Toddler thru Age 8
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- Introduction to disciplining children
- Set appropriate rules for your child – how to draw your lines
- Create age appropriate consequences – how to discipline your child
- Example of how to teach your child consequences
- Additional ways to make consequences more effective
- Tips about consequences
- How to help with consistency
- How to enforce consequences
- Set your child up for success – how to avoid battles and tantrums
- Want to speed up your child’s learning process?
- Final thoughts
- A note to our BIPOC community members
Introduction To Disciplining Children
Toddler thru age 8
The goal for all discipline is to teach your child how to control their impulses and self-correct their behavior, which can be a difficult feat for children under the age of 8 because they are mostly acting on impulse, which is developmentally normal. When it comes to disciplining your child, from toddler to approximately age 8, think of this time as laying the foundation for future years.
- Set appropriate rules for your child
- Create age appropriate consequences for your child
- Set your child up for success
Set Appropriate Rules For Your Child
How to draw your lines
As a child grows, there are different rules a parent must incorporate.
Non-negotiable rules are rules for the welfare of the child or for others. They are rules which teach safety, compliance and set the limits of behavior. For example, ‘we don’t hit others’. These non-negotiable type of rules make up the majority of the rules when a child is young and lessen in number as a child grows older.
Negotiable rules are rules to teach responsibility and thinking skills. These rules can be harder for parents because they are often in the gray areas of parenting. Negotiable rules set out an overall expectation, but leave the specifics up to the child. For example, ‘you must pick up your toys before you can watch TV’. In this example, the parent has specified the expectation for toys to be cleaned up and by when, but has left the child to problem solve and plan for when and how they will complete the task.
As the parent of a child under the age of 9, you do not need to worry about creating negotiable rules at this point. You can often incorporate a few choices into your non-negotiable rules and that is usually enough to gain compliance from your child. As your child becomes older, you can transition to discipline for older kids and you can start to create one or two negotiable rules if you feel your child is ready.
If you struggle with creating non-negotiable rules, start by basing them off of safety concerns or family values. You can watch videos about having a family meeting and defining your family values on our resources page if you need help with this process.
Keep your rules to just 10 in number. More than that can feel overwhelming for both you and your toddler. For example, you can have a rule that states ‘we treat everyone with respect and kindness, including ourselves’. This rule can encompass any infraction for hitting, biting, kicking, name calling, bullying, disrespectful speech, etc. So if you have a rule like this, and your child pushes another child down while playing you can say, ‘in our family, we treat everyone with respect and kindness, including ourselves. We do not push because it is not kind. If you want your friend to to stop doing something, you need to say please stop that’.
Create Age Appropriate Consequences
How to discipline your child (toddler thru age 8)
Children are going to make mistakes, they are going to break rules. It is part of how they learn.
Once you have your rules created, it is time to define the logical consequences that go with each rule. Logical consequences for behavior are consequences that make sense as a result of an action or behavior, and the more natural the consequence the better.
Below are the guidelines to create effective consequences for children:
- The consequence must somehow be linked to the behavior the rule it addresses, the more logical or natural the better.
- The consequence must occur immediately after the behavior to be effective.
- The consequence must be consistently applied. That means every time the rule is broken the same consequence occurs, without fail. Consequences do not need to be harsh and long to be effective, if anything that just makes it harder to enforce or it loses effectiveness with your child because their impulse control is not yet developed. So make it easy on yourself and keep it short and simple, but consistent. If your child breaks a rule and you elect to give them a time out for their behavior, make it last only one minute for how old they are, meaning 2-8 minutes max. It does not need to be longer than that to be effective.
Tip: Consequences for each rule should be set at the time the rule is created, not after the fact and not on the fly.
