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Disciplining a Temperamental Toddler: Why Distraction and Consistency Are Key

By Beth Rush

It’s easy to get frustrated when your toddler throws a temper tantrum in public. Parenting for first-timers can be overwhelming. Yes, there are templates, advice, and suggestions from the pros on how to discipline a toddler — but some challenging situations can cause you to lose your patience and snap.

However, parenting can also be rewarding. With proper discipline strategies, you'll forget the stress and enjoy your children's toddlerhood instead. Learn everything there is to know about taming a temperamental toddler.

Why Toddlers Exhibit Temperamental Behavior

Toddlers' temperaments can be a tremendous source of stress for first-time parents. Imagine your young one throwing tantrums unexpectedly, whining, screaming, and kicking you — every day is a challenge you must overcome with buckets of patience and understanding.

Some children are easy, calm, and exhibit predictable behaviors, while others are the opposite. If your kid is part of the latter group, know it's normal and is modifiable as they grow.

Temperament is an innate quality some children are born with. It consists of nine major characteristics:

  • Activity level: The intensity of their motion, restlessness, fidgeting, and physical activity

  • Rhythmicity or regularity: Their sleep, appetite, and bowel habits

  • Approach and withdrawal: The slowness or rapidness of how they respond to meeting new people or being in an unfamiliar place

  • Adaptability: Their ability to adjust to a new situation and modify their reaction

  • Intensity: The positive or negative manner in which they react to a situation

  • Mood: How good or bad their words and behaviors tend to be

  • Attention span: Their ability to focus and stay on a single task without getting sidetracked

  • Distractibility: The extent of their lack of focus

  • Sensory threshold: The level of stimulation needed before a child responds

Having a temper is normal for toddlers. Discipline and experience can alter these characteristics.

How to Discipline a Toddler With a Temper

Discipline isn't a punishment, so using violence like spanking or hitting will not work. Here are two strategies for handling toddlers’ inappropriate behavior.

The Power of Distraction

For adults, distraction can derail productivity — but not for young kids. It can be a valuable and fair tool to divert their attention so they behave positively.

Suppose your two-year-old saw another kid playing with a ball at a park and wanted it. In this case, you can say, "Let's go play on the slides," so they don't get upset. Giving an option can encourage them to stay calm and forget about the situation.

Distractions work effectively because their brain’s connections aren't well-developed enough to support focus on one thing or situation for a long time. So, it's easier to convince them to forget something and move on to the next exciting thing if you offer a distraction.

However, don't use this strategy when your child feels extremely upset or distressed or has hurt another kid.

Importance of Consistency

The second tool in your discipline kit is consistency. Behaviors and responses can become habits; if you want them to adopt better ones, teach consistently.

Imagine this — a child throws a tantrum at the grocery store. The mom kneels down, acknowledges the kids' feelings, and offers to play a game when they get home if they behave well. Meanwhile, the dad becomes frustrated, raises his voice, and threatens to leave the child in the store if they don't behave well.

The opposing responses can create confusion and make it challenging for the child to determine right from wrong or the good from bad approach. That's why consistency is critical. There are two areas where it applies in disciplining a toddler — rules and enforcement.

Consistent Rules

You should implement uniform rules so children develop better brain retention of the response or information. For instance, if they're only allowed to watch TV for an hour, ensure you remind them to turn it off once the time is up.

Consistent rules go hand in hand with routine, contributing to their learning. It's especially beneficial for parents caring for young ones with neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, which affects an estimated 6.1 million children in the U.S.

Due to their short attention span, they find it hard to focus or absorb what you teach them. However, converting the lessons into routine — like turning the TV off at 9 p.m. — makes their day predictable, empowering them to do what's expected.

Consistent Enforcement

Enforcement should also be consistent in encouraging your child to embrace positive behaviors. It's like learning their ABCs. Initially, you must teach them every day until they ultimately memorize the alphabet.

Similarly, whenever your child disobeys or does something disrespectful, correct them rather than ignore the situation. They'll stop acting out if they realize there will be consequences for their misconduct.

Disciplining Kids Who Ignore Consequences

How do you discipline a three-year-old toddler who understands the consequences of their misdemeanors but doesn't care about them? It's tricky, but one tip is to make them black and white, meaning explaining things in language that's simple, easy to understand, and sticks.

For example, if you want them to stop pulling their sibling's hair, warn them and tell them they can't borrow their sister's toys if they don't refrain from misbehaving. Instead of giving long speeches that they won't understand, the consequences should be clear enough for them to act appropriately.

Combining Distraction and Consistency

Distractions and consistency are excellent tools for imposing discipline and managing temper. However, the synergy of both can boost learning effectiveness and better correct your child's behavior patterns and responses.

If they're about to get upset when leaving the playground, validate their feelings by saying, "I know you're having so much fun here," and suggest watching their favorite cartoon show at home instead to redirect their focus and make them feel better.

Meanwhile, consistency is a critical skill for kids and adults to master. It's the key to getting results and building positive habits in life, whether going to the gym, meditating, or learning. Enforce universal rules about TV use, eating, playing, and other activities. For example, if they should be in bed by 9 p.m., ensure they stay in the living room for TV or other quiet activity until 8:45 p.m. every day.

Tips for First-Time Parents to Avoid Temper Tantrums

You'll have plenty of opportunities to discipline a toddler whenever they throw tantrums. However, it's best and less stressful to avoid them. Here are some things to try.

  1. Acknowledge your child and reward them for positive behavior. They sometimes misbehave to get your attention, so spend quality time with them.

  2. Slowly build up challenges or tasks. Like a video game, their growth ladder should have levels and upgrades. Start by giving your toddler an easy task and gradually increase the difficulty as they learn more.

  3. Allow them some space for control and independence. Sometimes, they may want to eat fruits instead of vegetables. Permit them to make small decisions.

  4. Know your child's limits. They may be full of energy — but if they look tired, allow them to rest.

  5. Be flexible if they ask for something, like a new toy. Refrain from refusing outright, but show some consideration.

Discipline a Toddler With Respect

Children deserve respect, too. Remember, they imitate how you treat them and are likelier to deflect these behaviors onto others. Therefore, disciplining your child in an appropriate, nonviolent way is a more effective approach to managing their emotional outbursts and encouraging them to learn. Being a parent is undoubtedly stressful, but it's also rewarding. Hang in there and enjoy the moments because they'll be grown and gone before you know it.


Beth Rush is the Managing Editor at Body+Mind and a lover of all things health and wellness.

Cover photo by Gustavo Fring

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