting?



  23. My almost 2-year-old has recently started hitting. She will hit other children her age over a toy, or sometimes for no apparent reason. I have been using time out. After time out she is overly sweet to the child, I’m assuming her way of apologizing. After about 15 to 20 minutes she will hit again. PLEASE HELP! I need suggestions! It is stressing me out.

  24. I have a very willful and fearless 3 year old with a very short fuse and an intense temper. She frequently takes risks and when I try to prevent her from doing so, or really deny her any request, she asks nicely and gradually increases her volume and her anger boils over until she begins throwing and breaking things in her frustration. I’m trying to show her that this is not acceptable behavior by giving her time in her room to calm down but she has kicked dents in her door and walls. I’m at my wits end. I’ve tried talking to her and getting her to breathe with me (techniques that worked with my other 2 kids) but she goes from sweet to angry so quickly that I can’t slow her down and once she’s angry, there’s no stopping her until she rages herself to sleep or breaks something that she truly loves. What can I do to get through to her?

    1. Hi Mae! Question: why does she continue to ask…after “asking nicely”? It seems that she isn’t getting a clear answer. Here’s a post that might be helpful to you:

      It sounds like you might be making it your responsibility to calm your daughter down… With strong, intense children, that approach creates more frustration for both of you. Let your child’s feelings BE. Prevent her from breaking things, but allow the emotional explosions. She needs to know that she is safe to feel this way.

  25. Rebecca C. says:

    Great post, Janet. I am a huge fan of yours, and your techniques have really helped me with my 22 month-old. I really need help with our bedtime situation. We happily bed share, but I am having problems getting my son to wind down for the night. Tonight it took two hours of lying with him to get him to fall asleep. Nap time and bedtime are becoming exhausting for me. I have tried moving nap and bedtimes, keeping him busy, rocking him, eliminating processed foods from his diet, and everything else I can think of. Do you have any advice?

  26. Hello Janet,

    I’ve been attempting to adopt a parenting style like this. I used to spank and use time outs, they never really worked anyway and I always felt terrible. After reading about a parenting style like this, I knew I had to do something. I evaluated my discipline and realized that usually when I used spanking it was due to an anger or frustration outburst from myself, not that my daughter had done anything terribly wrong. She is 3 1/2 and I’ve seen a real improvement since becoming more gentle and loving and supportive with her. I’ve realized that when I sit with her during an emotional outburst she calms down much more quickly and we usually end on much better terms. Usually I can explain her bad behavior to being tired, not that she’s just trying to be bad. She does really well when I talk to her about a situation rather than just throwing a punishment at her. She has become more understanding of the rules, and seems to be more conscious of them and wants to follow them. For instance, a lot of the time she will apologize for an action without me prompting her when she knows she’s made a wrong choice. We talk a lot about feelings, and I think that helps. I’m still learning how to react to things and how to make the right choice for her, when I have a reaction of anger or frustration I try to take a second to get myself under control ( which doesn’t always happen ). We’re getting there slowly but surely. My biggest question is about consequences. Sometimes I’m not sure what an appropriate consecuence would be for a situation, or I’m not sure how I should react. For example, sometimes she will ignore me. On purpose, she usually isn’t in a raging bad mood when she does it, I can be in the middle of talking to her and she will just pick something to stare at and ignore me for as long as possible. That and doing something (such as throwing a toy) right after I ask her not to. I’m not sure how to react to those type situations. My second question is about whining. I’ve always thought you shouldn’t give in to whining so that you don’t enforce the whining. We’ve come a long way with teaching her to use her big girl voice. She switches to big girl voice most of the time. But sometimes when’s she’s tired and had a long day, it can be something simple like taking her shoes off. She will get frustrated because she’s tired and start whining and getting more mad and she will tell me to do it. I of course don’t mind helping her with her shoes, but I don’t want to enforce whining, on the other hand when she’s having and emotional meltdown if I say no or to use her big girl voice that just makes the melt down worse. So any advice you could offer would be greatly appreciated.

  27. I was wondering if anybody had any advice for me, my little boy is 2 years and 5 months and he hits us (his parents) constantly, this has been going on for a good 8 months. He is very strong willed and very determined. At first he did it because he couldn’t get his own way and now he just does it for the hell of it, almost as if he can see what reaction to get. He sometimes does it at daycare as well (he goes to a Montessori). Both myself and his Dad as well as his tutors have tried absolutely everything including what you have mentioned in your article and nothing seems to work. We are at our wits end and really don’t know what to do!!

    1. Try “The Child Whisperer” by Carol Tuttle. He may be a type 3 and craving physical interactions and reactions. She has some good suggestions for different personality types that honors and respects the child.