It is also important to tell to your child the consequence for each rule in advance, when there has not yet been a rule violation. This provides your child an opportunity to hear the consequence before it needs to be enforced since they will often be in an emotional state when you are trying to enforce a consequence. It can also be very helpful to practice consequences so once again, your child knows what to do when a rule is broken. This helps with compliance and helps to eliminate shame. By practicing consequences when there has been no rule breaking children learn this is simply what is done.
Example of How To Teach Your Child Consequences
Let’s use time outs as an example. While you are having fun with your child, tell them that you are both going to practice taking a time out. You can explain that they can take a time out anytime they feel overwhelmed or too excited, but that sometimes they might be told to take a time out if a parent feels they need time to calm down. Then you show them where you want them to take their time out. Depending on your child, this can be in the same room or in a different room. Wherever you decide, make sure there are no distractions/toys for your child to play with since your ultimate goal is to calm your child.
One caveat is books, which can be a good tool for a child to calm down if they have a hard time doing so on their own. Then say you are going to practice going nicely to the time out area. Tell your child that when you tell them to go to the time out area, they need to walk there quickly and sit there until you tell them they can stop. The first few times walk your child over and show them how you expect them to sit and what you expect them to do, i.e. stay quiet, look at books, etc. Then, almost as soon as they go over there and get into position, call them out of it and give heartfelt appreciation for their listening. Make sure to give them a little hug and make a big deal out of them listening to you. Then practice again 2-3 more times. Make these practices fun, and feel free to be playful while teaching them to go to the time out area.
Now your child has learned what is expected behavior when you tell them to take a time out. This will help with their compliance in real life when you tell them what to do. This was just an example, but previewing the expectation for a consequence can work with any consequence you come up with.
A special note about time outs
Time outs can work well for most children, but some children react very negatively to being separated and it can trigger a bigger meltdown. If your child escalates their behavior when separated, practice using a time in instead, where your child comes and sits by you and you help lead them in a calming activity such as looking at books together, deep breathing or drawing together. This will teach your child what they can do to calm down and provide them a safe space to do it in.
Additional Ways To Make Consequences More Effective
Giving your child a choice in their consequence can help with compliance. Keep it simple, and only offer choices that follow the guidelines for effective consequences.
For example, if your child hits another child, you can say ‘in our family we treat everyone with respect and kindness, including ourselves. We do not hit others because it is not kind. Now you may either apologize to your friend now for hitting them or you may have a time out and apologize after that’. Once the consequence has been completed make sure you close the discipline loop by telling your child how you expect them to act the next time. For example, ‘thank you for apologizing for hitting. Next time, when you feel that mad you can tell your friend to stop with your words or you can find me for help’.
An example for a school age child is when your child talks back to you and refuses to do a task. You can reference the same rule, ‘in our family we treat everyone with respect and kindness, including ourselves. We do not talk back or refuse to do work for the family because it is not respectful or kind. Now you may apologize and do the task or you may have a time out before you apologize and do the task’. Once again you would want to make sure you close the discipline loop by telling your child how you expect them to act the next time. For example, ‘thank you for apologizing for talking back and refusing my directions. Next time, you may express your frustration by stating you are frustrated and perhaps requesting to get to a good stopping point first’.
Tip: Create a consequence choice for when your child keeps doing the same inappropriate behavior over and over to help them learn self-control
For example, your toddler keeps knocking over another child’s tower of blocks. You tell them ‘in our family, we do not destroy other people’s work’ or ‘in our family if we make a mess we help clean it up’ and have your child help the child clean up the blocks and apologize. But what happens when your toddler gets excited by knocking down the tower (as so many toddlers do) so they just keep doing it because that is the real game to them. That is where the consequence choice comes in. You can give your toddler a choice of consequences, they can either help rebuild the tower and then play with the blocks in a way that does not destroy the tower, or they can take a time out to calm down and then chose an activity away from the blocks. You can add that if they don’t stop knocking down the blocks or make a choice, then you will make the choice for them and it will be a time out (chose the more restrictive consequence of the two).
