Steer your angsty toddler in the right direction with these discipline strategies. By EVELINE GAN

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Steer your angsty toddler in the right direction with these discipline strategies. By EVELINE GAN

Your two-year-old bites, refuses to take a nap and seems bent on testing your nerves. Welcome to toddlerhood, where angry outbursts and open shows of defiance are not uncommon.

While you would not want to stifle your toddler’s innate curiosity to explore and experiment, discipline – the act of teaching your child the right behaviour as well as correcting the undesirable aspects – is integral to raising a successful child.

How you interact and engage your child while disciplining her can affect her psychological and emotional development, as well as your relationship with her, says parenting coach Donus Loh, a consultant psychologist at W3ave.

“Discipline is not just about getting your child to behave in a ‘correct’ way,” says Donus.

Rather, it helps your child make sense of her feelings and emotions. Discipline also fosters understanding of the better ways to express frustration and anger, and provides more positive solutions or alternative strategies for your child to express herself, shares Dr Tzuo Pei-Wen Sophia, director of Emile Preschool.

So, when’s the right age to start? Based on international studies, parents can start discipling their children from the age of two, says Dr Tzuo.

However, Donus says it is possible to start earlier too, from the time your baby can respond to visual and sound cues.

“For instance, we can elicit smiles and giggles from our babies through smiling and using high-pitch coos, and thus reinforce ‘good’ behaviour. And when we are unhappy with ‘bad’ behaviour, we tend to show an unhappy face and deepen our voices,” he explains.

Here, the experts share some discipline techniques that may help steer your feisty toddler to better behaviour and how to use them in different situations.


Instead of yelling, scolding or nagging, positive discipline focuses on the plus points of her behaviour. Proponents of this discipline method believe that it is possible to reinforce good behaviour in a kind, encouraging but firm manner.

The child also learns to problem-solve and handle situations more appropriately. But note that this approach is not a quick fix, say the experts. It takes time, patience and consistency for it to be effective, adds Dr Tzuo.


My two-year-old refuses to share her toy

Tell your little one that it is okay if she is not ready to share that particular toy, Donus says.

“Some toys are more ‘important’ than others, so find out how important that toy is to the child. And see if there are other ‘less important’ toys that the child is able to share and encourage her from there,” he says.

A parent who uses positive discipline will also model good behaviour. Foster the culture of sharing in your daily life and be a role model, Dr Tzuo says. “For example, tell the child that Mummy shares with you, and you can also share with Mummy.”


Every naptime is a battle

Establish a positive routine with a fixed sequence of typical daily activities before naptime. Praise your child when she achieves each step of the routine, Dr Tzuo says.

Find out why your little one does not want to nap. For example, if she wants to play, you could allow her to do that, but specify a time limit.

“Put a five-minute timer on and say once the timer rings, then playtime ends and you will have to go take a nap. But first, you have to ensure your child is agreeable to this compromise,” Donus says.

There may be other possible reasons why your tot does not want to sleep, some of which may not be disciplinerelated – for instance, they don’t feel tired enough to sleep because of a lack of physical activities, or they may be eating too many sweets that make them feel hyper, Dr Tzuo says.


My kid bites or hits whenever she doesn’t get her way

Understand why your child is biting – is she angry or fearful? – and then model the proper behaviour and/or language to express her feelings in a more appropriate manner, says Dr Tzuo.

“For example, you may teach your child to say ‘no’, call a teacher or walk away rather than bite or hit,” she says.

Another hallmark of positive discipline is to also help the child understand how it might feel to be bitten or hit. A way to do this is to through reading and story-telling. As you read the story, help your child understand how the different characters might feel, Dr Tzuo adds.

My Reading Room


Based on the work of well-known American psychologist B F Skinner, this discipline tactic rewards good behaviour and discourages undesirable actions with negative consequences, like ignoring your kid.

The idea is that behaviour that is reinforced with pleasant rewards is more likely to be repeated. 


My two-year-old refuses to share her toy

Show your toddler the benefits of sharing, Donus says. For example, emphasise “it’s more fun to play with your friend” or “when you share your toy, your friend could also share his toy with you”.

You could do this by having your child observe others sharing or yourself as a role model.


Every naptime is a battle

Pair naptime with a reward. You could suggest going to the park or playing after waking up or say “Taking a nap makes you stronger”, Donus says.