  28. No, but I can imagine an adult being in jail (“time out”) for assault (“hitting”). I understand the concept that toddlers don’t necessarily understand the idea of cause–>effect, but isn’t it our job as parents to teach them that choices result in consequences?

    Then, when they reach school age, how can we expect a single teacher to figure out the root cause of misbehavior in 20 students?

    While my toddler doesn’t cause physical harm by hitting me when she doesn’t get her way, when she becomes a teenager the same action against an adult could result in disciplinary action such as suspension or expulsion.

    Both examples are of a girl frustrated and unable to get her point across. While the root cause should be investigated (inability to communicate frustrated feelings?), how will the child eventually learn that hitting isn’t acceptable without receiving a consequence?

  29. My issue of late has been verbal inappropriateness. My 2 ½ year old keeps saying shut up and butt cheek which are words he heard from another kid at preschool. How do I gently get him to stop? He also won’t go to sleep in his own bed and any attempt to do so results in screaming fits.

  30. Hi Janet,
    Wonderful post as always. I’ve been practising RIE with our 2.5 year old and all I can say is, I’m so glad I stumbled upon it! He’s an amazingly kind and sensitive boy, and I love how gentle this approach is.
    Quick question- We do make sure to stop him and say things like “I won’t let you… (pull the dog’s tail, push your little brother, etc)” but I find myself unsure of what to do after he has already done something for the first time. For example, the other day he threw a toy quite hard and all I can think to say is “we don’t throw toys”, but I’m fairly certain there is something more effective that I could be saying/doing.

  31. I do not view ‘time out’ as a punishment. Everybody needs time out from time to time and for various reasons. Sometimes you need to take yourself out of a stressful situation, calm down, think rationally and work out a solution. Sometimes that break is all someone needs. I’ve known children take themselves for time out. Not because they think they are naughty, but because they need a breather. I see that as a positive thing.

    1. I understand, Eve. But what about someone telling you that you must go take a time out for a period of time that person designates? How would that feel to you? How would it make you feel about that person?

  32. I love reading these articles, it provides such calming guidance through these toddler years! I have a question on meal time. We just transitioned our 21 month old from the high chair to a little table and chair set. She loves it, though meal time now involves her taking a bite then running around and eventually me chasing her around with a bite to get her to finish. We have started sitting with her and eating a few bites of our own meal to show how meal time works, which helps a little. This morning, she had her yogurt and cheerios and was filling up her spoon and then running around, yogurt flinging about; I asked her if she was done and if not to come back and finish, and she flung the yogurt/spoon in defiance. I said ok, you must be done, and took her meal away…she got angry/cried but I sat with her and explained why we can’t do that…am I on the right track??

  33. My grandson recently spent 2 months out of state with another grandparent. Came back saying he’s a bad boy, he’s dumb. When he does something like throw something, I ask him not to and to pick up what he threw, he flicks or hits himself in the face. Please help, this breaks my heart

  34. I would really appreciate some help with this question – how can I put these lovely ideas into practice with my two boys (33 months and 17 months old) when their needs are so often conflicting and simultaneous?
    (Not to mention caring for 3 teenage stepsons, one energetic dog, 2 cats, my husband, all the housework, cooking and working almost full time?!)

  35. I wish they would treat adults with the same understanding as they do children. I find myself thinking if only someone treated me this way when I’m feeling upset.

  36. Hi. I am a mother of three boys(3,5 &9). I have been following as much as I can and have changed some things but still struggle making the big shift…ie. still threatening, yelling. Believe me there has been progress but my most challenging thing and what I read again and again that I am unable to accomplish is the calmness and ‘unruffledness’ that I should be maintaining. My life situation is so that I am always under an enormous amount of stress. I have not felt calm in years. I am working on myself to try to remedy this but as you know it is slow going while raising little ones. I constantly feel like a failure because I am not ‘always’ calm. Weekly and sometimes daily I am loosing my patience even though I feel like I have a lot of patience. When I do make a mistake I always apologize and talk to them but lately the talking is harder. They don’t want to talk, or listen. When we are out in public there is ALWAYS a scene. It all feels so out of control and there isn’t enough lightheatedness or fun. Thanks in advance for any advice!!!

  37. Hi Janet,

    I’m hoping for some advice. My almost 17 month old has started to display some aggressive behavior, but only towards me (mom) and our cat. For me, he often smacks me in the face or pulls my hair. When I say no, or pull his hand away or block his hand he starts to laugh like it’s a game. With the cat, he used to be very gentle with him. He’d try to hug him or pet him gently. Now, seemingly out of nowhere he is throwing toys at the cat while he is sleeping, grabbing his fur and pulling his tail. The cat doesn’t really fight back except for a swat with his claws in or an annoyed meow. I have tried saying “please be gentle” and reminding him that the cat is smaller then him, and I just get a big laugh. I don’t know what to do! I am so frustrated that my gentle son is displaying this behavior and I have no way to mitigate it. I also am worried he will start hitting other kids when he starts daycare in Feb. Any advice would be appreciated!

