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Discipline for Young Toddlers

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Hi Dr. Laura,
I am in great need of help. I have a 14 month old and I don't know how I'm supposed to discipline/set limits and enforce them with him. I've read a lot of your articles, but it seems they apply to older toddlers, those that can communicate verbally with you. How am I supposed to get through to my son when I say "No, don't touch that" (like the laptop), or "No, that's dangerous" (like reaching up for the stove knobs), or "No that belongs there" (like pulling anything in his reach down like diapers on a shelf, a hanging kitchen towel, or opening drawers and taking everything out), etc. and he just keeps doing it?

I know I'm doing it the wrong way (I say no too often, I get so frustrated I find myself going to slap his hand) but I don't know how to apply the right way to a child his age. When I say no he thinks I'm playing a game even though clearly I'm upset. And I don't think comprehension is an issue because he understands so much - I'll say let's go wash your hands and he'll walk to the bathroom, I say time to eat, he'll walk to the high chair.

He's not speaking yet and I expect it may take him a bit longer just because he's learning two languages at once (I speak to him in spanish), and I'm told that's to be expected when they're learning more than one language. My mom says I was the same way - it took me a bit to start speaking but when I did I was speaking both languages. He's starting to signal though (point at things).

So how am I supposed to do this? And without punishment? I say no, and he just goes and does exactly what I told him not to do. Repeatedly I say No and repeatedly he just does it. I've tried getting down to his level and telling him no in a calm way but still he just thinks it's fun I guess.

He has started doing a tiny bit of the typical tantrums when he doesn't get his way (for example, he wants to go outside and can't), and I've read from your articles that to try to prevent tantrums one should give him power over as many decisions as possible (like what to wear, eat, etc.) But again, I find this advice for older children. If I ask him what he wants (say, show him two outfits or two snack choices), he doesn't pick one, he just stares at me or goes off and does something else. I don't think he's old enough yet to understand that I'm asking him his opinion and for him to choose an option.

So basically, I just don't understand how I'm supposed to apply positive discipline to a child his age. What am I supposed to do when I tell him no and he doesn't listen to me?


14 months is a big transition. It is often frustrating for parents, until they realize that in this new phase, they have to completely change how they parent, to meet their little one's needs for exploration and autonomy. Your son is no longer a baby, but a toddler. That means he will advocate fiercely for his needs. And as you said, he can't express himself well yet so he gets frustrated easily. But he actually comprehends a great deal. His biggest problem is that he can't tell you many things that you should know. Like:

1. Job #1 for toddlers: Explore to Learn!

That means to touch everything. It means he NEEDS to pull everything out of the cupboard. That stretches his IQ. I know you want him to learn to think creatively, outside the box. So let him pull things apart, explore to his heart's content. This will only last a few months, and then he'll move on to other things.

What can you do about it? Babyproof. That way you can say No as little as possible. Make a game of seeing if you can avoid saying No all day. Really, if you babyproof, there should be almost nothing he can't explore, with you there to keep him safe. (Yes, it's fine to use substitutes for "No" like "That's not for babies....Let's look at this instead.")

The more you can give him opportunities to explore, the less he'll get into things that you don't want him to. So, for instance:

  • Buy the clear knob covers for the stove knobs.
  • Find a high shelf for your laptop when you aren't using it. And don't use it around him. Really. That's a disconnection that signals to him he isn't safe, and that prompts him to act up or whine to get your attention.
  • Put a babylock on the cupboard under the sink if that's where you keep cleaning supplies, and move breakables up high. Put pans and plastic and dishtowels in low cupboards. Let him tear them out every single day, and just clean up a couple times a day.
  • In your bedroom and the bathroom, have a drawer or basket that is just for him to explore while you're getting washed or dressed. Rotate cool stuff into it.
  • Let him pull the pile of diapers down. Make a game out of restacking them and knocking them down again. If you do that over and over one day, he will probably leave it alone most of the time from then on.
  • Make sure that at least one room of your house is completely safe so he can explore to his heart's content, without you having to "spot" him.
  • Remember that he is no longer a baby who can happily watch while you do housework. He needs to be involved. Let him "wash" the floor with a wet sponge. Give him a spray bottle and a rag and let him clean the cupboards. Get a safety tower so he can stand with you at the kitchen counter or sink and cut bananas with a plastic knife, "wash" plasticware in the sink, play with a bowl of dried beans, pour rice from one container to another, etc.
  • Give him LOTS of opportunity to explore. Toddlers get bored sitting around the house and start tearing things apart. Take him on walks and let him look for worms and dig in the dirt. Go to the library. Find a grand building with steps he likes, and go up and down the steps fifty times. If you have a yard, get him a sandbox and wading pool. And of course, there are plenty of fun activities for home. Make playdoh. Let him fingerpaint in the bathtub. There are many wonderful ideas for toddler play on my Pinterest board. And this article has Toddler Play ideas that your child can do without much supervision!