An example for a school age child is when they are harassing or annoying a sibling. You tell them ‘in our family we treat everyone with respect and kindness, including ourselves. We do not harass or annoy others when they have asked that we stop’, but your child just can’t control their impulse for attention so the behavior continues. You can give your child a choice of consequences, they can either remove themselves from the area and choose a new activity or they can have a time out and then you will choose something for them to do, like a chore. Again, you can add that if they don’t stop annoying their sibling or make a choice, then you will make the choice for them and it will be a time out and you will choose their activity after that (chose the more restrictive consequence of the two).
By giving your child a choice as to what consequence they choose and informing them what consequence you will chose, you are both previewing what is going to happen and giving your child a chance to figure out how to control their own behavior.
Tips About Consequences
HUGS – Don’t make your child give hugs as a way of apologizing. Some children naturally like to give hugs as a way to apologize and some children really do not and will try to escape if told to do so. It is important to know which camp your child falls into, but also to teach your child about consent and control of their bodies even from a young age. Therefore if your child is a hugger, you should teach them how to ask for permission before they give a hug. If your child is not a hugger, it is important you don’t force your child to do something that makes them feel uncomfortable and teach them acceptable language for how to say no to hugs nicely.
EYE CONTACT – Don’t require your child to look you in the eyes when they are distressed or for apologies if they are trying to avoid eye contact. Children truly feel bad when they have done something wrong and making your child look you in the eyes to apologize can feel too overwhelming to some children, triggering feelings of shame and fear, which then can escalate their behavior. When your child is calm, that is a time you can request they look you in the eye to talk about family rules and how they can do better the next time.
KNOW YOUR CHILD – Understand your child and their capabilities when you set your consequences. If your child has a disorder, special needs, high sensitivity or a history of trauma or intense emotions, consequences need to be adjusted to match your child. This will help your child succeed more and will make you feel more successful as a parent. If you need help with setting consequences for your child, we happily offer a free, no-obligation 30 minute consultation to help you get you set up.
How To Help With Consistency
Remember for discipline, consistency is key. If you struggle with that, don’t worry you are not alone. Sometimes we are busy or we don’t have energy and we just let things slide. Or sometimes consistency is just something that is personally hard for us. To help with consistency, make sure you are setting yourself up for success as a parent by making realistic consequences for your child – simple and short.
Tip: Post your rules, with the consequence right underneath it, in a common area of your house where your child will see it on a daily basis (pictures work great for this). That way when your child breaks a rule you can simply reference the consequence on display.
How To Enforce Consequences
When you do need to enforce a consequence, make it as matter of fact as possible. Simply tell your child they broke a rule and reference the consequence. If your child throws a fit, stay as neutral as possible and reflect their feelings back to them. For example, ‘you are feeling really mad right now. Mad, mad, mad. You do not like what mom just said’. Keep your phrasing short and your words simple. Do this until your child calms down. Once you can tell your child is calmer, repeat the rule and the consequence, and offer to help them transition to the consequence. For example, ‘would you like me to walk with you to the time out area or do you want to do it on your own?’.
Sometimes children just need help with that transition to get them back on track. It is also important for your child to feel your love since their own emotions, as well as a parent’s reaction, can feel overwhelming and scary to them at times. So tell your child you still love them while enforcing the pre-set consequence.
Set Your Child Up For Success
How to avoid battles and tantrums
Viewing discipline in the early childhood years as mostly a time for teaching your child what is the expected behavior will set you up for success and help you avoid battles with your child.
To be an effective teacher, go over to your child when you see that they have broken a rule. Get down on their level and and remind them of the rule. Shame can be an unintended consequence of discipline so to help avoid this remind your child what the family rule is and use ‘we’ when correcting their behavior.
The next step is pointing out what your child did that was wrong. This may seem pretty obvious, but remember children need to learn everything and as crazy as it may seem, they truly may not know they did something wrong. If someone tried to take something your child thought was theirs they are going to feel justified to push or hit the other child. A child needs to be taught what is right and wrong and how to act. As a parent, you act as your child’s moral compass in the world until they can learn the rules.
