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Toddlers to Preschoolers - Discipline Problems or Developmental Stages?

In the last issue, we talked about toddler behavior. For older children’s behavior, problem-solving is now the first go-to discipline tool. Problem-solving is effective for maintaining open communication and understanding development, as well as formulating creative solutions for solving everyday problems of living together as a family. Punishment is ‘me against you.’ Problem-solving is ‘you and I working together against the problem.’ Problem-solving teaches creativity, empathy, communication and accountability.

Examples of problem-solving 

1. Your child is about to run into the road:

Grab and carry the child to safety.

Keep enclosed in the yard or house.

Discuss car safety and road safety rules.

Supervise constantly around vehicles and roads.

Developmental tip - Children do not develop the visual acuity to judge distance and timing of vehicles on a road until age nine. Children younger than age nine cannot be trusted to control the impulse to run into a road to retrieve an item of interest. 

2. Your child is about to touch a hot stove:

Remove the child from the stove.

Supervise closely in the kitchen and keep the child occupied.

Explain in simple words that stoves are dangerous.

Developmental tip - Children must be supervised around cooking appliances until age 12 when they can comprehend the cause and effect of safety rules. 

3. Your child runs away in the supermarket:

This could be a fun game for the child, but not for you. Corner and grasp the child, explain this is not a game and you will not play chase in a store. If necessary, head home.

Distract with a toy or snack.

A shopping cart is harder to escape from than a stroller.

Re-think grocery shopping. Could someone mind your child while you shop? Could you shop at night while your partner is home?

Developmental tip - This is a temporary phase. Your child will stop running away from you by about age five. 

4. Your child is in a whining stage:

Ignore the whining.

Request they use their ‘normal’ voice.

Model using your ‘normal’ voice.

Give the desired item instantly when the ‘normal’ voice is used.

When in a peaceful moment, ask your child to demonstrate ‘inside, outside, whining, church’ and ‘normal’ voices so they can tell the difference in voice tone, pitch and variety.

Pat your head and pretend you can’t ‘receive’ the request when their tone is whiny.

Pretend the reception improves when their request is less whiny.

Developmental tip - Most children stop whining around age eight. 

5. Your child draws on the wall:

Provide paper and explain that drawings happen on paper, not on walls.

Get two cloths and a bucket of soapy water. Wash the drawings off the wall together.

Collect pens and crayons until you have time to supervise drawing.

Developmental tip - Childproofing is necessary until about age four when children understand the ‘why’ reason behind the behavior they are not allowed to do.

6. Its time to go, and your child is unwilling to leave:

Catch and carry them out.

Acknowledge feelings of unhappiness. Say, “Are you sad to leave because you are having fun?”

Developmental tip - Children learn to accept leaving a place of fun by around age seven. 

7. Two children are fighting over a toy:

Offer a substitute.

Redirect to snacks.

Encourage sharing, or taking turns, or flipping a coin, or picking names from a jar, or playing Rock, Paper, Scissors to determine who plays with the toy first. Warn there will be a winner and a loser, and confirm they understand and accept that.

Offer the first player a shorter time, and offer the second player a longer time.

Hold the toy until an agreement is worked out that both children are okay with.

Developmental tip - Siblings will have conflicts over many issues. Teach siblings to resolve conflicts respectfully to help them to resolve conflicts in their own future families and employment relationships. 

8. Your child throws food onto the floor:

Say “No! We don’t throw!”

Stay calm. Breathe deeply.

Calmly, get a bucket of soapy water and cloth, and clean up the mess together.

If your child is too upset to clean up the mess, postpone the cleanup until the child has calmed down.

Developmental tip - Children are better able to manage their frustration around age four. 

9. Your toddler has toilet accidents:

Keep up encouragement.

Praise any tiny success.

Show the child how to help you clean it up.

Don’t punish.

Developmental tip - Toilet training involves lots of misses. Most children train by age four. 

10. Your child denies eating cookies, but their lips are smeared with crumbs:

Don’t ask, “Did you eat the cookies?” Ask, “I see that some cookies are missing. Do you know what happened?”

In the event of denial, say, “I don’t like it when people don’t tell the truth. It breaks my trust.”

Reward your child for the truth.

Promise that you will never punish if your child tells the truth.

Developmental tip - Denial at the toddler age is not serious since toddlers are in the developmental stage of ‘wishful’ and ‘magical’ thinking. Most children understand the abstract concept of lying by the age of six. 

11. Your toddler rips pages from a valued book:

Substitute a magazine you don’t value. Get the child’s attention on the substitute and then gently pry away the valued book.

Childproof. Don’t leave books lying around.

Work with your toddler to repair the book together.

Developmental tip - Children are more respectful to items around age four. 

12. Your toddler hits, pushes or bites a sibling or another child:

Provide attention, cuddles and comfort to the other child.

When the other child has calmed, say to the toddler: “No! We don’t hit people!”

When the toddler has calmed, take the toddler to the child and demonstrate how to make up - give a kiss, hug, say “Sorry” or offer a toy.

Acknowledge the toddler’s feelings and say, “You seem to be angry. We love you both, and you will always be with us.”

