How We Discipline Our 2-Year-Old

Amalia is a spirited little lady. I love that about her but it makes parenting her very difficult. She knows what she wants and she is not afraid to tell us. She is especially opinionated about her clothes (I’m in trouble, I know!) and her hair. In the last few months, the meltdowns and tantrums have been at an all-time high, and we’ve learned a lot about how to handle them in that time.

Anel and I have had many sit-downs lately to make sure we’re on the same page because he was a lot more strict and I was a lot more lenient in the past. We have compromised and now take a loving but stern approach with her. These are the main rules we stand by in disciplining Amalia.

Consistency: If I had only one piece to give here, it’s this one: be consistent. Make sure both parents are on the same page and follow the same rules. If your toddler knows she can get away with murder with one parent but not the other, she will play you. You also need consistency in your actions. Make sure that your disciplining tactics, no matter what they are, don’t change from day to day.

Pick your battles: Living with a 2-year-old is exhausting. But it is even more exhausting if you’re constantly saying no. We’ve learned to let some stuff slide when it’s not hurting her or anyone else. Like when she wants to take all the pillows off of the couch and make a fort. Yes, it’s annoying to clean up later, but it occupies her time for 30 minutes and she’s having fun. So why not?

Don’t. Give. In: I remember our old pediatrician (who we loved) gave us a piece of advice that has always stuck with me:

Never say no if the answer will end up being yes.

If you say no, then give in, it’s teaching them that they can get what they want if they push you hard enough.

Distract & redirect: If we see the start of a meltdown or bad behavior, we try to distract her by being silly or playing a new game or distracting her (never with TV or iPad though) and redirecting her attention elsewhere. This helps probably 50% of the time.

Time outs: In the last month, we’ve started implementing time outs when the redirect technique isn’t effective and they have been incredibly effective. Even a threat of a time out is enough to get her to stop bad behavior on many occasions. This is how we do time outs in our house:

1. Give her a warning. I will say something like, “Amalia, if you hit me again, you’re going into time out.”

2. Count to three. If it’s something ongoing, I’ll use the count-to-three method instead. After the 2nd time I used this, she understood. I’ll say something like, “Amalia if you don’t get up now, I’m going to count to 3. On 3 you will go into time out.” If she stops doing whatever it is she’s doing before 3, we move on.

3. Time out. Consistency in location is key here when you’re at home. We’ve designated the bottom step of our staircase the “time out zone” in our house. I’ve read that time out should last for one minute for every year of age. So at 2, Amalia should technically have a 2-minute time out. We do 1 minute but are working up to 2.

4. Forgive and move on. When time out is over, I’ll ask her if she’s going to do the bad behavior again and she always says no. Then I ask her if she needs a hug or some space. She pretty much always says a hug. Then we move on and play a new game or continue or day. We don’t harp on the time out.

Lead by example: This is more of an “always on your mind” rule but try to lead by example. Anel and I always say please and thank you to each other and be kind to everyone in our home. We share in front of her and don’t get frustrated over the little things… as much as possible anyway. We really try to be good role models for her as much as we can. The idea is that she will see how we act and she mimics it.

Validate their feelings: We learned this from her daycare teacher who has been working with 2-year-olds for 20 years. She believes that instead of just ignoring meltdowns and tantrums, you should ask them about their feelings. We’ve started doing this and it actually helps more than ignoring them. In public, I still try to ignore them but at home, I’ll ask her something like “Are you feeling sad because you wanted ice cream and mommy said no?” She’ll say yes and then sometimes will be willing to talk to me about it which calms her down. The key is to not give in with the ice cream but to just tell her it’s ok to feel sad. Then move on to distract and redirect.

Give them choices: To prevent meltdowns and tantrums before they even start, I give Amalia choices whenever I can. Her meltdowns are often around what she’s wearing so I’ll give her a choice of 2 pairs of pants, 2 shirts, 2 pairs of socks, and 2 pairs of shoes to wear. When she feels like she has some control, she’s less likely to lose her mind over a pair of socks. I will do this at breakfast too. When she is part of the process of choosing food, she eats a lot more!

Positive reinforcement: When she’s being good and doing things like sharing and being kind, we give her lots of positive reinforcement. I’d say this is just as important as the discipline in raising a kind human. That’s what my mom says anyway and I was a really sweet kid (until I hit 15, then it was all over).

Your turn! Share your tips with me and the other moms reading this by commenting below.

Photos by Julia Dags.

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  1. Neely said:

    we do all of this and I will say the choices help so much! Especially at this age. Giving them that bit of control works wonders!

    11.11.19 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      Totally agree. The power of some “control” makes a huge difference in our house too.

      11.12.19 · Reply
  2. Kathleen McO said:

    Love, love these tips! They’re such a good balance between recognizing Amalia’s feelings and providing consistent messaging regarding rules. Our baby is due in January, and I am saving all your posts to share with my husband because they make so much sense and don’t feel so “you must do this”-like. Thank you for your refreshing take on parenting. You and Anel are doing a great job!

    11.11.19 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      Congratulations! And thank you so much. That means so much to hear.

      11.12.19 · Reply
  3. Stacey said:

    Julia, these are excellent! I have a daughter (27!) and a son (22!) and I did all of these (my background was in education) and they all worked so well and my grown up children both have very positive memories of the way they were disciplined. My favorite part is that as adults kindness is so important to them. I also taught them to “take the high road” which they love to parrot back to me when they think I need to hear it (haha!). They have turned out to be wonderful young adults and I’m so proud of them and enjoy their company so much. Your approach to parenting is so lovely. I love that you are sharing this with all the mommas who follow you. Keep up the great work, parenting is no joke.

    11.11.19 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      This makes me so happy to hear, thank you for sharing! You sound like such an amazing mother.

      11.12.19 · Reply
  4. Marie said:

    So happy to hear you feel you’re able to stay consistent and it sounds like you’ve put a lot of hard work into figuring out what works for you- so important! I’ve read some great research on Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) that actually states 3 minutes and 5 seconds of quiet is sufficient for time out for ALL kids between 2 and 7 years of age if developmental age is same as chronological age. I’d definitely look into it, super interesting stuff. Wishing your family a healthy and happy holiday season!

    11.11.19 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      I’ll check it out, thanks so much for the tip! I can’t imagine her sitting still for 3 minutes but willing to try anything if it will work 🙂

      11.12.19 · Reply
  5. Jennifer Record said:

    Great tips! Totally agree.. I also “let” my children overhear me praising them to other people..helps reinforce good behavior and lets them think they are getting away with something..and indirectly reminds them of what we expect..of course, we also directly praise them too 🙂

    11.11.19 · Reply
    • Julia said:

      Totally! I love that idea. Going to start doing that too!

      11.12.19 · Reply
  6. Jen said:

    Yes, for picking your battles! There’s a popular hashtag going around, #sayyeswhenyoucan, and it really has helped me to think about why I’m saying No in the first place. Which leads to your next point of not giving in. Way easier to stick to your no if you have a really good reason for it.

    Regarding validate their feelings, there is a book called The Whole Brained Child, and it talks about the importance of connecting and then redirecting. Highly recommend if you haven’t read it! 🙂

    11.11.19 · Reply
  7. christina liviakis said:

    this could not have come at a better time! thank you!!

    11.12.19 · Reply
  8. Sarah said:

    The pick your battles is definitely a hard one. I’m good at doing this at home but when we are out in public, I feel pressured to discipline my son as soon as he does anything “bad.” It’s such a hard balance!

    Counting to three is our go-to, we usually only get to two if E is feeling spicy, haha!

    Great post – thanks for sharing 🙂

    11.14.19 · Reply