For a school age kid that may mean explaining why copying another person’s work is unacceptable, because they may believe getting the answers right is more important than how they get them right.
Finally, the most critical step in disciplining a child is showing or telling them what to do the next time. Again, it may seem completely obvious to you so a lot of parents simply say, ‘don’t push’ or ‘stop that’ and leave it at that. But that does not tell your child what you expect them to do the next time. If you want them to behave differently, you have to tell them exactly how you want them to act.
It may seem like you have to teach your child the same lessons over and over, but that is normal at this age. Children are like little scientists trying to make sense out of their world. It is their job to test their environment and see if their actions get the same reactions every time so they can make sense of their world. They also have very little impulse control at this stage. But remaining consistent with your approach and teaching your child your expectations for behavior will set you both up for success as they grow older.
Want To Speed Up Your Child’s Learning Process?
Role playing with your child when you are playing with them can really help them remember and practice what you want them to do. You can also remind them before they begin an activity as to what the expectations are. Letting your child know what is expected of them as well as how they should act and who they can turn to for help can help reduce discipline issues.
For school age children (age 5 – 8)
When your child is around 5 you can start working on them solving their own conflicts and building more social skills. When they get into a fight with another child and they come to you, instead of mediating the issue like you would with a 2 to 4 year old, you can ask your child the following questions to get them to start problem solving.
- What happened?
- How did it make you feel?
- What do you think the problem is?
- What do you think the other child is feeling right now – help explain how the other child might be feeling if your child does not know. This is called theory of mind – being able to figure out what another person may be thinking or feeling – and is an important social development step you can help foster*
- What do you think can be done to fix this?
In the beginning, you may need to give your school age child some ideas of how to fix their problem, but let them decide what they are going to do. The more you follow this formula and they get used to this process the more they will be able to start solving the conflicts on their own.
Whenever you are disciplining a child, it always helps to end the conversation with “I love you, you are going to make mistakes and that is okay. I’m here to help you get back on track and I know you will do better next time”.
By ending the conversation with love and confidence in your child, you are setting them up for success and giving them confidence in themselves.
Remember to grant yourself and your child lots of grace. It is hard being a parent in the early childhood years. It is important to remember that it is the first time you have ever parented this particular child in this particular stage, so it is okay to stumble and not know what to do and to make mistakes. Share those stumbles and mistakes with your child to remind you both that you are human and that you are both going through this learning process together.
*Note: The above tips are meant to help the majority of parents. Children who struggle with certain disorders, high sensitivity or trauma may need a different approach that is individualized to their needs and how they best respond. Children with neurological disorders, such as autism, struggle with developing theory of mind and benefit from more involved intervention to help develop this skill. While you can assist your child who has special needs in developing this skill, it will generally take longer to develop. If you would like to discuss personalized options to best support your child, we invite you to schedule a free 30 minute consultation with us so we can tailor tips that would work best for your family.
A note to our BIPOC community members
As a certified parent coach we recognize the struggles and adversities our Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities face. We also understand that due to systemic racism and racial bias, BIPOC children do not have the safety and advantage of behaving in the same manner as white children and therefore their culture of discipline is different than white culture.
We recognize the use of punishment as a parenting tool is prevalent in BIPOC communities because BIPOC parents and caregivers must protect their children from an unforgiving and biased white culture because the consequences of failed discipline outside of the BIPOC community can have serious consequences, especially as a child grows.
We do not condemn or judge any parent for parenting the best they can with the tools they have and we always acknowledge the effects culture and an environment of adverse challenges and systemic racism has on both parents and children.
We seek to help all BIPOC parents and caregivers who need parenting support in a culturally informed way to meet the needs of each individual family.
Please schedule a free consultation to see how we can support you.