2. Job #2: Experiment and Test.

Sure, you said No yesterday, but maybe you won't say No today. Your job is to patiently, repeatedly, help him learn the limits that matter.

  • Make sure his life is not mostly about frustration and limits, but about fun, exciting exploration.
  • Convince him that you're on his side so that he's more willing to accept your limits. How? When you have to stop him from doing something, stay loving and compassionate. Discipline means to guide, so think of yourself as the patient, loving guide for someone who doesn't yet know the rules and customs and doesn't understand the danger.
  • Worried that he won't learn if you're kind? Of course you have to be firm, just like the wall is firm. He doesn't try to walk through walls because he's learned that every time he tries, the wall stays firmly in place. So be consistent and firm. But that doesn't mean you have to be mean. If you're mean, he'll get distracted by your reaction and he'll be too busy fighting with you to learn the limit you're trying to set.
  • When you set a limit, move in close and be kind but firm, and back it up physically, by for instance picking him up in the parking lot if he doesn't want to hold your hand.
  • When you have to set a limit, EMPATHIZE. That will help him accept the limit. ("You wish you could climb up there, but it isn't're sad and mad...yes, you're crying, I hear how disappointed you are.")
  • Plan that every time you set a limit he will have a reaction, and you will need to "hear" that reaction with loving compassion. That is the only way he will come to accept your limits. If you don't, he will keep fighting with you to get you to understand. Rage never dissipates until it feels heard.
  • If cries, that's fine. That's how he processes his disappointment, sadness and anger. Hold him and empathize while he gets it off his chest. Once he feels understood, he'll be more cooperative.
  • Plan that it will take him at least a month of trying the same thing over and over, while you say No, before he stops trying it. (You WANT him to be the kind of person who is persistent in going after what he wants, that's the only way he'll be successful.)
  • Strengthen and sweeten your bond with him so that he is more willing to accept your limits. How? Roughhouse with him to get him laughing. And snuggle, which creates oxytocin.
  • Give your child whatever support they need so they can meet your expectations. For instance, you will need to repeat yourself and keep your sense of humor. And if no amount of support helps your child meet your expectation, then that expectation is not appropriate for your child yet. For instance, you can't expect a 14 month old not to touch something you have left within his reach. He just doesn't yet have the brain development for that kind of impulse control. So move the computer and baby-proof the electrical outlets.

3. Job #3: Develop a sense of agency, or positive empowerment.

Every child needs to know that he can have an impact on the world. When he does something and you react strongly, he is affirmed in his ability to make things happen. That is such a joyful discovery that he laughs. He isn't trying to offend you, or hurt you, or make your life difficult. He assumes you will be cheering, too, at his newfound power. (Which is, by the way, a good thing -- the beginning of his ability to take responsibility!) What can you do to give him the autonomy and power that are essential to his development?

  • Choices, if he understands. You can show him both the blue cup and the red cup. But this only works if he cares. Why should he care about which outfit he's going to wear? No wonder he walks away. And don't worry if he isn't quite ready for this. There are other ways to help him discover his impact on the world and exercise his autonomy.
  • As much as possible, let him take the lead and be his assistant -- at the playground, for instance. Let him stretch the limits of his body without you telling him to be careful (and yes, of course you spot him to be sure there is no real danger.)
  • Give him some power through play by finding a safe place and playing Chase games so he gets it out of his system and doesn't have to run away from you when there are cars around. Toddlers love to run away and have us chase them. Tell him he is just too fast for you, while you chase him all around. Finally, scoop him up and cuddle and delight in him.
  • Avoid power struggles. If you can let him do it without damage to property or infringing on someone else's rights, and without compromising his own health and safety, let him do it. This is not the time to get overly worried about him "learning lessons" if you have to fight with him to do it.
  • When you need to set a limit, do it calmly or he will act up again to see if he can get you to react again (for that sense of having an impact!).
  • NEVER punish. If you punish, he will fight you at every turn, to prove that you can't control him. Why would punishment ever be necessary? If he isn't learning from your telling him not to touch something, move it out of the way. Punishing him won't teach him not to touch it; it will teach him that you are sometimes, unaccountably, mean and cruel.

This is a wonderful age. Your son's brain is exploding with learning. Your job is to support him differently than when he was a baby, so he can do his jobs! Enjoy him!

Dr. Laura

Don't miss the Toddler section of this website: TODDLERS.

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