My kid bites or hits whenever she doesn’t get her way

Like positive discipline, you should find out why your little one is behaving this way for this strategy to work: Is she doing this to gain attention? Does she think it’s fun or is she expressing anger?

If it is to gain attention, the adult being hit or bitten should show displeasure and ignore the child, Donus says. Follow up by saying “if you want to tell me something, then you need to use words”.

If she’s doing it for fun, say “if you want me to play with you, then you should do things that make me happy. Biting makes me upset”, Donus suggests.

For all three situations above, consider using a reward chart for young toddlers. Draw a chart and list three to five things you’d like your child do – for instance no biting, asking nicely, taking a nap, and so on, Donus suggests.

“If your child manages to do all of them, she gets a star for each completed task and earns a nice reward. That said, parents need to ensure that the reward is really enticing to the child,” he says.


This discipline approach focuses on helping kids understand and cope with their emotions in a healthy manner.

According to researchers John and Julie Gottman, emotion-coaching helps raise successful, resilient and well-adjusted kids who eventually learn to regulate their own behaviour.

Are toddlers too young to understand this? Donus says emotion-coaching can work for this age group to a certain extent. While they may not have a varied vocabulary at this age, he says they can be taught to recognise basic emotions, particularly happiness, sadness and anger. You can do this by pairing facial expressions with each emotion.


My two-year-old refuses to share her toy

One of the basic steps to emotion-coaching is to help your kid identify her feelings. This would involve you – the parent – emphathising with your little one although this may not be easy if she’s in the middle of a tantrum.

Donus advises using simple words like “angry” or “sad”. Then, point out that the other child would also feel sad because she did not share her toy.


Every naptime is a battle

Help your little one make sense of her feelings. For example, if she refuses naptime and cries because she wants to play, say “I know you are sad that you can’t play more”.

Then, teach the child to calmly ask to play rather than scream and cry to get what she wants, Donus says.


My kid bites or hits whenever she doesn’t get her way

Identify your child’s emotions and tell her that you understand she is “angry” or “frustrated”. But make it clear that hitting or biting is not acceptable.

With very young toddlers, look for a replacement activity and direct their attention to something else interesting, Donus says. You could also suggest alternatives like taking a break to spend some quiet time in her room.

Making it work

Keep it age-appropriate Not every strategy works on this age group. For instance, there’s no way a tot will learn anything from lengthy lectures or reasoning, says consultant psychologist Donus Loh.

Another strategy that may not work is the use of boundary-based discipline, which occasionally includes the use of time-outs. This may be effective in reducing misbehaviour in older preschoolers, but not for younger toddlers, says Dr Tzuo Pei- Wen Sophia, of Emile Preschool.

“While you may get a more immediate outcome with this discipline strategy, I would advise using it only as a last resort because younger children may not be able to internalise the situation,” she adds.

For emotion coaching to work well, the child requires a certain level of maturity and range of vocabulary, which a toddler may not have.

The bottom line: Don’t bank on one discipline method. The best strategy, Donus says, would be to blend the various discipline techniques, depending on the situation, environment as well as both you and your child’s temperament.

Don’t confuse discipline with punishment While punishment may achieve the same outcomes as discipline, they instill fear and hurt the child, Donus explains.

That is why corporal punishment is a no-no, say the experts.

“Many studies have proven that corporal punishment is either ineffective or counterproductive as a form of discipline tactic, and have even revealed that overly-frequent spanking is detrimental and can even worsen children’s misbehaviour,” Dr Tzuo says.

Donus adds that good disciplinary techniques should help your child learn about the rights and wrongs of certain types of behaviour. This involves truly understanding why your toddler is behaving the way she is, then teaching her other positive ways to achieve what she wants as well as the negative consequences of her misbehaviour.

Assess the situation Is your child really being rebellious or is her routine simply out of whack, which can trigger bad behaviour? Perhaps she’s feeling unwell. It is important to find out the real reason why she is behaving badly, say the experts.

For example, there are many reasons that tots bite, such as a lack of language skills, being overwhelmed or overstimulated by her environment or teething, Dr Tzuo says.

“Once you have analysed the environmental factors, adopt strategies to remove or eliminate the negative ones,” she says.

It’s not now or never Most parents expect their child to learn immediately and never again display negative behavior, but correcting and teaching good behaviour often comes with a huge dose of patience and tolerance, Donus explains.

“It may take weeks and months before you see results, but it doesn’t mean your strategies are not working,” Dr Tzuo adds.