  38. Hi Janet, I’ve been following you and your post for sometime now. And it’s really an eye opener. You help me see things in a different perspective. I was raised on the belt. I feared my parents. Now as an adult I have no family relationship. Now that I’m a mother I know i has to break the cycle of abuse. It stops with me. With that being said. It’s so hard sometimes for me to stay calm. I’m working on my own anger issues and trying not to Hell all the time. I see therapy for it. My daughter is almost two. And is very attached to me. She wants momma all the time. And boob all the time. She doesn’t like to be alone for more than 5 minutes. She’ll just now starting to play with her toys independently. But I’ve noticed this almost two year gets so frustrated so easily she gives up if a block doesn’t stack. Or the magnet on the fridge doesn’t stick she throws all her toys then cry’s. She’s always so angry. If she doesn’t get her way. Shes violently angry. She’ll bite, kick, hit. Myself or her self. It’s when she’s so violent with me or herself is when I raise my voice. I’ll say ouch that hurt. Please don’t kick, ect. But my reaction makes her more violent. Their have been times when I say to her you hurt my feelings and I literally have to walk away and lock myself somewhere to calm down. Because if I don’t I’ll know I’ll snap.
    Sometimes just doing a diaper change can make her hit me. She absolutely hates being told what to do.
    Everything that is directional she will retaliate. From diaper changes, getting dressed, getting into the car seat.
    It’s so frustrating when they don’t listen, or do what they told to do. It’s not like I’m controlling her. I communicate I let her know what will be happening before it happens.
    I’ve never hit her once. Ive acknowledged her feelings. Ive given encouragement when needed. Some days I don’t get more than 15min to myself at a time. She’s so clingy And it’s like she’s never satisfied or happy unless my boob is in her mouth.
    Other days she can be independent and doesn’t mind being told directions.
    It’s always sweet or sour.
    I just don’t know how to address this.
    Is this my fault?
    Did I unintentionally influence this behaviour
    Mind you my daughter is only this way with me. , when she’s with grandma and grandpas house she’s a comfortable content caring loving little girl.

  39. Our 2.5 year old daughter is a runner. The other day she got away from me, as I was putting our infant son in his car seat. She got so far, too fast and almost to the very busy road by time I caught her. When she’s running, she gets into a state that she’s excited by the ‘bad behaviour’ and continues to do it. If it I say no or stop running, she just surges ahead. Every time she does this, I react opposite to how you suggest. I panick and yell because I see bad things happening. Things she doesn’t yet understand or at least in the moment doesn’t see could happen. How are you suppose to handle these situations, when she is putting herself in harms way. She also puts rocks in her mouth. Attention seeking behaviour but dangerous. It so hard to stay calm in these scenarios. Help.

  40. Hi Janet,

    My 2 year old dislikes getting her nappy changed and getting dry and dressed after the bath/shower,

    During happy changes he will kick and roll over, I say I will not let you kick, we need to clean the poo and a lot of the times I end up getting frustrated and loosing my cool. I always start with a few warning calls to let him know, it’s time/nearly time to change your bum. How can I approach this better?

    After bath/showers, from the moment he steps out and I try to dry him, it’s a meltdown. He runs away and I chase. Maybe it’s a game but he’s not laughing. I’ve tried distractions that sometimes work to help dry him but it’s not working for us.

    I feel like maybe I’m not clear at setting boundaries. I’m a loving and adoring gentle mum but I’m feeling like my son is having trouble knowing what those boundaries are.

  41. Laurie Serratore says:

    Our three year old son has been hitting my husband and I when we say something that he doesn’t like. We are often holding him at those time so he will hit us in the face or if we aren’t holding him then he will just hit. My husband will say “what is wrong with you?” sometimes when he does it and we both just say that we don’t hit in our house and we give hugs and kisses instead. Nothing seems to be stopping the behavior though. Is it a stage? Will this pass? I surely hope so!

  42. Thank you for this article, I have been following around my 2 year old in social situations for a while now “buddy guarding” to stop him biting people. It’s exhausting! And if I slip up for a minute and engage an adult in an exchange then he will bite the smallest kid he can find so hard that he draws blood! I don’t know how to react when this happens- I check the kid is OK (which they always arent) then I want to show him how much he’s hurt them but he doesn’t care. This has been going on so long, and isn’t just in high stress situations for him- he even bites us when having his night time wind down ready for bed! I’ve tried ” I’m not going to let you bite me/him” and “we don’t bite people” giving him something else to bite. It’s just such a storing impulse for him. I should add he’s generally incredibly emotional and has lots of outbursts which I recognise and welcome as best I can.

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