Toddler Taming: Praising Your Toddler’s Positive Behaviors

A toddler runs in a park. Toddlers get into a surprising amount of mischief. They flush toys down the toilet, pull things out of the garbage, throw public tantrums, bite babysitters, squeeze their baby siblings to life-threatening degrees. But they sure are cute.

What can parents do about this? Amused by angry parents, children under the age of three are difficult to discipline. It is amusing that a two year old can make an adult turn red in the face and lose control, and it is odd that small children can laugh aloud about it. Unless their parents are abusive, the toddler doesn’t fear the adult. They remain unimpressed by the show of parental frustration. As a result, the youngster doesn’t change undesirable behavior.

Toddlers are also often immune to punishment. Many parents send their two year old to a time-out location for being rough with the new baby. But when you ask the parents whether this punishment has stopped the toddler from being rough, they’ll invariably say no. These small people don’t make the connection between timeout and the importance of changing the preceding behavior.

One strategy that works with toddlers, however, is the judicious use of attention. Toddlers love attention. Attention, in fact, is partly why they repeat the behaviors their parents scream about. Screaming, lecturing, gesturing, combined with glares, provide attention. The child wants that attention, negative as it is, and will immediately repeat bad behavior.

Smart parents use attention to shape their toddler’s behavior. The trick is to give large doses of attention only when the child is engaged in the desirable behavior. For instance, suppose a toddler is squeezing the baby too hard. Some parents might say, “Be gentle with the baby. Look, you’ve made him cry.” In fact, this is the wrong time to speak to the toddler. Try not to talk to toddlers when they’re doing the wrong things.

Instead, the parent should take the child’s hand and move it softly over the baby’s body, saying “Look how sweet you are with the baby, so gentle and soft with him. You’re such a good big brother. The baby likes this so much. See how he looks at you?” Combine plenty of words and eye contact with a lot of expression, volume, and affection—when the toddler engages in the desirable behavior.

For every misbehavior write down the target or desirable behavior. Then either wait for the target behavior to occur spontaneously or help to make it happen, as in the above example. Remember to give your toddler plenty of positive attention.

This technique encourages appropriate behaviors and discourage inappropriate ones. When the toddler needs correction right away, which will sometimes happen, limit the number of words you use to five or less (no lectures, speeches, long explanations), speak in a quiet tone of voice and barely look at the child. Only do this if, for some reason, the child’s behavior must be dealt with immediately. Otherwise say nothing at the time and wait for an opportunity to give attention to the opposite, appropriate behavior. Attending to the desirable behavior is the most important discipline technique for young children.

© Copyright 2010 by Sarah Chana Radcliffe, MEd, CPsych, therapist in North York, Ontario. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 18 comments
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  • jins john

    jins john

    January 27th, 2010 at 8:00 PM

    My son also suffered from the above problems. But was managle when strict action was taken.

  • steffy

    steffy

    January 27th, 2010 at 8:01 PM

    Kids may be prone for these kinda off actions to grab parents attention.

  • cooper k

    cooper k

    January 28th, 2010 at 5:34 AM

    I like the idea of giving such praise and positive attention when the child is exhibiting the type of behavior that you want to see. For some kids any attention even negative is better than none at all so they will keep doing the things that get them into trouble just because someone is paying attention to him or her. It is like my mom always said- with kids you have to choose your battles wisely because everything can’t be a fight. If it does become that way then to the kids it is all meaningless and they will go on doing exactly what they want to do with no fear of the repercussions.

  • suzzane

    suzzane

    January 28th, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    I agree with cooper .

  • Jenny robertson

    Jenny robertson

    January 28th, 2010 at 8:55 AM

    I think the kids should be put into toddler managing schools where they can learn atmost mannerism.

  • miller

    miller

    January 28th, 2010 at 10:40 AM

    I agree with jenny my kids were very notorious .The toddler day care centre helped me a lot with my child issues.

  • hannah

    hannah

    January 28th, 2010 at 10:41 AM

    I found the above article quite helpful .Thanks

  • Maria sandler

    Maria sandler

    January 28th, 2010 at 10:45 AM

    I agree the day care centre are quiet helpful but I guess the attention of parents is what our kids are indiacting at .

  • austin l

    austin l

    January 29th, 2010 at 5:59 AM

    They are kids doing the things that all kids do! If you do your job right when they are growing up then they will do their job right when they get older. True?

  • TA

    TA

    January 29th, 2010 at 10:16 PM

    it is a universal truth that if we insist on kids that they dont do a particular thing they will surely do it. so the best way forward would be to strike a balance and tell them what is acceptable and what is inacceptable behavior so that they do not go against it.

  • Dionne S.

    Dionne S.

    February 1st, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    “Otherwise, it is preferable to say nothing at the time and just wait for the opportunity to give attention to the opposite, appropriate behavior. Remember, attending to the desirable behavior is the most important “discipline” technique for very young children.”

    What I hear you saying here is let them get away with the bad stuff. Say nothing? At all? You’re joking.

  • Harriet R.

    Harriet R.

    February 1st, 2010 at 6:42 PM

    If you don’t say anything, how can you expect them to know when they are doing the wrong thing? Is it not better to both chastise them (at a lesser degree of intensity than getting all red-faced) and to praise them when they do it right?

  • Joan

    Joan

    February 1st, 2010 at 10:17 PM

    Thanks for the article, Sarah. I totally agree about the attention being key. My son hated and I mean hated not getting attention when he was a toddler. I often used the silent treatment on him when he misbehaved. What do you feel about that method? In hindsight I think it wasn’t good way to handle him.

  • soldy

    soldy

    February 1st, 2010 at 11:08 PM

    Toddlers are hard, hard work! Any parent that gets them past the terrible twos deserves a medal. I enjoyed the article! Thank you for sharing that.

  • Shona

    Shona

    February 3rd, 2010 at 5:50 PM

    What if the toddler is deliberately hurting the baby out of jealousy? My friend’s had awful problems for about a month with her two year old hitting and pinching their six month old when her back’s turned. She takes him away from the baby and he just goes right back and does it again another day any time he thinks he’ll get away with it.

    She’s demented between sleepless nights and trying to potty train him too. I was wondering if you would still recommend the same thing or if there would be a better route to go in that situation Sarah.

  • Jacquie

    Jacquie

    February 3rd, 2010 at 7:01 PM

    I found a star chart was a fantastic tool with mine. We had it on the fridge and bought multicolored stars. The little one got to choose which star she got at the end of the day if she’d been good and put it on the chart. She would be so proud when grandmas and aunties would make a big fuss over how many she had!

    I would never have believed it would work because she was a stubborn little thing too. Even just saying there would be no star at bedtime could stop her from misbehaving. A solid week of stars equaled a small treat.

  • Ginger

    Ginger

    February 3rd, 2010 at 8:11 PM

    What are you so proud of, Jacquie? You bribed your child to behave. I threatened mine with a spanking and if they didn’t say how high when I said jump, they got it. Y’all are too soft on your kids. If they ain’t disciplined before school age, they run wild and break your heart. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

    My kids turned out just fine before y’all start mouthing off about spanking.

  • Jacquie

    Jacquie

    February 3rd, 2010 at 9:04 PM

    Bribery? No, Ginger. I was reinforcing good behavior, thanks very much. We’re talking about a dollar store toy or a Happy Meal. It was never an extravagant gift. She wasn’t spoiled. I didn’t need to resort to spanking and I don’t see restraining myself from hitting a child that’s knee high as being too soft.

    Adults get rewarded when they do good work with bonuses, don’t they? It’s the same principle.

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