Give the toddler a teething ring and say, “We don’t bite our friends. Here, bite this.”

Give the toddler extra attention every day, though not right after the ‘hit.’ Take the child out on ‘dates’ and lavish special attention on them so they can acquire attention in positive ways.

Notice and praise when you see the toddler doing something nice for the other child.

Don’t leave siblings together unsupervised until the youngest child is six.

Developmental tip - Biting, pushing and hitting are typical impulses up to about age four. As children grow up, they become less inclined to use violence against each other. By age seven, hitting becomes rare and by age 12, hitting should end as verbal skills improve. 

13. Your toddler runs away when you try to change their diapers:

Catch and scoop up your child.

Provide an entrancing toy.

Don’t waste time - be fast!

Change while playing a movie.

Talk, sing, tickle and make diaper-changing a fun time.

Keep a box of interesting toys by the change station to keep your child’s hands busy.

Developmental tip - Some toddlers are patient, and some are not. Children become more cooperative around age four. 

14. Your child smashes another childs sandcastle:

Say “No! We don’t break other people’s things!”

Ask your child to apologize to the other child. If your child refuses, say to the other child or parent, “I’m very sorry, but my child doesn’t have the words right now to say sorry.”

Model an apology that you give to the parent.

Take your toddler away to calm down.

When your toddler is calm, offer to rebuild the sandcastle together. Encourage an apology, but don’t force it.

Developmental tip - Children handle anger more effectively around age four, especially if encouraged with positive alternatives for expressing frustration and anger. 

15. Your preschooler ignores your requests to pick up toys:

Make picking up a game in which you both participate.

Assign one task instead of the entire cleanup: “You collect the blocks, and I’ll collect the crayons.”

Developmental tip - Until about age 12, most children require some direction, instruction, encouragement and help for most tasks. 

16. You are trying to work, and your toddler pesters you to play:

Play with your toddler for 15 minutes of your full attention.

Interest the toddler in a toy, movie or activity, and get back to work.

Join or build a network of parents of similar-aged children. Arrange playdates.

Rotate and pack away toys. Bring out a ‘new’ toy box for each day.

Postpone your work until naptime.

Developmental tip - By age three, children can play well with other children on playdates, which can free up your time. 

17. Your toddler says No!to your requests:

Offer choices between two or three acceptable options.

Reduce your use of the word “No.” Alternatives include, “Later”; “Not now, but you can have…”; “Let me think about it.”

Acknowledge feelings. “You seem angry and don’t want to try this.”

Don’t expect a child under age three to share possessions.

Childproof your surroundings for safe exploration and discovery.

Developmental tip - The “No” stage lasts from about age one-and-a-half to four years old. This is a normal developmental stage for healthy children. Children naturally become more cooperative during the preschool stage. 

18. Your toddler is upset that you are leaving:

Acknowledge feelings: “You are sad that mommy is leaving.”

Leave a special item for your child to take care of while you are away.

Develop a leaving routine: a special hug, wave.

Kiss good-bye and leave your child in the arms of the caregiver. Don’t sneak out! If you sneak out, your child will feel insecure, and will become clingy.

See if your caregiver can come to your house before you leave.

Try to establish a routine: the same time, the same place and the same caregiver.

Choose childcare arrangements with consistent caregivers, for development of attachment. (Don’t worry. You will never be replaced!)

Developmental tip - Separation anxiety begins around age one, peaks at age two and fades by age four.

19. Your toddler wont try new foods:

Provide healthy foods from the four food groups. Offer three meals and three snacks per day, about two hours apart. Leave the food out for 20 minutes and then clean up.

Do not punish for not eating.

Offer water between meals and snacks.

Allow toddlers to explore food with their fingers. If your toddler starts throwing food, mealtime is over.

Food jags are normal, in which the child eats only peanut butter and jam sandwiches for three weeks. That’s okay. As long as it’s a healthy food, don’t worry about nutritional intake.

It takes 15 tries to accept a new food. Have a one-bite routine. If the child spits it out, don’t worry, and don’t make it a power struggle. Children have sensitive taste buds, and their preferences will change as they develop.

20. Your toddler wont stay in bed:

Develop a routine - snack, bath, pajamas, brushing teeth, reading a book, prayers, bedtime snuggle.

If your child keeps getting up, consider two ‘bedtime excuse’ tickets. Two tickets can be used for requests such as a drink, an extra kiss, a cuddly toy.

Each time your toddler won’t stay in bed, lead them back to bed without talking, and close
the door.

Spend extra time to talk, read, cuddle and listen as part of the bedtime routine.

When you find a routine that works, keep it up.

Developmental tip - Most children under age 12 try to put off bedtime because they don’t want to separate from their parents, or they don’t want to end their day. Parents find a regular bedtime routine develops cooperation.

For more information on Judy’s suggestions for effective discipline and to register for her next free Webinar on Discipline, taking place Thursday, January 21, 2016, at 8pm, click on ‘Webinars’ at

Judy, CCFE (Certified Canadian Family Educator), is a parent educator, speaker and bestselling author of Discipline Without Distress: 135 tools for raising caring, responsible children without time-out, spanking, punishment or bribery. Her new book, Parenting With Patience, is now released. 



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